Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Adventures in Metal Clay

First foray into metal clay!

I've just returned (recovered?) from a 2-day class working with metal clay. Never in my life would I have thought making little metal bits and pieces could be a) so messy, b) so labor intensive, and c) so totally addictive. I can't wait to make more!

I apologize for the quality of these terrible photos. I'm not a photographer and I snapped them very quickly in my studio without a light box or any other professional set-up. No matter what I did I couldn't capture the rich luster of the pieces (the largest is about 2" high) which in real life have a much stronger sheen and color than shown here, thanks to several hours of polishing with a small hand-held rotary tool.

Copper pendants for beading.

Prior to taking the class, the only clay I ever worked with was just your typical ceramic-type clay: stoneware, porcelain, and terra cotta. The first time I ever heard of metal clay was through Twitter. I asked a Scottish jewelry maker how she crafted the quite lovely pieces she displayed on her profile page and she replied that she used silver clay. I was dumbfounded--I'd never heard of such a thing. When I further investigated the subject, I discovered there were all kinds of metal clays including steel, copper, and bronze which were the materials we used in the workshop.

My goals for creating the pieces were two-fold: first, I wanted to learn to make pendants for my bead work, and second, I wanted to create items for pottery inlay. I first thought of doing this when I brought home some antique coins from Taiwan several years ago and made a series of Asian-inspired pots using the coins for decoration. I was pleased with the way the pots turned out, but as I was tying the coins to the pots with leather and raffia I kept thinking it would be far more original and fun to create my own metal work designs. Hence my need for a workshop.

Now that I've taken the class and gone through all the stages of "I'm never doing THAT again," to "Wow, I could spend the rest of my life doing this!" my next step is to buy a comprehensive how-to book and investigate starting out with silver clay, a much less-complicated medium than bronze and copper. With silver, you simply form a design, fire it with a butane torch for a few minutes, scrub off the residue with a soft-bristled wire brush and Bob's your uncle--pure silver jewelry. Steel, bronze, and copper on the other hand require a certain amount of clay preparation (we mixed our own using powdered metal and water), a somewhat lengthy kiln firing, and a lot of finishing work: sanding, filing, and polishing. Again and again.

Despite all the tedium, not to mention the rivers of olive oil required to keep the clay from sticking to any surfaces and tools while in the molding stage (on Day One I was covered in enough oil to qualify as a fritter), I was extremely happy with my initial results. Believe me, they look much better in person, and I was amazed at my patience in learning to use a Dremel rotary tool without harming myself or others. I am definitely going to continue with this medium, and in the meantime I have eight pieces of treasure to keep me occupied for months to come. A real win-win if you ask me!

Tip of the Day: The workshop I took was held in a private studio but offered through the University of New Mexico continuing education department. Taking a class in the middle of the work week was as good as going away to summer camp for a month. What have you always wanted to learn to do? I bet your local school or college has just the course to get you started. Sign up today!