Friday, March 28, 2008

Trying Metal Clay for the first time

I noticed a lot of people who are interested in trying out metal clay but because they are not able to take classes they are teaching themselves, and they go into a panic the first time they are going to try a project. There are several great books to read in advanced if you have not done so already. When you get to your first project relax and remember when you are starting out to KISS (Keep it simple sweetie).

Let me suggest what Cece Wire calls Kamikaze Earrings. She uses these as her first project in her Intro to PMC class. I still love mine - they look very "finished", are easy to make, require very few special tools, teaches you a lot of the basics and most importantly gets you past the scary first time stage. No slip is required. I recommend these for any one stepping out for the first time in PMC - especially if you are trying to learn this on your own. A variation of these earring are on page 16 of Rio Grande's 2007 PMC catalog .

You need:

  • Metal Clay (PMC+, PMC3, or one of the low firing Art Clays)
  • A non-stick work surface (there are lots of options but plastic page protectors are easy to find and work well)
  • A small container with olive oil (teaspoon or less) Badger Balm is also great to use.
  • A small dish with water
  • Texture (can be a texture plate, rubber stamp, piece of slate, plastic sheeting for needle point or what ever)
  • A needle tool (looks like an awl)
  • A shape template (like your kids use for geometry class)

-or- the last two items can be replaced with a shape cutter (smallest cutter for fondant, shape cutters sold for polymer clay [new - not used on polymer clay], etc. )

  • Playing cards
  • A plastic roller (the acrylic rollers for polymer clay work - again not used on polymer) or PBC pipe of the same size
  • Cocktail straw
  • Fine grit emery board (the pink at 350 is good)
  • French earring hooks
  • (optional - hot plate, mug warmer, or dehydrator with a Teflon sheet on it)

Firing tools:

  • Metal Clay programmed Kiln or Creme Brulee Torch
Finishing tools:
  • Small Brass brush
  • Burnisher (optional)
Assemble everything you need first.

Using a "dot" of olive oil (just dip the tips of your fingers in) rub it into your hands, then another dot to rub down your roller and your texture.

Take out 8 playing cards and make two piles of 4 and place them on your work surface a few inches apart (4 cards thick).

Take out your clay and leave the packaging it comes in handy. Place the clay between the two stacks of cards and use your roller to roll the clay out evenly. Unlike pie dough you can't just turn your roller to roll things out each way. Instead, turn your work surface and reposition your cards on either side of the clay. Continue rolling until your clay is even - don't spend more then a minute or two on this.

Press your oiled texture into the clay. And if the texture is not even - heck press again where you missed - it will make it look interesting.

Cut two identical shapes - if you are using the shape template place your template on the clay and holding your needle tool straight up and down (90 degrees from the clay) trace around the template shape. Then repeat for second earring. If you are using a shape cutter, cut them out like you would shaped cookies.

Now just like cut out cookies, pull away the excess clay and tear the excess clay into smaller pieces and layer them together (don't ball the clay up as it will give your clay air holes for your later projects). Place this clay back in the plastic wrap placing a dab of water on the clay before folding the wrap all up. Use your fingers to knead the clay in the plastic a little to get the moisture in. Put this back in the resealable pouch and close it up tightly.

Now breathe . . .

Take the cocktail straw and holding it one straw diameter from the edge, press into the earring shapes to create the holes for the earring wires for later. The clay will usually stick inside the straw which you can flick out with your nail - save this as the beginnings of your clay for making slip :-)

If you are going to allow these to air dry then WALK AWAY NOW!! Otherwise, pick up your work surface with the earring on it and flip it over with one hand and hold your other hand out to catch the earrings. Gravity should do most of your work for you. Leave them upside down in your hand and walk over to your warming plate. Close to the surface - flip you hand over and drop the earrings on the plate (think of flipping burgers or flapjacks). Okay - now walk away!

Allow the earrings to dry completely (called greenware in pottery), If you are unsure if its dry place the hardened piece on a mirror and pick it up - if a water vapor formed its still not dry. DO NOT try to fire a piece that is not dry - it will get destroyed when you fire it.

Once the pieces are dry, use the emery board to smooth the edges of the earrings - similar to filing your nails. Do this over your work surface and save the powdered clay (more clay to make slip from!!!). Greenware is some what fragile and will break if too much pressure is applied or if you drop it. However, it is strong enough to stand up to a lot of filing and even gentle drilling if needed. Hint: if you place the earrings back to back and sand them at the same time you will even out the shape and size. Also, if you hold the emery board at a slight angle against each individual earring you can create a slightly beveled edge.

Now fire:
In a kiln place the earrings texture side up on the kiln shelf. The newer metal clays can be fired at 1650 F for as little as 10 minutes hold (whole cycle takes longer) or as long as 2 hours like the original MCs. The low fire clays can be fired at even lower temperatures if you have added fireable gem stones or glass, are using a wood clay base, or mixing with gold clay but for this project the 1650 F at 10 minutes will do just fine. If you have to program your kiln yourself - that's Full power to 1650 F then Hold 10 minutes.

For torch firing I highly recommend you view the video on the PMC Guild site under "Getting Started". There are also downloadable written descriptions. The video is a must see You do not need to be a member to see this video.

Allow the earrings to completely cool - either by air or by picking them up with brass tongs and dropping into water. Remember these are at least 1290 F hot (temp when torch firing) so USE CAUTION!!

The earrings will appear white - that is not a residue but rather the silver with an uneven surface. You can get a nice matte silver finish by using dish soap and water on your brass brush and brushing the heck out of the earrings - front and back! You can then take the burnisher and rub it over the earring edges to give it a more finished look. Now attach them to the earring wires and enjoy!!!!


Saturday, March 22, 2008

Trying Karen's Design Exercises

My post of March 10 had a wonderful series of design exercises from Karen Christians of Cleverwerx and the founder of Metalwerx here in MA. Karen posted this exercise in response to a member's question on Orchard (part of the Ganoksin Project) about what steps to take to learn jewelry design. Earlier this week my friend Betsy was off for the week from teaching and tutoring at the college so we decide to go play one day (Betsy also happens to be the owner of my web site hosting company We headed up to Turo, MA (almost to P-town) to go to The Atlantic Spice Co. ( which for all our years here on the Cape, we had never gone to visit. It was a beautiful sunny March day so I printed off the exercise and told Betsy to bring her camera.

After a heavenly hour sniffing, looking and poking around the spice company's store, we refreshed ourselves with some dried apricots from there and headed north on 6A towards P-town. 6A in that area is were you find all the wonderful beach cottages and old houses on the bay. We stopped at the same places and looked at the same scenes but our results were so totally different. I had decided to focus on textures and general design images and Betsy was focusing on shadows and general design. Betsy is a painter, mostly water colors, but enjoys dabbling in other arts and crafts.

I wanted to share with you our two sets of pictures so you could see just how two different people looking at the same thing two different ways can come up with two different sets of photos. Betsy photos - and my photos

I can't wait to do more of Karen's exercises and post photos in my journal to start using them for design. If you decide to try this photo exercise and would like to share your pictures please email me with the URL for your photo site or post it in the comments section.


Saturday, March 15, 2008

Metal Clay groups fundraiser for American Cancer Society and The Marrow Foundation

Here is the press release for a great event. There are a few bracelets that will be raffled and you do not have to be present to win. To the right is one of the bracelets being raffled. Each one will be a little different and for $5.00 USD you might own one of these lovely bracelets and help two wonderful organizations in memory of a fellow artist.


Charms for Charity

Last summer, the Metal Clay community lost one of its own when Robin Whittemore, a talented jewelry artist and active member in the Metal Clay community, lost her courageous battle with cancer. Robin struggled with breast cancer and after six years of chemotherapy, radiation and medication, she was then told she’d required a bone marrow transplant.

Robin inspired the group with her uplifting spirit and love of life. Sadly, she died during the summer of 2007, leaving a legacy of courage and charity among her friends and colleagues.
Now Metal Clay artists from around the country have decided to honor Robin and their own loved ones who have succumbed to this disease by raising funds to benefit the American Cancer Society and The Marrow Foundation.

Metal Clay is a new way of working with silver, gold and platinum. It is a moldable metal that transforms from a clay-like state into pure sculpted precious metal jewelry with the heat of a torch or kiln.

Dozens of Precious Metal Clay (PMC) and Art Clay artists have created handcrafted charms for bracelets and necklaces, which will be raffled to raise money for cancer treatment and prevention. Members of the Metal Clay community have donated every aspect of this project, from making charms and bracelets to designing and selling raffle tickets and donating Web site space and credit card fees.

This is your chance to own a unique work of art created by the nation's premier Metal Clay artists. Raffle tickets are only $5 each or five for $20 and all proceeds will be donated to the American Cancer Society and The Marrow Foundation.

These pieces of fine jewelry will be raffled on July 20 during the PMC Conference 2008 at Purdue University, but you do not have to be present to win. Tickets can be purchased at the conference or in advance at or at Tickets and directions for payment submissions can also be printed out from or

Each ticket purchased brings with it the chance for a special piece of fine jewelry but it also brings us one step closer to a cure. Visit,, or to do your part.

For more information, contact Holly Gage of Gage Designs, metal clay member and project coordinator, at

Monday, March 10, 2008

Creativity and Design: Challenging myself

With the price of silver rising to over $20 a troy ounce (it was under $10 just 2 years ago) I find I am being more cautious about just jumping in and creating new silver pieces. My instinct is to make only what will sell easily - which means making simple items that use little silver and will keep prices down. But then I do not grow in my skills and knowledge. So how do I do some of both?

I stumbled on a challenge the PMC Guild gave its members in Fall of 2000 which was published in Spring 2001. Called the "1 lump challenge" it challenged the members to see how many items they could make out of .9 oz lump of PMC+ (PMC use to be packaged differently then current packaging. This would be equal to one 28 g package). The items and resulting jewelry were as varied as you could image with the winning necklace and earrings being made from 244 individual pieces coming from one 28 g package of PMC+ and the second and third place winners creating over 100 earrings each. This challenge - to be creative, artistic, and yet get the most from a limited amount of MC - really has put my mind into a planning whirl. One of the earring makers stated that at $5 per earring pair (when silver was lower then it is today) she was making over $200 profit from one lump of clay. I suspect that similar profits could be made from the same exercise and I am going to give it a try! (Go to Studio PMC No. 13 on the PMC Guild Studio archives to see the winning pieces)

A rather lively (okay almost heated) discussion was taking place in Orchid - the Forum for the world famous Ganoksin project - about jewelers having to be traditional trained or self-taught. Because I can see and understand the value of both, it was alarming to see how there are still so many traditional jewelers who believe that ONLY going through a full-fledged metal smithing and jewelry design program would do. They felt anyone who was self-taught could only create inferior work. This attitude was what actually gave rise to the Guild system during the middle ages and also led to the systems downfall. Wikipedia had a great comment on this "European guilds imposed long standardized periods of apprenticeship, and made it difficult for those lacking the capital to set up for themselves or without the approval of their peers to gain access to materials or knowledge, or to sell into certain markets, an area that equally dominated the guilds' concerns" ( I suspect this is also why many traditional metal smiths dislike Metal Clay because it allows someone with little or no training to rather quickly create jewelry that is as complex and creative as traditionally made jewelry that took years to master the required techniques. Into the fray stepped Karen Christians, who I know of as she founded Metalwerx here in MA where I have taken my PMC classes at. After suggesting that the woman who was looking for advice on learning jewelry design that she get together with other metal smiths and jewelers in her area and create their own class room environment, Karen offered a great design assignment:

Here are a few tricks I use for design. You will need a bound sketchbook, A4 if you are in Europe, "Journal size" if you are out here. In the US, I use: They make high quality journals which are handmade, beautiful and rugged. Decorate the cover with a photo etched plate and rivet. Everything I suggest should go into your book.
1) take 15 photographs of just the shadows of things. You begin to isolate edges and negative space.
2) take 15 photographs of hinges, gates, door knobs and forged iron balconies. Here you look at curves, geometry, construction and gestural flow
3) find 15 examples of jewelry work you really like and put it in your sketchbook. With each example, writ out what you like about it and what you would do to change anything if you could.
4) find 15 examples of jewelry work you don't like. Critique it to your hearts content. Is the piece cohesive, is the craftsmanship poor, are the elements mismatched, does it look like a workshop project?
5) take 10 photographs of an egg and make them look all different
6) pick up a found object off the ground and create a body of work that reflects the essence of the found object
7) framing. Cut out 2 "L" shaped pieces of light cardboard and use them as a "frame" to isolate parts of a picture. Capture just and [sic] eye and nose of a portrait, or a scene from nature or in a building. Use the lines from this as a reference point for your design.

To read all of Karen's comments click here

I dropped a note to Karen about her great comments and design assignment. Karen stepped down as the head of Metalwerx a few months ago to start Cleverwerx (a high end jewelry tools business) and I found out that she will be starting a blog and a tips section on her new website. When she does I will post it here. In the mean time I am going to get my camera and start my assignments!!!


NOTE: If you are a jewelry artist (including MC) you should add the Ganoksin project to your favorites and sign up for the Ganoksin Orchid Community