Creative Metal Clay Jewelry: Techniques, Projects, Inspiration by CeCe Wire. I had never heard of metal clay before and I was instantly fascinated by it. Like sushi and Playstation, metal clay is a brilliant product of Japanese origin. It consists of powdered metal combined with water and an organic binder to create a workable clay. (See Magical Metal Clay Jewelry by Sue Heaser.) Once the piece is shaped, dried, and fired, the organic binder burns away and the remaining precious metal particles fuse (sinter) together. The creative possibilities for metal clay are limitless and I was hooked by the idea of working with it. You can literally shape or sculpt metal into virtually any form, then fire it into a piece of pure silver (99.9% pure, unlike sterling which is 92.5% pure). Because it is pure silver, it is softer than sterling, but tarnishes more slowly. A word of warning, though, (and an explanation for why it took two years before I could finally work with metal clay): it is a hobby with substantial upfront costs. Because the clay is comprised of precious metal, as the price of silver (or gold) rises, so does the price of the clay. I think I paid about $30 for 20g. of silver metal clay six months ago (prices appear to be closer to $35 now.) The finished pieces must also be fired, which means a gas burner, torch, or kiln. The method you choose for firing also limits your options for clay; for example, the standard formula for Precious Metal Clay (PMC) requires a kiln for firing. You might also need to buy related implements; shaping, sanding, and finishing the pieces requires certain tools, like wire brushes, sand paper, and a burnishing tool.
First, a few lessons I learned. 1) If a studio/art institute/guild near you offers metal clay classes, take one. I did not and the learning curve for working with metal clay is steeper than I originally anticipated. Metal clay is not like other types of clay you may have worked with. It dries out very quickly--I even bought slow-dry clay and I still felt like I was rushing. Without knowing how the clay should feel and the best ways to work with it, I became a bit frustrated. A class probably would have eased some of this initial frustration. 2) Make sure you buy your metal clay from a reputable source. From what I have read, the clay should come out of the package ready to work, but mine was really dry. I bought my clay online from the seller offering the best price and I think I might have gotten an older package--ok, so it's totally true that you get what you pay for. 3) If you are new to metal clay, which I am, spend a lot of time planning your design so you can work quickly with the clay itself. One book I read suggested creating your design in polymer clay first as a practice. 4) Be prepared to spend a fair amount of time and effort on your first project. I decided to make a ring, which, in hindsight, was probably too ambitious for my first attempt. I kept thinking of Monty Python and the Holy Grail as I scrapped, remoistened, and reshaped ring after ring ("that burned down, fell over, then sank into the swamp. But the fourth one . . .").
Magical Metal Clay Jewelry has a very helpful chart indicating how to adjust the size of your ring design to account for the shrinkage. I wrapped a scrap of paper around my mandrel and taped it into place. Once I had determined the ring size I needed, I slipped the appropriate sizing ring onto the mandrel and marked where it fell on the paper. Following the directions in the aforementioned book, I moistened the clay by rolling it into a very thin disc in between sheets of plastic wrap (see photo to the right). Then I dipped my finger in a cup of water and lightly moistened the surface of the clay disc. Using the plastic to avoid touching the clay with my hot hands, I folded the disc in half, trapping the water inside, and kneaded the moisture into the clay. I repeated this process until the clay was the consistency I thought it should be (although now I think it was still a little too dry . . . this is why a class would be really helpful).