Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Metal Clay Ring Part 1: Planning, Conditioning the Clay, Shaping, and Sanding

A preliminary note: this is a pretty labor intensive project, so I'm going to explain it in two posts.  About two years ago, I happened across a book at my library called 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 . . .").

Because I had my heart set on making a ring, I purchased a wooden jewelry-making mandrel (basically a wooden cone to shape rings on) and a set of metal sizing rings.  Metal clay shrinks when it is fired, but the exact amount of shrinkage depends on the type of clay.  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). 
Once the clay was conditioned, I used about half of it (10 g.) to roll a single coil.  Then I shaped my ring on the paper-covered mandrel at the point where I had marked.  I had spent a lot of time coming up with an intricate design for my ring, but realized very quickly while I was working that I needed to simplify.  Like I said, it took me a few attempts but I finally came up with a workable ring design that I was happy with.  I let my design dry on the mandrel overnight.  Then I removed it, carefully peeling the paper from the inside.  Following the directions in Sue Heaser's book, I baked the ring at 360 degrees for 30 minutes on a pizza stone (I flipped it over and used the non-food side) to make sure it was completely dry.  I made a paste with a small amount of clay and a bit of water.  When my ring had cooled, I used the paste to repair a small crack that I accidentally made when I took the ring off the mandrel.  I applied it thickly with a small paintbrush, then dried the repair for several minutes with a hairdryer.

Once the ring was dry and crack free, I set to work smoothing the surface.  The clay is pretty fragile at this point, so I tried to work as carefully as possible.  This is about the point in the process when I decided that as long as the ring didn't crumble to dust or melt into a silver lump during firing, I would wear it no matter how ugly it might be when finished.  After all this effort, I was determined to get a wearable ring!  When I bought the mandrel and sizing rings, I had purchased a set of 12 needle files and I used these to smooth out any rough bumps, especially along the inside curves of the loops.  I also used very fine, 400 grit sandpaper to smooth the band of the ring inside and out, getting it to an even thickness.  I tried not to do too much work on the inside of the band because I did not want to enlarge it by taking out a lot of material.  Once the surface was as even as I could get it without breaking the piece or making the band too thin, it was time to fire it.

1 comment:

  1. I'm just getting ready to make my first ring, too. Good luck with yours. 400 grit sandpaper isn't terribly fine. Some books/sites I've looked at start about there and move up all the way to 2000 grit. I'm anxious to see how your ring turns out!