13 Mar 2017

Spring is finally visiting

It was one of those March days when the sun shines hot and the wind blows cold: when it is summer in the light, and winter in the shade.    Great Expectations, Charles Dickens

I am delighted to see that spring has finally come knocking at my front door.  She hasn’t however just crept along timidly, hoping not to cause too much fuss, she’s banged repeatedly on the knocker and is wearing her brightest finery.  I even saw my first lambs yesterday, so that was a treat too.

It’s one of my very favourite times of year, when the usually scrubby patch of grass [read that as more moss than grass] outside our front door is solid with spring flowers.  I’m pretty sure that they’re usually more spread out, in that the snowdrops are usually past their best by the time the crocuses emerge and they then overlap with the daffodils.  But at the moment, they’re all in full bloom.  There are even daisies amongst them already.

In fact, I thought the snowdrops had taken a battering in recent storms and were certainly finishing blooming, but a whole raft of new flowers have emerged this week, so it seems that it was only the first flush that were done.  There are some, thankfully still in bud, yet to enjoy.

What could be more cheerful after a long winter than seeing this vibrant splash of colour and a bee busy at work.
What could be more cheerful after a long winter than seeing this vibrant splash of colour and a bee busy at work.

I must start keeping a record of what blooms when, as I’m sure it must vary quite a bit year on year, depending on how severe the winter weather was.  I’m also pretty certain that winters are nowhere near as severe as they used to be – I know that we get a fraction of the snow we have had in past years.

I’m not sure this is entirely good for nature, I think some species need a good hard frost as part of their cycle and I feel this may be why for the last few years, my smaller daffs, often flower just above the soil, without ever growing proper stalks and developing the height that they should.  It feels like they haven’t been allowed to sleep and then woken properly.

We had a lovely day earlier this week, when the wind finally dropped enough to try and take some photos – delicate flowers like snowdrops quiver significantly even in the slightest breeze.  I caught it just on the right day – the warm sun caused the crocuses to open wide and they were pristine and new and I was delighted to see several industrious bumble bees.  I wasted more time than was decent to try to capture one particular character who was very keen on the snowdrops, but he was a large chap and heavily laden with yellow pollen caught in his furry back (you can see him in the banner image at the top) and every time he landed on a snowdrop, his weight caused the flower to drop violently earthwards and dump him onto the grass.  He valiantly kept trying though.  The crocus shape was more suitable for him and I did manage to catch him visiting them.

Recent work and gallery:

Pink bronze earrings, initially inspired by a couple of my favourite jewellery designers; Archibald Knox and Georg Jensen. I started with an idea and before I knew it, it had taken on my own style anyway.
Pink bronze earrings, initially inspired by a couple of my favourite jewellery designers; Archibald Knox and Georg Jensen. I started with an idea and before I knew it, it had taken on my own style anyway.

My husband was working away for a few days recently and I consequently had a really exceptional time getting lots of work done. I was really in the zone and had few interruptions, so made significant inroads into my ‘to do’ list. It was a most enjoyable and satisfying time.

So I now have a pile of finished pieces and some fired metal clay components to make into something and I’m just getting them all added to the web site and for sale.

Having sold several polymer clay pieces recently, I decided that I hadn’t played with polymer clay for a while, so a session was long overdue and I already had some ideas tucked away that I wanted to try.

I decided to start simple initially, to get my eye back in and also used some old baked pieces to try carving designs into. I’d done some rudimentary carving on metal clay and to make texture plates, but carving into polymer clay is most enjoyable. It’s just the right texture and density to carve easily and smoothly, but hard enough that it doesn’t slip away from you too fast, as some of the softer texture plate materials can do.

I do however need some better carving tools, what I’m working with is decent enough to let me try it, but not fine enough to turn tight curves, so my designs are somewhat limited.

The blue green earrings in the gallery were made with a mix of clays to give rise to a semi-translucent clay with fibrous inclusions. I thought they had the look of carved jade and having looked at carved jade netsuke I saw that a lot were teamed with red beads, so I thought that this would be a nice way to finish these earrings, so have paired them with Brecciated jasper beads; a combination I’m certainly going to use again.

10 Jan 2017

Leaves and hedgehogs; given as gifts

Firstly, may I take this opportunity to wish my readers a Happy New Year and I hope that 2017 will be a good year for us all.

For obvious reasons, I couldn’t show all of the pieces I’d been working on in December, as many were intended to be given as gifts, but I can now share them with you.  Some have yet to be given, due to family illness over the festive period, but I think the secret will be safe enough here for now.

Having found some embed-able and fire-able brooch pin backs for metal clay, I got in the mood to make various brooch pins for family and friends, especially for those that are less likely to wear conventional jewellery.  Most people can find a spot on a bag or jacket for a pin, even if they don’t wear earrings etc.

Hedgehog pin in dry metal clay before firing.
Hedgehog pin in dry metal clay before firing.

My [adult] son has a pet African pygmy hedgehog called Mr Bruce Quillis, so the hedgehog pin was for him.  I spent an inordinate amount of time – and was greatly amused by it – trying to capture the individual look of his gorgeous spiky little chum and feel that I got pretty close to his proportions and cheeky personality.

I started by tracing a side-on pose of a African pygmy hedgehog, to get the basic shape, then tweaked the sketch to embrace his specific features.  Bruce has especially long and robust forehead quills, which he can lower rapidly, putting your fingers in mortal danger, at the approach of anything he considers dangerous or unknown – even if you’re handing him his favourite treat of a dried mealworm.  He lowers them as a precaution, then raises them again when he realises your intent.  So they certainly needed to be featured.  He also has larger than average ears, which sit lower than other hedgie’s and are rather square in shape.  His snout is a little longer (the African Pygmy Hedgehogs have longer snouts than domestic wild hedgies anyway) than others in his breed and he has incredibly bright and attentive eyes, which stand rather proud.

Using a fine v-shaped engraving tool to create a texture mat worked really well to emulate the fine, sharp quills.
Using a fine v-shaped engraving tool to create a texture mat worked really well to emulate the fine, sharp quills.

I then needed to contemplate how to actually reproduce him in metal clay.  I needed to make him look like a hedgehog, but without his metal quills being as dangerous as the real thing. The finished pin needed to be wearable on a garment without presenting snag hazards or sharp points.  So I transferred the sketch (mirroring it of course) and used a fine engraving tool and engraved his quills into a rubber carving mat, along with some other positional details.  I used this to impress a slab of metal clay, which once dried, I further engraved for fur and details and appliqued his facial features to give it some dimension.  Filing the edges to an irregular shape around the quills gave rise to a safe, wearable impression of his quills.  He has rather delicate legs and tiny toes, so these needed to be simplified so that they weren’t too fragile.  I don’t mind telling you that I held my breath as I took him out of the kiln, hoping that once shrunk during firing, it still looked like Bruce.  I also don’t mind admitting to the kiln-side happy dance I did when he peeked out of the carbon at me and I recognised that gorgeous cheeky face!

The round pin in the gallery below features various appliqued details on a plain round base, including tiny sculpted teardrop shaped wells that were filled with flame coloured UV resins for a splash of colour. The round pin and hedgehog were in Aussie Metal Clay Antarctic Moonlight and the various leaf pins are in Prometheus Sunny Bronze.

Recent Work Gallery:

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: