In the studio :: Metal Clay Project #1
My wonderful husband Alex volunteered to be on daddy duty full time one entire weekend, just so I can dabble (uninterrupted) in my new infatuation: metal clay. It is quite the process and it is so much more difficult and time consuming than I thought. I'm sure with more dabbling, I'll get much better at it, but for now, it took me all weekend long to make just one pendant!
I was commissioned by a friend to recreate a modernized (yet antiqued and classic) version of the famous Anne Boleyn necklace for his girlfriend as a Valentine's Day gift for her. Here are pictures of the necklace... a strand of white pearls with an initial pendant and three teardrop pearl dangles. Pictured are both the letter B and the letter A versions. He wanted the letter A (click on the image for a closer view).
Not truly knowing how this was going to turn out, given that I've never before made a pendant from scratch, I immediately accepted the mission (naturally!). I wanted to play around and make a few practice pieces of jewelry before I got to making this pendant, but after unwrapping the actual clay, I realized I didn't have much to "play around" with. That stuff is expensive for little ol' me. Not much comes in a package and I'm not about to waste a gram of fine silver! I figured that if it didn't turn out the way I liked, I could always start over. That's one great thing about metal clay.. before you fire a piece, you can reconstitute a dry piece of clay by soaking it in a damp sponge overnight (or however long it takes) until it softens into the clay texture again. So with that decided, I opened my trusty books and clay and the plethora of tools required and plunged in head first.
It was NOT smooth sailing. I wanted to photograph each step, but had to skip the entire clay forming portion of this project because my hands were a complete mess. Here's why: before starting to shape anything with the clay, you're supposed to knead it until it resembles one continuous ball of clay, with no seams or cracks. Sounded simple right? And it should've been. But the first book I was reading advised to coat my hands in a bit of olive oil or balm so that the clay didn't stick to them. So that is what I did. Sure enough, the clay didn't stick to my hands. But problem was that it didn't stick to itself either. That made "integrating" it really difficult. It was not the smooth ball that was pictured in the book. And metal clay dries much quicker than I anticipated! Knowing the kind of pace I would be working at, I even got the slow dry clay (which dries 5 times slower than regular metal clay). I can't imagine how quickly regular clay would dry (probably within a couple minutes of being out of the package). So now, I had to spritz a little water to get it soft again. Sounds simple.. again, should've been, but was definitely not for my first run. Aparently, my spritzer bottle sprays too much water. I sprayed the drying lump of clay in my hand and ended up with a soggy mess. The clay was too wet on the outside and still tough on the inside. Again, "integrating" it was practically impossible. I was crying a little on the inside seeing all the wasted fine silver that was smeared all over my ungraceful hands.
Frustrated and not really sure of what to do next, I then consulted the second book I had (which I should've read first!) and it had slightly different (and much better) recommendations. Rather than coating my hands in olive oil, that was advised against because it would make the clay difficult to integrate. That book also stated that out of the package, the clay is usually in the perfect condition for shaping and only needed a couple seconds of kneading... and that it wouldn't stick much to your hands anyway. True, true, and true.. speaking from recent experiences. :) It also advised that when wetting the clay, it's best to roll it out flat, wet the top and fold it in half (and repeat until folded over a few times). That way, the clay gets moistened on the inside (where it's needed) rather than on the outside (where it would make a mess). Again, true. Lessons learned the hard way. Another lesson learned: read the books thoroughly before starting rather than skimming the pages. I tend to get excited about things and get ahead of myself sometimes. :)
So with that, I finally got to shaping the clay. Due to the olive oil mishap, it wasn't perfectly smooth like I had hoped for. There were some visible seams and such that I tried to improve on using clay paste and clay slip. *clay paste is just metal clay mixed with some water so that it's the consistency of toothpaste; used for filling in large gaps glueing together broken pieces of clay. *clay slip is a more watered down version of paste used for filling in fine lines and cracks. Another nice thing about metal clay is that you can used scraps of clay that is cut or filed off from your piece to make paste and slip so not much is wasted in the end.
So after several hours of feeling frustrated, I surrendered and put everything away. I left the pendant out to dry overnight. I was hoping the dry process of metal clay would be more promising the next day. At least I got to take pictures this time!
So day 2 started off with the dried pendant you see pictured first. Prior to drying, I placed the 4 fine silver key pins into the pendant and sealed any openings with the clay slip. It was then dried overnight.. and just to be sure that it is bone dry (a must before firing; your piece might crack and get distorted during the firing process if not completely dry) I baked it in the oven on a ceramic tile. Once dried and cooled off, then came the filing with needle files. Because the pendant was very rough and ugly, I had a lot of filing to do! At this point, I wasn't very optimistic and was preparing to scrap the whole thing and start over. Needle filing took up a lot of time. I wanted to be careful not to break the clay because at this stage, it's pretty fragile. But the pendant held up superbly, even when I had to put a little elbow grease into it. After filing down the internal edges with the needle files, I sanded down the surfaces and outer edges with a sponge sander.
This is what it looked like after needle filing and sponge sanding. Mostly smooth, with a few soft wrinkles on the surface.
I wasn't quite happy yet with it so I kept sanding it down with a finer grit sanding pad. The third shot (right above) is where I stopped just prior to firing. I think I sanded and filed for a good couple hours. I told you I had a lot of filing and sanding to do.
Then came the firing. You can do this in a kiln, but for those of us who don't have the professional equipment, a gas stove will do just fine. Yet another reason why I love metal clay. Firing only took about 4 minutes. This part made me nervous because I didn't want to fire it too long or get it too hot. You're supposed to get your piece fired to a nice, soft orange glow. I couldn't really tell what color it was while the flame was under it so I just held my breath and hoped for the best. When the timer went off and I turned off the flame, sure enough, it was a soft orange glow. *phew*
I then had to quench it in some water, and then, more elbow grease was required. Now came the polishing portion. I first brushed off the residue with a stainless steel brush.
I then used a burnisher to get it to shine a little more.
Then, more polishing with micro-fine grit sanding pads. I started with the coarser grit and gradually moved onto finer grit pads. This took a little while and a lot of elbow grease, but I wanted to see if I could get that mirror shine. As you can tell, that really made a difference. (I also got a good upper body workout in the process... win-win!).
Finally, I oxidized the pendant in some liver of sulfur, along with the other silver components I would use in constructing the necklace. I then brush polished it again with a softer bristled stainless steel brush. This ended up scratching the surface of my mirror shine so all that hard polishing work was for nothing. But it gave the pendant a nice brushed, rustic, antiqued look. Even the little imperfections from the clay not being well integrated added that extra charm and personality to the pendant.
And here it is in the completed necklace--a more modern version of the classic Anne Boleyn necklace... finished with sterling silver chain, freshwater pearls along the chain, and swarovski teardrop pearls beneath the pendant.
And that marks the end of my first metal clay project! I'm so excited I didn't have to scrap the whole thing and start over. It was quite the adventure and not at all as simple and easy as playing with play-dough when I was younger. And the recipient of this gift really loved it so I was even more thrilled about that!
I do have several more ideas floating around in my sketch book of what I want to make next and am just waiting for another free weekend to dive right back in.