Torch Firing Metal Clay: Overcome the Fear of the Flame with Darlene Armstrong

I grew up as a tomboy. I used all kinds of tools, helping my dad work on things; I played in creeks and climbed trees, poked sticks in fires like a pro and “helped” my grandmother build fires in her old wood stove. So I don’t recall ever being afraid of tools or fire, but when I started soldering, I admit being a tiny bit timid about the torch–the tank more than the fire, of course. Thankfully, a simple switch to a different type of torch put those fears away.

It makes me sad to hear aspiring jewelry makers say they don’t solder, enamel, or torch-fire metal clay because they’re afraid of using a torch. I understand that fear is real and valid, but that doesn’t stop me from trying to convert the torch-free to the torch-whee team!

I also love hearing success stories of fellow jewelry makers who were once afraid of using a torch but who found their bad-girl (or tough-guy) selves and made the leap. Here’s one of those stories, from Darlene Armstrong, owner of The Denver School of Metal Arts and instructor of our Getting Started Precious Metal Clay Series, four upcoming Interweave metal clay courses, including Torch Firing PMC Introduction.

Torch Firing Metal Clay: Overcome the Fear of the Flame with Darlene Armstrong

Getting to Know Darlene Armstrong

Tammy: Tell us how you got started in the wonderful world of jewelry making.

Darlene: I was born to it. I wanted to make jewelry when I was 5. I also wanted to marry Cochise and live in a teepee. Being a chief’s wife and making jewelry sounded like a great life.

I took my first two courses in metals in 1989. Both courses were flops, a waste of time and money. So, basically, I went home and began to experiment and teach myself through trial and error. Remember, there was no Internet, computers, or cell phones then. The only instruction was out of books and a few DVDs. I tried and failed ongoing-ly, but in every “failure” there was knowledge gained. I was not bothered by the failure rate, because I was trying to get somewhere, and as long as I was learning (even the hard way), it was fascinating and rewarding.

Darlene’s Sound Advice

T: What would you say to students wanting to learn to make jewelry today?

D: If students knew how many, many, many pieces of silver jewelry I blew up along the way, they would not believe it. I find students nowadays want the easy path to jewelry making. What they need to know is there is no easy path to professional-looking jewelry making.

Torch Firing Metal Clay: Overcome the Fear of the Flame with Darlene ArmstrongIf you happen to discover excellent jewelry teachers and you spend time (lots of time) over five to 10 years, you will be successful faster. Nothing can stop you. The secret is devotion to your creative development by hours and hours and hours of practice. Good teaching can propel you on your path faster, but there is NO SUBSTITUTE FOR PRACTICE. The more you practice, the faster you will reach your goal of sophisticated jewelry design. I spent 30 to 40 hours a week (worked part-time to pay bills and lived very frugally) working in my jewelry shop; plus I was a single mom and had very little money to purchase silver and other supplies.

Follow Your Passion

I sold everything I made while learning and bought materials with that money. I turned down offers for going to lunch or shopping or just hanging out with friends so I could devote myself. I worked eight hours minimum a day, four to five days a week, for 15 straight years. I have now been metalsmithing almost 30 years and have approximately 38,000 hours of metalsmithing experience. I still find it utterly fascinating, and I am completely smitten with the whole process. I absolutely LOVE IT!

You just have to understand that it takes time, time to develop your skills and techniques. Be patient and enjoy the process! Even if you can work three full days a week, you will be successful. Concentrated time in the shop will pay off. Days in a row will produce more work than pecking at it occasionally. You will also retain more of what you learned while practicing.

Make five or 10 copies of the project you made in class and you will have the techniques firmly embedded in your brain. You cannot retain the techniques without practicing each of them until it is second nature.

Torch Firing Metal Clay: Overcome the Fear of the Flame with Darlene Armstrong

Is There a Doctor in the House?

T: I know it’s hard to pick just one, but what’s your favorite jewelry-making technique?

D: My favorite technique is constantly changing. Usually though, it centers around something new that I have not perfected yet and am still figuring it out. I love the mental and physical process of creating. It is such a hook for me. At this very moment in time, I am working on some enameling ideas using white enamel and gold foil, black and white enamel designs that are over-fired on purpose to create a crazy-fun effect and making other experimental enamel pieces that can be incorporated into my other metal designs.

I LOVE EXPERIMENTING! I feel like a metal surgeon (all those specialized small tools and fire) or a metal scientist looking for metal alchemy!

Torch Firing Metal Clay: Overcome the Fear of the Flame with Darlene Armstrong

Solder Like a Lady: Overcoming Fear of the Torch

T: Speaking of fire, how did you overcome your fear of the torch?

D: Well, that is a good story. I did have a very real (not imagined) fear that I would blow myself up if I turned on my torch. Not too far off, considering any kind of torch is in effect a bomb, if mishandled. There is the rub though. Mis-handling is where the problem lies. I took two metalsmithing courses to be able to learn to become comfortable using a torch, but the classes were so poorly outfitted for equipment and over filled with 20 students for one teacher; it was practically impossible to get any real torch experience.

I had a propane torch for a full year before I actually had the guts to light it. Talk about nervous! Once I had done it a few times (and was still in one piece), I realized that I had been unnecessarily fearful. However, I am a strong proponent of SAFETY! Please know what you are doing before you do it. Tie your hair back, protect your eyes, and use ventilation for the gas, flux and solder fumes. Nowadays there are videos from professionals about torch safety.

So come on ladies! Put your big-girl panties on and go for it! Most guys are not afraid and have no qualms about using a torch, even for the first time. (Learn more about how Darlene overcame her torch fear and how you can, too, in her #solderlikealady video!)

Metal Clay Love

T: What advice do you have for people who want to make metal or metal clay jewelry but who fear the flame?

D: Being afraid is perfectly normal–especially for women. If you are too afraid to try it on your own, take a reputable beginning course that will walk you through how to use the torch and then let you use it to fire your piece with supervision.

Once you have done that, and you see that it is not as scary as you imagined, you can look into other metal clay courses that you can take in person or online that will help you advance your techniques and skill set. Metal clay is an amazing material, and I would not be able to make cool components and pieces without it. It is worth the monetary and time investment to learn how to create with it. The options it affords are endless and exciting.

Not a One Medium Woman

T: What other creative pursuits or crafts do you enjoy?

D: I love glass of any kind (blown, slumped). I make jewelry out of slumped dichroic glass that I make in the kiln, and I have a solar-powered hand-blown light that comes on at dusk.

I don’t know if this counts or not, but I am really interested in learning how to create amazing outdoor spaces. I love being outside, and I have made metal jewelry outside, and that is sooooo FUN! I have a Pinterest board for “home ideas inside-outside” and one called “yard makeover,” which I have just started. I love planning and working on having a beautiful space to read, write, and visit with friends and family. I am working on my back porch right now, and it is really a sweet spot for me. I put up star lights that subtly change colors, and I have mini lights in one of the potted trees.

I get to sit on my porch and watch the birds come to eat from my bird feeders. I have two sets of cardinals that come every morning and evening. A pair of house finches decided to make a nest in my front door wreath! I have a weeping cherry tree and a star magnolia to put in the ground soon that are stunning when flowering. There are few things in this world more satisfying than spending time outside in a cozy, colorful creative space where there is beauty, birds, and peace!

The Allure

T: It can be a heated topic in our industry: metal clay vs. traditional metalwork. Which side are you on and why?

D: I actually love this question as I am one of the few metalsmiths (that I know of) that has fully embraced this relevant and remarkable product. When Precious Metal Clay (PMC) first came out in 1990, I had been making silver jewelry for a little over two years. When I heard about it, I got so excited, because I had a lot of ideas swimming in my head that I did not know if I would ever be able to create.

Metal clay made it possible to design in a textural/dimensional way that was only available through casting metals. I took a casting course and I was absolutely terrible at wax carving. I love to carve, but things that are more dense, not sticky and soft. Even though PMC is fine silver, it can be molded, carved, sanded, filed, drilled, and polished. You can create focal points quickly and easily. I like to use PMC in making parts and pieces to use in my metalsmithed pieces, components and focal points.

I think a lot of naysayers have seen a lot of what is being made using PMC that is not very refined. Metalsmiths are usually not into the ‘organic’ look but want something that is elegant, unusual, and professional looking. This can be accomplished with metal clay once you learn how the product can perform. This, of course, takes practice!

Expand Your View

I’ve been using and experimenting with PMC for 17 years now, and I still have a long way to go. The material is that good and versatile. We PMC users are still pushing the envelope to see where else it can take us. Yes, it can be ‘crafty’ looking, but it can also be fantastic looking, too. It depends on who is using it, what their background experience is, and what they are looking to achieve. Beginners with no metalsmithing experience will have something that is more crafty-looking, and a metalsmith will be able to build in PMC the same way they do in regular metals and come up with surprising results.

I think if more metalsmiths would get some decent instruction and then try PMC to make some of their own designs, they would be blown away by what they could achieve. I personally think PMC is a way to enhance your metalsmithing design options once you see what it is capable of doing. It is also a good starting point for someone with little or no experience who wants to create metal jewelry without a lot of expense for machinery and set up. Again, I suggest a reputable class in PMC to get the idea of how the product performs and how to torch fire it before venturing out on your own.

Torch Firing Metal Clay: Overcome the Fear of the Flame with Darlene Armstrong

Once in a Lifetime

T: Do you have an “I’ll never do that again!” story?

D: I built a wire cuff with about 100 solder joints, and it took me about 40 hours to complete it. It came out beautiful and was on display in the Denver Art Museum in the fall of 2015 during the Cartier Exhibit. I bit off a lot more than I wanted to chew when I designed it, having no clue how long it would take to make it or how tedious the process would be! I was very happy with the result, but needless to say: Been there, done that, never again!


Master metal clay jewelry making with Darlene in her metal clay jewelry-making courses!


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