Silver Metal Clay Tips from Expert Jewelry Artist Kate McKinnon

After my PMC guild meeting earlier this week, I couldn't wait to get my metal clay stuff out and start playing with it. It has been boxed up since I used it to make a friend's rosary late last year, so I felt a little rusty. When I haven't worked with metal clay for awhile, even though it's my favorite jewelry-making medium, I always forget some of the little nuances about working with it, such as the need to prime my hands with Badger Balm, olive oil, or something similar before beginning so that my hands don't look like they've just had a mud bath in a day spa–and waste tons of metal clay. There's one tip for you!

 

So I spent some time with my favorite jewelry-making book and an equally great one by the same author, Kate McKinnon, to give myself a little refresher and a hefty dose of inspiration. Here are some of the metal clay tips I noted for myself and to share with you, gleaned from Kate's books Sculptural Metal Clay: Techniques + Explorations and The Jewelry Architect: Techniques + Projects for Mixed-Media Jewelry, as well as from Kate herself in her interview with Jewelry Making Daily awhile back.

1. Imbed structural elements like ear posts and ring shanks in your work instead of attaching them with slip or solder. This will make stronger work that doesn't have solder joins to worry about as you're finishing your piece.

 

2. Forming metal-clay pieces uses ceramics techniques, so a book on hand-building clay is a good resource for learning or remembering those basic principles of working with clay from sixth-grade art class, like rolling smoothly, eliminating air bubbles, compressing edges with your fingers, and how to "think like a particle herder." Kate's "slip-free, dry-slab constructions" are formed with pure hand-building techniques which, she says, "are the foundation of good metal-clay skills."

3. Hand-building clay brings me to silver metal clay tip number 3, which I first mentioned last week. Kate suggests beginners to metal clay should use porcelain clay to practice forming techniques, because the two clays have similar drying and cracking rates and feel about the same in your hands–porcelain clay is just much less expensive.

 

4. When you're kiln firing metal-clay pieces, remember that you aren't just burning off the binder; if that's all there was to it, it would be a quicker process. The key is to raise the metal-clay pieces in your kiln to full temperature (1,650°F) and hold them there for two hours. Kate calls that a "deep annealing soak" that allows the particles in your silver metal clay to merge–and that will transform your clay piece into a dense, strong, solid metal piece.

5. The more attention you can give to your fresh clay, the less attention and work it will need when it becomes bone-dry "greenware" clay later, or even later when it's fired metal. Work on one piece or component of a design at a time and finish it as well as you can before firing it. One way to do that is to brush joins with a damp paintbrush to gently smooth and clean them.

 

6. If your clay becomes unworkable–if your piece gets too dry or seems doomed for whatever reason–you don't have to discard the clay. In many cases, you can rejuvenate the nearly dry clay by rolling it with some fresh moist clay and let them hang out together in a tightly sealed plastic container overnight. Kate recommends a ratio of not more than 10% dry-ish clay to 90% fresh clay or it might go the other way and ruin the good clay instead.

I just love learning a new tip, don't you? And this is just a fraction of the great metal-clay tips you can learn from a master teacher like Kate. Her books are packed with project inspiration and instruction but also so many of the little tips that she has learned during years of making silver metal clay jewelry. You can get Kate's books and some metal clay DVDs in the Jewelry Making Daily Shop.

Do you have a metal clay tip to add? I'd love to hear it! Please share in the comments below.

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