10 Metal Clay Secrets for Metalsmiths: The Best of Both Worlds

I get a kick out of hearing jewelry-making friends debate over the difference between metal clay work and metalsmithing or metal fabrication. Each camp thinks theirs is best (of course), and it's fun to hear them explain why. The more they debate, the more interested in mixing the two techniques I become. I've recently discovered the joys of applying metalsmithing techniques to finished (fired) metal clay pieces–fired metal clay is pure metal, after all–and I'm even more in love with metal clay now than when we first met.


Being able to create fluid and organic shapes with clay that later becomes hard metal is fascinating to me (I'm easily amused, I know), and being able to hammer and apply other metalsmithing techniques to them is added fun. It was Kate McKinnon who first enlightened me to this ability, when I read her comment about it in an interview here on Jewelry Making Daily. "I love fine silver metal clay because it translates so easily to traditional metalsmithing," Kate said. "Fired pieces are simply pure silver and can be formed, forged, fused, sawn, pierced, soldered, annealed, and formed some more."

Eureka! Why didn't I think of that? Since then, I've been inspired by Kate's work as well as that of other metal clay experts who create structural, sculptural metal designs using metal clay, such as Hadar Jacobson, Christi Anderson, Noél Yovovich, Celie Fago, and more. With these "new" opportunities for metal clay designs, I have yet to think of jewelry I want to make with it or anything I want to do to it, metal-techniques-wise, that I can't do. Such creative freedom!

You know you can roll, press, mold, drill, file, and do just about anything else to metal clay when it's wet, in leather-hard nearly dry, or greenware dry form, but have you experimented with hammering, dapping, or otherwise forming and texturing metal clay pieces after they've been fired and burnished? How about soldering traditional metal onto fired metal clay pieces? It's all possible.


Allow your thinking to expand and imagine how you can work the clay while it's wet in order to work it like metal after it's fired. It opens a whole new path of creative ideas. And remember that metal clay really isn't so different from traditional metal. Here are some of my favorites among metal clay's super powers that just might appeal to the metal fabricators out there.

1. Patina: Adding patina is perhaps the most common metalsmithing technique that applies so well to fired metal clay pieces. It's especially appropriate, too, because patinating helps bring out all those intricate patterns and textures that metal clay takes so well.


2. Texture: Texturing metal clay is a breeze. You can press anything you can think of into a lump of metal clay to create gorgeous concave textures, or press said thing into regular modeling clay and use that as a mold with your metal clay for the convex reverse. When's the last time you were able to press a carved button (or even a leaf or piece of lace) into a piece of metal sheet to create texture on it?


3. Flexible Wire: Additives exist that ensure metal clay remains flexible until fired (instead of drying out and hardening so quickly, as metal clay is infamous for doing), which means it can be worked like the softest, most agreeable wire you've ever used. Braid it, weave it, knot it, tie it in a bow–you can even knit with it!

Syringe metal clay allows you to squirt out flexible, perfect little ropes of metal clay, too, opening up a world of possibilities for writing and drawing with a flexible medium that will harden and fire into pure metal–and it's exponentially easier than forming even the softest wire into such shapes and designs.

4. Finishing Techniques: You can reshape metal clay rings on a mandrel by tapping them gently with a rawhide mallet, just like you would for regular metal sheet or wire. You can still saw, drill, sand, and polish like you would traditional metal.


5. Custom Findings: To make the most unique and versatile headpins in the world, form them out of metal clay on wire (or slip the wire into them while they're still wet, like a lollipop). After firing, you have a unique component with a wire attached–which you can wrap, loop, turn into earrings with built-in ear wires, or–if you use long enough, large enough wire–coil the wire around a mandrel and make a ring.


6. Wrap Glass: With the flexibility of metal clay, you can seamlessly (and without overlapped edges) wrap or create bezels around any glass shape to turn it into pendants, charms, and more.

7. Glue Metal: For those jewelry makers who are challenged by soldering, the ability to simply "glue" metal clay pieces together with metal clay slip is a lifesaver. You can punch or cut shapes out of metal clay sheet and simply adhere them to metal clay bases like rings, brooches, pendants, and more with a brush and a little water or metal clay slip.


8. Perfect Bezels: You can also form a bezel out of metal clay snakes or syringe on a metal clay piece and easily burnish it around a stone you insert after firing.

9. No Mistakes: If the clay hasn't dried out, you can just squish up any mistake (which is so cathartic, by the way!) and start over. If your metal clay mistake is dry, you have options of reconstituting, firing and giving it a makeover or recycling, or turning it into slip. If you can't melt and recycle your own metal sheet or wire scraps (and so few jewelry makers can), a mistake is heartbreaking and costly. Likewise, metal clay scraps can easily be turned into helpful metal clay slip (or r be reconstituted), so waste is minimal.


10. Origami and Fold Formed Metal: Metal clay sheet and veneer allow you to fold form metal clay easier than any metal sheet could possibly be fold formed, opening up possibilities for pleating, ruffling, weaving, origami designs, and more.


With all these bonuses that metal clay has over metal fabrication (and others I didn't mention, such as easily creating hollow forms), naturally there are obstacles and jewelry techniques for which metal clay isn't so ideal. When applying metalsmithing techniques or metal fabrication practices to metal clay pieces, the metal clay generally works like any other metal sheet or wire that you might use, but there are some nuances to know. For more information about metal clay's best uses plus tips and projects by the best metal clay artists in the industry, check out Easy Metal Clay, our special issue dedicated entirely to the magic of metal clay!


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