Polymer Clay and Metalsmithing: Make Bright, Fun Tab-Set Pendants

polymer clay pebble necklaces by Laurel Nathanson
polymer clay pebbles by Laurel Nathanson

Here’s another fun project by our guest blogger and jewelry maker, Laurel Nathanson. I love the brightly colored pop-art, comic-book feel of these pieces, as well as the combo of metal and polymer clay. I really enjoy seeing how jewelry designers continue to find artistic ways to use polymer clay in jewelry.

Just in time for summer break, this is a great jewelry-making project for kids to enjoy with a parent or guardian. The kiddos can make the polymer clay pebbles (older kids might even design their own back plate), and a grown-up can do the annealing, sawing, and filing. Here’s how to make them.

Tab-Set Polymer Pebble Pendants

By Laurel Nathanson

We all know that working in polymer clay is a potentially very technical art form. True polymer clay masters spend a significant amount of time conditioning their clay, blending colors, and painstakingly building up their canes. I love the colors and possibilities of polymer clay, but I for one require immediate gratification. My cool textured pebbles will give you the freedom to work quickly and spontaneously with fun, original results.

Unlike most polymer artists, I work with Sculpey 3. The colors are bright, and it is the softest of the clays so you don’t have to spend a lot of time conditioning it. Did I mention it comes in neon pink?

Materials:

polymer clay
leather or metal stamps
20- or 22-gauge copper sheet
metal files
sand paper or wet/dry sanding pad
steel wool
patina and pigments of choice
paint brush or other applicators
jeweler’s saw and blades
jump rings and other findings
marker
rubber mallet
torch of choice for annealing metal
pickle pot
quench water bowl
plastic-tipped needle-nose pliers
hole punch for metal

1. Making the Polymer Clay PebblesMy secret texturing tools for these pebbles are leather working stamps. They come in a variety of different images and designs that allow you to create mini narratives in the clay. You can find tons of leather stamps on eBay. I also use metal stamps.
The best way for me to make the pebble shapes is to not look when forming it. I really like irregular pebble shapes, but you can make any shape you want. Once I have a shape I like, I gently press my stamp into the clay.
If you find the stamp sticky when removing it, you can try using a bit of cooking oil on the stamp face before imprinting. After imprinting, bake your clay according to the package directions and allow to cool.
2. Adding Pigments to the ClayOnce your polymer pebbles have cooled, you can add pigments to bring out the impressions and textures. I have fallen in love with Vintaj Patina. They come in a variety of colors and are very permanent. I paint the pigment all over the stamped impression, let it dry completely, and then use a very fine wet/dry sanding pad to rub the pigment off of the surface of the pebble, allowing the color to remain in the impressions. If you don’t have a sanding pad, you can use 400-grit wet/dry sandpaper.
3. Making the Tab-Set Back PlateOnce the pebble is completed, it’s time to make the setting for it. I use 20- to 22-gauge copper sheet. Trace the pebble onto the copper, and then draw the tabbed shape around the tracing. The length of the tabs is contingent upon the thickness of your pebble. Don’t make the tabs too short or they won’t be long enough to hold the pebble in place. You can always cut them down if they are too long.
You can get creative with the setting’s shape and explore lots of different tab possibilities. Don’t forget to create holes for jump rings or any other way you come up with to make the piece wearable. For example, you can leave an additional “tab” at the top and roll it into a tube-shaped bail that a cord or chain can slide through.
When your setting design is complete, use a jeweler’s saw to cut out your shape. Clean up the metal edges with a variety of files, steel wool, etc.; then it’s time to anneal and pickle. After pickling, I use liver of sulfur to add patina. Once the piece is very dark, I use pumice or steel wool to rub back the patina to make the piece look antiqued.
4. Setting the PebbleUse a pair of plastic-tipped needle-nose pliers to bend your tabs over your pebble. I also hammer gently with a plastic mallet to get the tabs nice and snug against the pebble.

Add your jump rings and chain or cord, and you now have an extra cool narrative necklace. What stories will you tell? —Laurel

What a fun summertime project, just in time for the picnicking-est weekend of the year! I hope there will be a few stars-and-stripes pebble necklaces floating around at the fireworks shows this weekend. Create fireworks of your own by making small impressions in the clay before baking and then glue crystals in the impressions after the pebble is set for some festive sparkle.

Enjoy this free project and take advantage of our big sale to get lots of other great projects at a great value. Hundreds of them are available at nearly half price!

Happy 4th of July!

About the designer: Laurel Nathanson is an artist, metalsmith, and high school shop teacher. Her jewelry line, Sugarcoat, combines her roots as a jeweler with her passion for pattern and surface design. She lives in a purple house in Oakland, California, with her beloved Bichons, Bonnie and Bailey. Learn more about Laurel and see her work on her website, jewelry shop, and Facebook page. Laurel is also the creative mind behind our popular tutorial for making square rings out of copper pipe a couple of weeks ago.

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