Kate McKinnons Five Top Tips for Working with Metal Clay

silver metal clay bead caps and links
Kate's fine silver metal clay Brave Chain with beads by Joyce Rooks. Photo by Kate McKinnon.

For any jewelry maker, working in a new medium can be somewhat intimidating at first. So it's always best to go to the experts for advice. For fine silver metal clay work, one of the best experts is Kate McKinnon, author of Sculptural Metal Clay. I asked Kate to share with us her top metal clay tips, and her words of advice said it much better than I ever could. You'll find Kate's tips in her own words below. 

Note: Kate works only in fine silver metal clay. Kate comments, "While the other kinds of metal clay like the bronzes and coppers are gorgeous, they really aren't meant for forming or forging after firing; the finished pieces don't share the same properties as the metals they mirror."  

KM: I love fine silver metal clay because it translates so easily to traditional metalsmithing. Fired pieces are simply pure silver and can be formed, forged, fused, sawn, pierced, soldered, annealed, and formed some more. With proper handling and firing, the fine silver clay can be used to make pieces that rival bench-made work for both density and durability. I find that unbelievably alluring, and one of the things I puzzle over is that the information about how to use metal clay like a metalsmith is missing from most of the books and classes I see. 

Here are some of my best tips for making sturdy, exciting fine silver metal clay pieces, each of which is covered in full color and full detail in my book, Sculptural Metal Clay.

 1. Remember that when you are forming your pieces, you are using ceramics technique. Check out a book on handbuilding in clay for pointers on how to roll smoothly, eliminate air bubbles, how to compress your edges with your fingers, as you cut them (a million times more effective than sanding them dry) and how to always think like a particle herder. You want to keep your work tight, and not pull, stretch, or leave edges vulnerable to warping or cracking. My slip-free, dry slab constructions, joined with just washes of water and some "squidging" are pure handbuilding techniques, old as the hills. Literally. Or at least as old as humankind. Good handbuilding skills are the foundation of good metal clay skills.

silver metal clay flowers and components
Kate's silver metal clay Daps and Flowers. Photo by Kate McKinnon.
silver metal clay ring
Metal clay Calendar Ring by Kate McKinnon. Photo by Kate McKinnon.

 2. Remember that when you are firing your pieces, you aren't just burning out the binder. That part, the binder burnout, is just meant for getting rid of the filler and sticking your particles together at the edges. That's powder metallurgy—using heat to bond particles into a whole. It won't give you dense, strong work. What you REALLY want to do is to go beyond that, and hold those pieces at full temperature (1650F) for two full hours, so that you get the benefit of a deep annealing soak as well. That annealing soak will allow your zillions of particles to actually combine, making for a more solid piece of metal. Only a full kiln firing will give you this density and strength. Torch firing or underfiring won't do it–your pieces will be brittle and porous, instead of dense and strong.

 3. Know that when your pieces come out of a kiln, or when they have been heated by a torch, they have been annealed, and they are dead soft. To make them ready for business, you need to work harden them. For this, we use hammers, anvils, tumblers, and sometimes pliers.

 4. Skip the goo. Many students are taught to use slip, syringe or slurry to glue things together and close joints. Sculptural Metal Clay will show you how to slab-join, with

silver metal clay ring for lampwork glass bead
Kate's Rivet Post Ring with a gorgeous focal lampwork bead by Sarah Moran. Photo by Kate McKinnon.

just a wash of water, especially when you are making hard-wearing pieces like finger rings.

 5. Skip the solder. If you want professional quality ear posts, rivet posts, and ring shanks, make work that can hold up to what life dishes out.  Imbed these structural elements in your work instead of sticking them on. The Rivet Post Ring, a project in the book, is an excellent example of this technique. A clean, well-done imbedded post or prong has many advantages over the soldered versions–first of all, you don't need the expertise, equipment, and chemical exposure to do it, and secondly, you have no solder joints to protect in your finished pieces.

 You'll find much, much more from Kate in Sculptural Metal Clay. It even includes an instructional DVD to help you create your own metal clay jewelry. Don't forget to post your creations in our Jewelry Making Daily Members Gallery!

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