Metal Clay Jewelry Making: Expert Advice for Fixing 6 Metal Clay Mishaps from Holly Gage, Hadar Jacobson, Arlene Mornick & More
About 15 years after I first tried it, metal clay jewelry making still feels like magic to me. It can also be fragile, scientific, frustrating, confounding, joyous, bewildering, rewarding, and heartbreaking–especially when the kiln is not your friend and your metal clay masterpiece comes out looking like a fallen soufflé. But most of all, I think metal clay jewelry making is a really fun and satisfying material to work with.
So, naturally I was happy to see the release of a new metal clay project compilation eBook this week, 10 More Metal Clay Jewelry Projects. It’s packed with step-by-step projects from top metal clay jewelry experts, and in studying their project instructions, I found the solutions to many common metal clay jewelry making challenges and mishaps. Here are five ways to overcome those mishaps–plus a bonus technique from the archives that bears repeating.
- Making rings the perfect size can be difficult, especially when using metal clay, because different types of metal clay have different shrinkage rates. And even if you know metal clay shrinkage rates, it isn’t too easy to determine what 27% of a size 7 ring would be! Fortunately you can increase the size of most rings by at least one size on a mandrel. In the eBook, Arlene Mornick shares how to increase an Argentium sterling band, but the same technique can apply to other types of silver, including metal clay: If you need to enlarge a ring, Arlene writes, “keep them on the mandrel, turn the mandrel vertical, and use [a] mallet to hammer the ring toward the larger side of the mandrel to stretch the metal to the desired size. Each band can be stretched at least one full size.”
- In the extreme heat of the firing process, it’s no wonder that metal clay rings sometimes slump out of round and come out of the kiln misshapen. Remember that you’re working with “real” metal at this point, so it’s easy to reshape distorted metal clay rings just as you would a sheet or wire ring on a mandrel. “Right out of the kiln, check the roundness of the band,” Arlene says, and shares her method for reshaping it before doing any polishing. “Hold the ring in your non-dominant hand; place it on a tapered steel mandrel while holding the mandrel in your dominant hand. Push the ring down the mandrel with your non-dominant hand while at the same time using your other hand to twist the mandrel up and around the inside of the band. Remove the ring, turn it over, and repeat the process. Continue in this manner until the band has rounded sufficiently.” Unless you have a particularly delicate design, you can also tap the ring gently with a rubber mallet on a mandrel, allowing the ring to turn freely so you reach all sides.
- It’s heartbreaking when you pull your masterpiece out of the kiln to find that, due to shrinkage (or misaligned planets, or the color of the shirt you’re wearing–ha!), there’s a crack in your metal clay jewelry. This is especially likely when mixing metal clays in one design. But thanks to the properties of the clay, you can often fix these cracks. If two pieces have separated, you can “glue” them back together with metal clay paste, and if a single piece has developed a crack, you can patch it with metal clay paste or a combination of metal clay paste and bulk clay, depending on how large the crack is. Then refire.
- Tumbling hollow metal clay forms often leads to metal clay hollow forms full of steel shot, some of which is bound to be difficult to remove. Lynn Cobb found a solution for keeping steel shot out of her hollow metal clay yurt ring. Lynn recommends using a pipe cleaner to fill the opening and prevent it from filling with steel shot. The flexibility of pipe cleaners makes them an ideal “stuffing” for this task!
Part of the appeal of working with metal clay, for me, is being able to use my hands to shape the clay. But that usually leaves fingerprints, and while I don’t mind them in some areas (it’s a handmade piece, after all), fingerprints can be a sign of sloppy or unprofessional work when in the wrong place, and sometimes you just want a smooth surface. Holly Gage shares her expert technique for smoothing rough areas on metal clay: “Finesse any rough areas with a fine #2 brush by wetting the area, letting sit for a minute or two, then moving the surface slurry to smooth the area. Finish with a thin layer of water, which will ‘self settle’ the area.”
Water is essential for metal clay jewelry making in many ways, but you have to use it properly and in moderation. “Simply wetting the area and trying to smooth with a brush will only move the water around,” Holly says. “You must activate the clay and binder to smooth the area effectively.”
- Even with the newer clays that don’t dry out as fast, inevitably metal clay jewelry makers are going to find themselves with some seemingly useless dried-up clay, if only the random little scraps you find stuck to your tools etc. Those random slivers and bits are money, especially if you work with silver metal clay, so reclaiming them by reconstituting them will save you money in the future. Plus I just like knowing that I’m being thrifty and clever by salvaging it! See how you can reconstitute leftover bits of dried-up metal clay or even, heaven forbid, a whole package, from Sue Heaser.
Like all of our 10-project compilation eBooks, 10 More Metal Clay Jewelry Projects is a great way to get 10 jewelry-making projects on one topic, from the perspective and style of many different experts–for about $10! No shipping, no waiting. I love seeing how the artists all do things a little differently–I’ve learned a lot that way, and it’s inspiring to see how many jewelry artists use the same materials or techniques.
In 10 More Metal Clay Jewelry Projects, Arlene tackles many metal clay jewelry making hurdles with tutorials for making mixed-metal (or same metal) spinner rings, mixed-metal rings that having moving parts, and shadowboxes; Holly Gage sets stones in a traditional bezel in a metal clay base; Hadar Jacobson makes perfect backdrops for river rocks; Lynn Cobb makes hollow metal clay houses–and more. This isn’t your basic metal clay jewelry making!