21 Mar 2012

New adventures in Precious Metal Clay

As mentioned in my last post, I was about to start tinkering with precious metal clay – copper clay specifically.  I have resisted somewhat so far for a few reasons; firstly, I wanted to ensure I’d already got a good grasp of basic metalwork before I went off on that particular tangent, I felt it was important for me to understand metal fairly well in order to get the best from it.

 My collection of first finished pieces using PMC/copper clay.   Two textured heart pendants with earrings, a ‘painted’ leaf pendant with bail, a fancy beadcap over a teardrop shaped glass bead, copper washers separating faceted carnelians, plain bead caps with large labradorite beads and a ring featuring little leaves and bud.
A highly polished and textured heart pendant and a little leaf pendant made by painting clay paste over a real leaf and adding a bail – which I did between layers of paste to integrate it fully on the back.

Secondly, I felt the silver clays were too expensive to just tinker with and until recently, copper clay, which I felt would work well alongside my other work, could only be kiln fired – and that wasn’t going to be practical just to try it out.

But when I saw a new copper clay on the market that could be torch fired, it felt like a good time to at least give it a try.  I already had a series of designs and ideas in my sketch book, as well as components to supplement other work that I just couldn’t buy or easily make by other methods.  So I hoped that it would work as well as the ideas I had in my mind and having never even touched any PMC before, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect and although I’d done a lot of reading, planning and thinking, I did open the packet for the first time with a few little butterflies in my tummy.

Rings are one of the areas I want to pursue more as I have all sorts of ideas for them – but I need to make several first to work out the correct sizing allowing for shrinkage etc.
I’m somewhat disappointed with how the ring looks in the photographs at this scale, as it looks very polished and pretty cute in reality and the photos really don’t flatter the texture of the copper clay at all.

I perhaps should have started with a few simple shapes or test pieces, but I had so many ideas filling my head, that I just dived in on working on something from the outset – I think I personally learn best and am most productive when I actually make something proper that I fully expect to finish and to work properly.

I’ve never been able to find solid copper bead caps the right sort of size for many of the things I make, but using copper clay will allow me to make my own to fit perfectly.  These are simple and quite small ones – the biggest drawback is the time they take to fire properly and the necessity to only work on a couple at a time when torch firing.

It proved to be a very steep learning curve, from how quickly the clay dries, to how brittle and easily damaged it is in clay form and how long it takes to fire and sinter properly and how bloody hard it is to get the firescale off!  Funnily enough, some pieces come clean with the first dunk in hot pickle, others resist everything from repeated pickling, tumbling and wire brushing and had to be hand polished clean.

This fancy bead cap was made from a sketch I drew some time ago – and proved a steep learning curve.  I fired it according to the packet instructions and I don’t think this was long enough as the lovely little feature collar I gave it chipped when first tightening the wire wrap against it (I took it apart, trimmed the collar down and re-made), suggesting that it was too brittle and not sintered for long enough.  I’d be afraid that the points might break off, so this will remain in my personal collection.

The oxidisation process is a little different too – I’ve oxidised and antiqued very many pieces of copper – but the PMC doesn’t take it evenly, or darkly and the LoS solution goes cloudy and pink making it hard to even find small pieces in it.  And some pieces were almost polished clean again after a quick tumble.  So that part clearly needs more thought too – having thought that I’d settled on a very reliable method that always gave good results, clearly PMC copper will need a slightly different technique from raw metal.

I absolutely love working with it – it’s nowhere near as messy as I was expecting, having seen many illustrated tutorials where the copper clay artist illustrated had stained brown fingers and all their tools were stained and messy too.  I found it much cleaner than I was anticipating and it didn’t even really stick much to anything other than itself – it worked very much like polymer clay, but needs to be worked quickly.  I found that for the most part, I didn’t need to add any sort of release to my tools.

I like that I can refine the shapes at the clay stage and get it close to a finished surface with much less effort than with the finished metal.  I like that I can either just roll it back up and start over if it doesn’t work, or grind it up and reconstitute it if I don’t like it once dried – so there’s much less wastage than other techniques.  It drills and carves easily when dry and I’m really looking forward to putting some of my design ideas into practice.  I’m already delighted with how it’s worked and can’t wait to make some more pieces.

These earrings are perhaps my favourite finished piece – I made the undulating textured washers specifically for a design I had already made other polymer clay components for, but when fiddling with them to see how else I could use them, I loved how they looked with these Carnelian faceted rondelles, so I’ll need to make some more for my other project.

The one thing that I’m not entirely happy with is that it doesn’t photograph well.  The clay-like texture persists on the surface a little, even after firing and polishing.  When seeing even highly polished pieces in photographs, little speckles of texture dominate every surface, especially when seen on-screen so much larger than life-size – as tends to be the case when showing jewellery items in photographs.  I was very happy with the finish I got in some of the pieces after a little polishing, some before and some after firing, yet was bitterly disappointed with how they looked in the photographs, so this might need a different approach too.  So very much to learn, but it will be a lot of fun to do so.

5 thoughts on “New adventures in Precious Metal Clay

  1. Cost was one of the factors that put me off, but I was also keen to be pretty comfortable with metal working before I took it on. I think, it retrospect, that, for me, was the right decision. I’ve already learnt so much since I posted these, it’s a very steep learning curve.

  2. Your pieces are gorgeous. I been wanting to try PMC too. But the cost also keeps me from trying. I’ve just recently started working some with copper sheeting, but have yet done any soldering. So I guess it will be awhile before I can venture into the clay.

  3. Thanks Gale – I’ve been wanting to try it for a while, but the need to kiln fire copper took it out of reach for me, as did the price of the silver.

    Thanks Maisy – I’ll need to get a lot more confident with the process before I risk the price of the silver clay. I should be listing some of the finished pieces soon, but making things is much more enticing at the moment. I’ll have to knuckle down to it on Monday though, I’m way behind.

  4. I’m ridiculously excited to see you working with copper clay – and will be biding my time until you reach for the silver version! Let me know when you start listing on Etsy because I am madly in love with those earrings on your Flickr! Absolutely awesome start, Boo; I can feel only good things will come of this new turn. xxx

  5. I’ve been wanting to try this, but as you say, the cost-benefit analysis can put a crimp on the first step towards something new! It really helps to read about how someone else is faring. Thanks for sharing the process!

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