Metal Clay Jewelry Making: 5+ Metalsmithing Techniques You Can Apply to Metal Clay
Metal clay remains my favorite jewelry-making technique, since I discovered it more than 12 years ago. So I make a point of spreading the word that metal clay jewelry making is for everyone! Many people believe it isn’t affordable (it is), you need a kiln (you don’t), or they can’t do it (you can!). And another thing . . .
Another misconception is that metal clay isn’t real metal or that making jewelry from it isn’t real metalwork. Au contraire, my friends! There are so many metalsmithing techniques that work just as well for metal clay–like patina, enameling, and soldering–some even better (texture!). Here are five that come to mind–and then some.
1. Enameling on Metal Clay
You can enamel on properly fired (sintered) metal clay jewelry. Metal clay can hold such beautiful detailed textures, so transparent enamels are a great way to show off that texture.
Silver metal clay jewelry is particularly suited to enameling, because the fine silver doesn’t produce firescale. Fired silver metal clay is porous, though, so be sure to polish the areas you’ll enamel well. Base metal clays are less ideal for enameling. They do develop firescale, which has to be removed with pickle, and the pickle seeps into the fired base metal clay, causing issues with the enamels.
Be careful not to overfire the enamel. Though they’re already fired, I’ve found that metal clay components tend to melt a little more quickly than traditional metal during enameling. Maybe that’s just been my experience; I torch-fire most of my metal clay work, so it is thinner than kiln-fired pieces might be, and it makes sense that those thinner pieces would melt quicker.
2. Texturing Metal Clay
Hammering is one way you can texture fired metal clay, but you can also send flat fired metal clay pieces through a rolling mill with texture plates, just like you would traditional sheet metal. You can sand it, file it, engrave or carve it (it’s fun to carve in the leather-hard stage as well), texture it with a flex shaft, and stamp patterns or textures on it with design stamps (more on that below).
And let’s not forget that unfired metal clay takes texture like a dream, when rolled on texturing plates, textured papers, or a huge variety of other household items and art supplies. You can also dab and draw metal clay slip or paste onto the metal clay surface to add texture like that in the earrings below.
3. Hammering Metal Clay
No, you mustn’t hammer on unfired clay–but once your silver metal clay jewelry pieces are properly fired, they’re real silver and can be hammered and formed just like any other silver if they’ve sintered well. Same goes for copper, bronze, and any other metal clay you use; once it’s properly fired (sintered and cooled per recommended instructions), it’s essentially like any other copper, bronze, or other metal.
Many metal clay artists have different opinions on this topic and different experiences with the strength of fired metal clay, so it’s best to go slow with the hammering. Approach hammer-forming fired metal clay jewelry pieces gently until you have a better idea of how your particular pieces will respond to that kind of force–unless your work always comes out of the kiln the same perfect way! In that case, please share your secret!
4. Stamping Metal Clay
Just like with traditional metal sheet, you can use your design and alphabet metal stamps to stamp on fired metal clay. You can also use rubber stamps and wood or metal stamps (gently!) on unfired metal clay. I particularly love stamping on unfired metal clay, because if you make a mistake or stamp a letter the wrong way, you can just mash it up and start over!
5. Soldering Metal Clay
Just like with hammering and texturing above, when your metal clay jewelry pieces have been properly fired, they’re metal–and you can solder them like you would traditional metal components. Fired silver metal clay jewelry can be soldered just like silver sheet or wire, as can copper, bronze, and other metals you might work with in clay form. For fine silver in particular, the ability to solder fired metal clay jewelry makes it easy to mix and combine metal clay and traditional wire or sheet components.
Other Metalsmithing Techniques for Metal Clay
There are many other metalsmithing techniques traditionally used on metal sheet that you can enjoy with metal clay, including riveting, making findings (clasps especially), patinas, sawing, bezel making, stone setting, etching, chain making, and more–even keum boo (adding gold accents). You can learn about all of the techniques I’ve mentioned here and above in Sue Heaser’s book, Metal Clay for Jewelry Makers, where you’ll find dozens of tutorials to try.
So you see how metal clay jewelry making is just as fun and versatile as metalsmithing. Here’s why it can be even better:
- You can carve it. Sure, you can etch and engrave metal, but both of those techniques are more difficult than carving in leather-hard metal clay. And you can just recycle the shavings, so there’s no waste.
- Not all stones can be fired, but for the ones that can, I think it’s much easier to set stones in metal clay than with traditional stone-setting methods.
- “Casting” metal clay is a fire-free technique of simply pressing a ball of clay into a mold.
- You can create easy metal clay filigree with syringe metal clay.
- You can cut metal clay sheets with scissors, paper punches, or craft knives. Imagine the intricate shapes and designs you can cut out of metal clay sheets–and how much easier it will be than trying to saw those designs out of traditional metal!
- You can fire some types of silver clay on a gas stovetop! I don’t have a gas stove so I’ve never tried this, but there’s a tutorial for it in, Metal Clay for Jewelry Makers.
- You can “glue” metal clay to itself using . . . more metal clay! Metal clay slip is a lifesaver for layering metal clay jewelry designs if you don’t want to solder.
Now you probably have an idea of why metal clay jewelry making is my favorite jewelry technique. I’m not saying traditional metalwork isn’t fun, but there’s just something about playing with metal clay in your hands that feels so creative to me. And don’t forget that metal clay has the playing-with-fire factor, too, especially if you torch fire it.
Just about anything that metal sheet can do, metal clay can do, too, and I love to see artists who recognize that and work the combination to their advantage. It’s truly the best of both worlds, and Sue bridges the gap between them in her informative book for all jewelry artists, Metal Clay for Jewelry Makers. It’s a must-have for anyone interested in metal clay jewelry making, at any level!