31 Oct 2016

Adventures in Aussie Metal Clay

Success is the result of perfection, hard work, learning from failure, loyalty, and persistence. Colin Powell

I’ve posted several times previously on my exploits with the creation of metal clay jewellery. Metal clay is, as the name suggests, a clay-like medium composed of metal particles, an organic binder and water that can be worked and formed as a wet clay, further honed in a dry state (such as components assembled for composite pieces, like many of mine) and then is fired in a kiln at very high temperature to magically become a solid metal creation. There are now a significant number more clays than even when I started, from base metal clays like copper, bronze, iron, steel and brass to various precious variants of silver and now gold.

Antiqued copper contoured leaf earrings on feature earwires.
Antiqued copper contoured leaf earrings on feature earwires.

Not only are there many different metals (and many tones or colours of bronze and coppers etc) but there are many more brands on the market too – with new ones appearing regularly. If you’re feeling truly adventurous, there are even recipes to make up your own.

Each clay has its own properties and some are best suited to particular types of work. I’ve routinely used several brands for different styles of work. You need to work a little with the clay to find out its particular personality and to decide how it best fits into your designs – knowing which one is best for each piece. It’s also true to say that I’ve tried several that I couldn’t get on with, that either didn’t suit my work or were inconsistent for getting reliable results with, so were abandoned.

Fine silver daisy pendant with an inset cubic zirconium gemstone and matching earrings.
Fine silver daisy pendant with an inset cubic zirconium gemstone and matching earrings.

I recently noticed that one of my suppliers was stocking a new-to-the-UK clay range from Australia; Aussie Metal Clay. There offer a significant range of clays, but the ones being stocked here in the UK at present are a range of bronzes in their medium fire range.  The features of the clay looked very interesting and the examples of finished pieces I’d seen made with it were impressive.  So after a little research, I decided to try a couple of colours.  They make a standard clay and a super flex variant of each colour.  As I was hoping to cut some pieces with the Silhouette cutter (that has featured in previous articles as a tool in my jewellery making and design work), their recommendation was to use the super flex, which is what I’ve been working with.

As this clay range is new to the UK and people like myself are only just getting to know it, there is less information available than for other longer-established brands, so whilst I don’t normally talk specifics about materials and suppliers, I hope that posting some more details of this particular clay might help other artisans like myself whilst researching and considering it.

Working the Aussie Metal Clay:

The dry AMC super flex clay can be cut with scissors, scalpel and cutting machines.
The dry AMC super flex clay can be cut with scissors, scalpel and cutting machines.

I’ve very much enjoyed working with the clay, it has properties and features that suit my work really well and as I’ve had excellent support from the proprietor Roslyn Bailey and metal clay artist who works alongside her in developing the clay range, Kim Morris, I’m happy to endorse the product and put some information out there to help others.

The two clays I’ve worked with feel the same in use, so I won’t bother distinguishing them.  The clay is supplied as a dry powder that you mix yourself to a clay with water – this means that if you buy a 100g packet, once mixed, you get something like 130g of usable clay, justifying the slightly higher initial price than pre-mixed clay of the same initial weight.

The dry super flex clay was cut on the Silhouette for these two pieces and the tube bail was rolled (very gently) from dry, cut clay.
The dry super flex clay was cut on the Silhouette for these two pieces and the tube bail was rolled (very gently) from dry, cut clay.

The super flex variant also comes with a little sachet of a gel-type substance that you mix into the dry powder before the water.  It mixes together very easily and you quickly have a workable clay.  My own practice is to mix the clay, then knead it with a palette knife on a glazed tile to mix it thoroughly and then let it rest for a little while and fully absorb the moisture before using.

It rolls out nicely and takes texture very well, it doesn’t stick to your fingers or tools.  It has a lovely smooth silky texture which feels very fine and is a pleasure to work with.  It retains its workable moisture level better than any other base metal clay than I can think I’ve used before and I don’t often need to add any more water to it.

These Poinsettia style earrings were designed and cut with the Silhouette cutter from dry clay 2 cards thick, then tiny rolled balls separately appliqued. The dragonflies in the background had wings cut with a craft cutter.
These Poinsettia style earrings were designed and cut with the Silhouette cutter from dry clay 2 cards thick, then tiny rolled balls separately appliqued. The dragonflies in the background had wings cut with a craft cutter.

Occasionally if you’ve been fiddling a lot and maybe re-worked it several times, it starts to feel dry, but I just pop it into my storage box (I keep it in a little dish inside a larger airtight container that has a moistened pad inside, away from the clay) and paint a little smear of water over it and leave it to sink in, then re-knead it before use.

I can roll tiny smooth round balls with it and it makes a nice rolled snake too – which in the super flex variant, I haven’t needed to moisten before I curl and shape, other than for the tightest of coils.  I’ve been able to roll thin sheets with it that can then be cut with either the Silhouette cutter, scissors, scalpel and I’ve even used craft punches and decorative scissors.  It can even be rolled (if eased very gradually and with care) in its dry form.  Kim Morris gave me a super tip that really works; if the clay has been in its dry form for a while, the flex properties diminish a little, but putting it in the fridge overnight restores its flex.

Reconstituting dry clay:

I also found that it reconstitutes really well.  My own method is to pile up any scrap and failed elements and loosely break or chop them into smaller pieces and spray them with water, leaving it covered, to soak in for a while.  I then roughly mix it and cover with thick plastic film and roll it out and gather it up again repeatedly, at which time it probably still has dry lumps in, which will show as paler patches.  These get gradually smashed up as you roll, probably requiring the addition of more water – a little at a time. A couple of rolling sessions later you will have a workable clay.  If it was really dry clay, I tend to leave it overnight to fully absorb the moisture into the organic binders and then re-knead with a palette knife before use.

Many re-constituting techniques talk of grinding the clay back to powder in a coffee grinder or the like, then sieving it to get out impurities, but I’ve never had a problem with any clay using my technique; it saves on wastage, doesn’t fill the air with dust and as I don’t use much oil or lubricants with it, feel that the clay remains pretty pure – although I don’t use sanding dust as I think this will have particles from the sanding medium, but I do use anything I’ve carved or trimmed and drilling swarf.  I have workable new clay with minimal fuss.

Kiln firing specifics – overcoming firing issues:

Whilst I had good success straight away with several Aussie Metal Clay pieces, some have been less than spectacular.  I had several assorted issues and it was obvious that some pieces simply weren’t sintering fully.   Base metal clays are fired in 2 stages; firstly to burn off the organic binder particles (the water should already be fully evaporated, clay should be fired totally dry) and secondly to fuse the remaining metal particles together as a metal piece.

Sintering is the process whereby the loose metal particles just start to melt on their surface, allowing adjacent particles to bond together, forming a cohesive metal structure, but short of actually melting.  This is why metal clay shrinks during firing, firstly you remove the binder and then fuse the metal particles into a closer solid texture.

The inadequate sintering I experienced manifested itself variously as warping and slumping in thinner pieces, resulting in distortion and some cracking.  The thicker pieces simply crumbled on the surface when I started cleaning them up after firing.  Any remaining binder will prevent the metal particles from fusing to each other and if burn off is irregular across the piece, warping and cracking will occur.  Some of the thinner pieces (mainly a Silhouette-cut bezel – partly the fault of the design too) simply snapped off – no doubt still too brittle where not sintered fully.

I contacted AMC and Roslyn Bailey was very patient with me, working through a series of potential solutions and it became evident that it was the burn-out stage of the firing that was the culprit and she made some suggestions to try.  If the organic binder isn’t fully removed, it will remain in the final piece, preventing the metal particles from bonding to each other properly, so this stage is vital to get right.  I was able to put into action her suggestions – and thankfully, it worked beautifully, addressing the issues I had.  Everything came out fully sintered and with negligible distortion – and that was more down to the design of that piece than the firing schedule.

Burn out – stage one firing on kiln pillow:

I made several test pieces of different thicknesses and also repaired one of the earlier pieces and re-fired that.  It was Ros’s suggestion to fire the pieces on kiln pillow (on top of the carbon) to improve airflow around the piece during burn-out and after discussion we also decided to try reducing the temperature of stage one but increase the hold time.  The kiln plug was removed to vent the kiln during the stage one burn-out.

In this initial test firing, I used brand new activated coconut carbon to eliminate any potential issues with pre-used carbon, in a stainless steel firing pan (I gave up on flake free foil containers some time ago, I’ve had more consistent results with all clays since) in a Paragon SC2 kiln.  The clay was AMC medium fire super flex in Desert Sun.   Stage one was ramped at Spd3 (1000°F / 555°C per hour) to 400°C and held for 50 minutes.

When the kiln had cooled enough to be safe to work with,  I covered the pieces with kiln paper where there was texture and the wren pendant with holes in (see photos in the Gallery below) I tented with a folded piece of no-flake foil, something I’ve been doing successfully for some time.  I then covered everything in more carbon and the pan lid and replaced the kiln plug.   After success with the kiln blanket below pieces, I’ll possibly use this in future above pieces too, in place of the paper or tent, as their only purpose is to keep carbon out of texture or holes that can cause cracks if it wedges in crevices as the piece shrinks during firing.

Stage 2 was ramped at Spd4 (1500°F / 833°C per hour) to 780°C and held for 3 hours.  The kiln was left to cool to about 200°C and then the pieces removed.   I’ve not been quenching the AMC pieces, I let them cool on a ceramic tile. The appearance of the pieces immediately out of the kiln and then after polishing and antiquing can be seen in the Gallery below.

This is a perfect example of a failure being a positive and valuable learning exercise – often it’s the failures that we learn the most from.  Without a negative initial outcome, I wouldn’t have sought out assistance, thereby learning an improved technique, which in turn will result in better work overall long-term.

Addendum on Antarctic Moonlight MF clay:

Aussie Metal Clay medium fire superflex clay in Antarctic Moonlight. The earrings have been paired with polished Sterling silver earwires and rivets and the flowers are copper.
Aussie Metal Clay medium fire superflex clay in Antarctic Moonlight. The earrings have been paired with polished Sterling silver earwires and rivets and the flowers are copper.

I’ve since done a similar firing with one of the other medium fire clays from Aussie Metal Clay; Antarctic Moonlight, which is reputed to need a slightly lower firing temperature due to the higher tin content with it being classed as a more silver coloured bronze.  I did the same basic firing as for the Desert Sun, as outlined above, but lowered the temperature in stage 2 by 20°C to 760°C, still holding for 3 hours and this sintered perfectly. 

It is also worth noting that as Antarctic Moonlight is a white bronze, with a higher tin content, it’s significantly more brittle and pieces need to be a bit thicker to be robust enough for wear.  The AMC recommended minimum thickness for Antarctic Moonlight is 5 cards thick (approx 1.25mm).  I cut some small test pieces using the Silhouette that ended up just under 0.7mm thick, totally forgetting about the thickness recommendation and whilst they fired nicely, I was able to just snap them in my fingers, even though they were solid metal right through the breaks that polished to a shine later. 

The thicker pieces in the batch came out really nicely and feel very robust indeed.  So bear this in mind, the Antarctic Moonlight won’t be suitable for bezels or prongs that might need moving later to set stones etc. and I doubt it would manipulate successfully if you wanted to straighten any warping or movement during firing.

Aussie Metal Clay kiln test gallery:

Photographs to illustrate the kiln schedule and technique described above, using Aussie Metal Clay’s medium fire super flex clay.  There are more details in the captions of the photographs.

Recent work gallery:

I’ve finished several new pieces recently, including a couple of new twig necklaces (well, a necklace and a pendant) featuring tiny hand sculpted naturalistic details.


26 Sep 2016

The unmistakable signs of late summer

Fruits ripen, seeds drip, the hours of day and night are balanced.   Mabon Sabbat and Lore

This is a time of year that I both love and find a little sad too.  That point where the unmistakable signs appear that summer is drawing to a close and autumn is chasing its heels.  It’s sad because you know the long evenings are rapidly vanishing and there will now be more night than day and yet it’s still a beautiful time of year.

Each period of the year has its own merits and I do so love to observe that cyclical rhythm of nature doing its thing.  As summer wanes, plants put forth their seeds and berries and animals and insects use the opportunity to feed up for the forthcoming winter.  Consequently, the hedgerows are full of those fabulous later summer structures full of summer energy ready to fuel a new generation. This colourful display is full of warmth and vibrancy and stunning natural structures, just as beautiful as the flowers that precede them.


Recent work in a new material:

I recently discovered a new brand of base metal clays from Australia – the appropriately named Aussie Metal Clay, only recently put on the market in the UK, which I have thoroughly enjoyed working with.  I intend to do a more detailed blog on working with the product, as there is little information out there yet, but I have one or two issues to resolve for myself first.

When I look at new materials or techniques, I often do a lot of research and reading to formulate a good idea of the features of the product to see if it will be suitable for my needs – this is very often blog articles from fellow users who kindly share their experiences.  Consequently, as this product doesn’t feature very much yet, I want to write some more about it and my own findings from making several pieces with it, to make my own contribution for fellow artisans.

In the meantime, in the gallery below are a few of the new pieces I have made with a couple of the medium fire base metal clays from Aussie Metal Clay to give you an idea of its capability, but I intend to write much more specifics in a future post.  [Article now written and the links above take you to it.]

Metal clay gallery:


22 Aug 2016

Roe deer bucks and late-onset allergies

Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass under trees on a summer’s day, listening to the murmur of the water, or watching the clouds float across the sky, is by no means a waste of time.  John Lubbock

I was rather mortified to find that it is two months since I last posted (I would have guessed at half of that), but in truth, I just haven’t had much to say or to show you.  Consequently, the photographs I’ll post in the gallery below will span a few weeks and several trips out and are rather a haphazard collection.  I’ll also add a second gallery of recent work, just to prove that I have been getting on with something.

I love the tall elegant spikes of Foxglove flowers.
I love the tall elegant spikes of Foxglove flowers.

My husband was taken rather poorly in July with what we initially thought was a severe tummy bug, but at the point where he erupted in a violent full-body rash (you’d think he’d been paint balling naked, his opponent armed with red paint – and no, I have no idea how that scenario might even arise either), I decided that it was rather more than someone just passing on undesirable germs, so called the doctor.  Through a bit of detective work, we speculated that it was possibly a severe allergic reaction to a portion of ice cream he’d eaten, containing chopped pecan nuts.  Thankfully, the suggested hay fever meds caused the rash to retreat very rapidly and subsequent blood testing confirmed a severe allergic reaction to nuts. Rather odd, when he’d both tolerated and regularly enjoyed nuts for over half a century.

So until he can have proper testing and can learn more (the waiting list is lengthy), we’re now manic label readers.  I already read everything for myself, as a diabetic who eats reduced carbs, but it’s surprising just how many seemingly unlikely products we ate regularly are now on the banned list.  Not only is our own supply cupboard looking very different, but it makes eating out, both commercially and in other people’s houses, a rather risky experience, especially when foods that have the potential to prove dangerous might seemingly have little outwardly to do with nuts (meats can be fried in nut oils, sauces thickened with nut flour, added vegetable protein and vegetable oils in recipes can be derived from peanut etc. etc.).  I can’t even begin to imagine what a minefield it must be to parents of youngsters with similar dangerous allergies.

As he already has several chronic and serious health issues, the severity of his body’s reaction to that very small amount of nuts has had a detrimental impact on his overall health, although thankfully he’s now showing considerable improvement.  Consequently, our weekends have been spent trying to recharge the batteries and return him to previous health levels, so we’ve made a point of getting out at any opportunity to visit favourite quiet places.

We might not go far or do much when we get there, but making a point of going out, even if you only sit and read for an hour and listen to birds and the breeze through the trees, enforces a detachment from real life for a while and removes you from temptation to just get on with chores.  The investment of time, we feel, is very well worth doing in this regard.  I’m certain that our policy of doing this regularly has paid dividends in his recovery and certainly does me good too.

Roe deer bucks – 2 for the price of 1:

Hence we found ourselves on Saturday afternoon, sat in the car to shelter from the very stiff winds and intermittent rain, with our books and flask of coffee, just enjoying the peace and watching a group of bunnies chasing each other through the grass.  There was a moment when one running shape registered as odd until my brain put it together and I realised that this was no bunny, but a roe deer, somewhat further away.  It ran the full width of the field in front of us, stopped and ate for a few minutes and then ran towards us diagonally and disappeared into the trees edging the field.

Grasses catching evening sun, as pretty as any 'conventional' flowers.
Grasses catching evening sun, as pretty as any ‘conventional’ flowers.

I was struggling to get decent photos through the slope of the car windscreen, but was able to get out of the car fairly invisibly as there was a sign nearby that I was able to walk in line with and hide behind to get some better photos.  It was a considerable distance, so the shots are significant crops (see below), but you get the idea.   I’d managed to remain unseen by it until two cars tried to pass in the single track road and one revved in frustration and this got the deer’s attention, at which time it must have seen me as it is looking straight at me in the photograph.

A few moments after it disappeared into the trees, we spotted what we thought was the same deer a few yards from where I’d first photographed it, but it couldn’t have got there in the time, or without us seeing it, so we were a little perplexed.  It followed exactly the same route over the field and disappeared into the trees at the very same spot.  I took some more photos through the open car window and it was only when reviewing these later that I could see that it wasn’t the same deer at all.  The first roe deer buck looks to be about 2 or 3 years old with 2 tines or points on his antlers, where the second buck not only has three tines on his antlers, suggesting he’s probably a year or so older, but he only had one antler, his left one being missing.

It was odd that they’d followed the same route across the field, both into view and again out of it, but as it is their rutting season, I wonder if the older male was following the scent of his younger rival, with a view to demonstrating his greater status – and perhaps that’s why he only has one remaining antler, maybe he’s already put it to good use.


Recent work:

Just to prove that I haven’t been entirely sat on my bottom drinking coffee and gawping, these are some of the new designs added to the shop recently.


20 Jun 2016

Daft bunnies, squirrels and a new shop

You can’t be suspicious of a tree, or accuse a bird or a squirrel of subversion, or challenge the ideology of a violet.  Hal Borland

They're elusive little critters and their speed and agility outsmart me more times than not.
They’re elusive little critters and their speed and agility outsmart me more times than not.

As we’re not able to get away for a holiday this June, we decided to take the time off in short bursts instead, having a couple of long weekends where we vowed to try and get proper holiday-style days out – with picnics and everything.

Thankfully, for our first such long weekend, there was gorgeous warm weather.  It had been fabulously sunny over the weekend, but by the Monday and Tuesday, it had gone a bit more cloudy and humid and oppressive instead.  But we managed two proper full days out and without resorting to coats or waterproofs, which is always a bonus.

We went first to a new place for us; Mere Sands Wood Nature Reserve in West Lancashire, a Lancashire Wildlife Trust wetland nature reserve and it only cost £2 for parking all day.  It was a lovely place that we’ll certainly visit again.  You walk in a loop around the mere, mostly in woodland and there were bird feeding stations and hides at suitable positions, where you can sit and look at the various wildlife using the mere.  There had been kingfishers in residence a couple of days earlier and we sat waiting for a while at their favourite perch but didn’t see any evidence of them.  Regular visitors who came into the hide said they hadn’t been seen for the last 3 days and must have moved on.  Shame, I would have been enthralled to see them that close, I’ve only had two fleeting glances of a kingfisher before.

As we were already near the Merseyside coast, we headed off to Formby Point where there is a reserve for red squirrels and we haven’t been for a while.  It had been a hot day and the National Trust wardens in attendance said it was too hot for the squirrels, so they hole up in their dreys during the day and come out when it cools.  As it was now around 5pm and there was a nice sea breeze, we were hopeful for a siting.  Thankfully, they did decide it was time to emerge and find some food, so we did see many of them scampering around in the trees.  They make it a little easier to spot them as their claws do make a scratching sound in the trees, so if you stand still and quiet, you can locate them by sound.  They move very fast though and many of the photos I got were of disappearing tails or a blur of movement.

The little chap I did get decent photos of (below in the gallery), albeit it a distance up a tree, seemed quite curious about me and kept coming back for a look, so that made it easier for me as at least he stood still for a few moments.

New shop:

My new smart phone responsive web site and shopping cart.
My new smart phone responsive web site and shopping cart.

The time came when I could put it off no longer.  My on-line shop was using a shopping cart system that was now three whole generations behind the times.  Google tell me when I advertise, that I’m missing business because I don’t have a mobile phone compatible site and well over 40% of my advert-clickers do so on a smart phone (which means that they probably don’t actually ‘click’ anything at all).  Add to that the impending PayPal increased security requirements, I decided it was time to look that elephant in the room right in the eye.  I might even go right over there and give his damn trunk a tweak!

So after much hair pulling and gnashing of teeth, my new, smartphone responsive and now fully secure site has been officially launched.  There’s a great deal to it and it takes a huge amount of work to get it how you want it, hence not much new jewellery to report.  Fine tuning pages for the new design will be a work in progress for a little while yet, but all the major stuff has been addressed – and I believe it’s working well.

If you’d like to try it out, I’d welcome any comments as there’s limited value in my own testing as I know how it works and what to expect and if you would like to make a purchase, there’s a launch coupon for 10% off across the shop (gift certificates are excluded, minimum spend £10), valid until the end of June 2016 – just enter LAUNCH10 in the appropriate box in the basket.


You’ll need to view the gallery to see the daft bunnies.