1 May 2015

It felt like summer for a moment

It’s a strange moment when you realise that the sound of nature is the sound of millions of animals, birds and insects desperately trying to get laid.  Unknown

A week or so ago we had a spell of the most gorgeous warm sunshine.  It was unseasonably warm and it felt like summer had arrived – the days felt a decent length, with lighter evenings, after the clocks had gone forwards a couple of weeks earlier.  I took my work outside at any opportunity and sat doing my polishing in shirt sleeves – an unexpected bonus for the middle of April.  Although it’s slightly incongruous to sit out with tulips in bloom and no leaves on the trees.

We often get early warm periods like this, lulling us into thinking that summer has actually arrived, then as quickly as it arrived, it vanishes again and we’re reminded of just how early in the year it still actually is.  I went to post some orders today, grabbing an opportunity of dryness between wintry showers and really regretted not putting on my gloves, as I walked to the letterbox.  My afternoon sojourns to polish in the garden bathed in sunshine felt like an especially surreal and distant memory.

Orange-tip butterfly looking for a girlfriend as soon as he emerged for the season.
Orange-tip butterfly looking for a girlfriend as soon as he emerged for the season.

Whilst sitting outside during this nice spell, I was aware of how many insects were now active, presumably spurred into activity by the rise in temperature.  Nothing evokes the idea of summer quite as readily as the sound of insects busy at work and I had several treats during this period.

Left you can see an Orange-tip butterfly I photographed in the garden.  It flew past me and I dashed to grab the camera and by the time I found it and got it ready, he had settled on a climbing hydrangea I have growing up the end wall of the garden.  I took the photograph and was annoyed that a plant label was reflecting the sun and dominating the frame, so as I adjusted my position to try and photograph him with a better background, my moving shadow must have spooked him and he was soon off over the wall and away.

Ironically, that in itself turns out to be the interesting point.  I wasn’t wholly sure of the name of the species, so turned to my books for confirmation.  And there I read that male Orange-tip butterflies emerge in April and their first task is to find a mate.

There were a number of the same species of hoverfly active too, the first I've seen this year.
There were a number of the same species of hoverfly active too, the first I’ve seen this year.

The lady Orange-tips aren’t actually orange, they’re grey where the lovely chap above is orange and consequently, the males, in their quest for a girlfriend, land on anything white hoping that they’ve found a willing female.  He returned to the garden briefly several times during the day, variously landing on lightly variegated leaves and the same obviously enticing plant label.  I hope he was successful at some later point.

I’ve always been fond of hoverflies and keep some plants in the garden that I know they favour.  I love the way they drop their undercarriage to land and they don’t bother you, sting or bite and I’m happy to have them visit the garden.

There were several of these large hairy bee-like species and they alternated between hovering in the air in the sunshine and washing their legs on the tops of leaves.  Love was clearly in the air as we saw several coupled as they hovered, which must be quite a feat in itself – presumably they find it safer to be airborne whilst distracted and vulnerable rather than a potential double meal for something if they landed to get down to business.

The intense colour of these tulips really comes alive when backlit by sunshine.
The intense colour of these tulips really comes alive when backlit by sunshine.

My work this week:

I’ve revisited some of my ‘classic’ designs for some new variations recently.  Some pieces continue to sell well even though their first incarnations were early in my career and I seem to have been working on several of those again recently – although I do perpetually hone the designs as my technique and workmanship improves.  There are some designs that as soon as I get back in stock, they’re gone again.  The earrings below are a variation on the rosebud knots that I’ve now done in many different formats and even as I made these, I had a subsequent idea for a bracelet link, which I’ve just started making up.

Rosebud knot looped link earrings featuring intensely coloured raspberry jade beads.
Rosebud knot looped link earrings featuring intensely coloured raspberry jade beads.


'Coil on coil' pendant featuring a lovely delicate aquamarine jade bead with a lovely marbled texture.
‘Coil on coil’ pendant featuring a lovely delicate aquamarine jade bead with a lovely marbled texture.


A new variation of an early design which I used to wire wrap with copper, but these now have the flowers ball riveted with silver.
A new variation of an early design which I used to wire wrap with copper, but these now have the flowers ball riveted with silver.
25 Mar 2015

Paper becomes metal

A house with daffodils in it is a house lit up, whether or no the sun be shining outside.   A.A. Milne

My husband had a couple of days holiday to use up before the end of the holiday year, so we sneaked a couple of days off and hoped to get some time outside in the spring sunshine.  We did manage that and jolly lovely it was too, but for an assortment of reasons – apathy largely – I didn’t get any worthwhile photos to share with you.  I had it in mind to post some cute little spring lambs, but the areas we visited were only just starting to lamb and the ones I did spot weren’t in a place where we could stop for photos.  So they will have to wait until another day.

Tulip bud, all bulbous and soon to burst into colour.
Tulip bud, all bulbous and soon to burst into colour.

As you can see above, the little Tête-á-tête daffodils in my garden are now in full bloom and are an absolute delight – so cheering to see out of the window.  I love any daffodils, but am especially fond of these compact little ones, perfect little miniature specimens.

I also have tulips starting to emerge too.  Whilst I love the blooms, I also enjoy the buds before they open – they’re often spherical and bulbous and amongst the leaves make lovely abstract shapes, especially if you can catch a few raindrops sitting on the leaves.

Because I have a tiny garden, when my bulbs are done, I pull them up and dry them ready to re-plant in autumn and then put my summer bedding in the same pots.  Consequently, my bulbs end up totally mixed up from one year to the next, so I’m never quite sure what any one individual bloom will be like, or any pot arrangement, adding a tiny frisson of excitement as they open.  Maybe I’m just easily excited.

 My work this week:

I’ve posted previously about the wild roses that I’ve made in paper, designing and cutting the components using the Silhouette Studio software and my Portrait cutter.  Whilst assembling one to stick onto a gift, I wondered if I could use the same basic structure with copper clay to make the same sort of flowers in metal.

I know that a lot of metal clay workers use the Silhouettes to actually cut thinly rolled clay for complex features like bezels and that was certainly one of the reasons I wanted the machine for myself.  But to date, I’m still having fun using the software and machine to make my own textures and design elements and I haven’t even tried cutting clay with it directly yet.

One of the original paper wild roses, alongside its metal counterpart.
One of the original paper wild roses, alongside its metal counterpart.

I wanted the roses to be fairly substantial in size, which would necessitate a decent thickness of sheet clay to work with, almost certainly beyond the cutting capacity of the Silhouette and I also wanted to shape the petals as I worked too – best done with wet clay.

A lot of the charm of actual wild roses is the curl and random shapes of the petals themselves and in this instance, I didn’t feel they should be too uniform in shape.  So instead, I used the cutter to create a template which I could cut around manually, allowing me to form each petal the same basic shape and size, but individually contoured, to give them the same natural variation you’d experience in real flowers.

Wild rose pendant in antiqued copper.
Wild rose pendant in antiqued copper.

The metal clay as a medium also allows a slightly different approach to details too – so the centre of the flower is more anatomically realistic, where the paper version is more of an impression of a real flower.  I did actually make the flower in pretty much the same way as the paper versions, in that I made each petal and allowed them to dry, then refined and assembled them onto a small circular base, adding the centre details last.

The large pendant has a simple loop on the back to hang from the chain, I didn’t want to bail, in this instance, to detract from the details of the flower.

Wild rose pendant made in copper metal clay.
Wild rose pendant made in copper metal clay.

Having made the large pendant, which is around 42mm (1.65″) in diameter, I wondered if I could work a smaller rose, to use on earrings etc.  I approached this slightly differently due to the size, creating my own cutter for the basic shape of the petals.  Other than that and simplifying the centre a little, the process was much the same.

With this pendant, I’ve applied the smaller wild rose to a basic textured circle frame, accompanied by a few rose leaves adjacent.  I have some other variants in progress to make into earrings, but at this point, my kiln was full anyway, so I have a second batch of pieces to fire shortly.

Circle pendant made in copper clay with a wild rose centre piece with accompanying leaves.
Circle pendant made in copper clay with a wild rose centre piece with accompanying leaves.


The wild rose circle pendant prior to firing.
The wild rose circle pendant prior to firing.

It is my habit with all metal clay work to keep a very detailed record of all pieces.  I keep a kiln log of the firing itself, with photos and measurements recorded in a separate log.  That way I know what brand of clay was used for a particular piece and when and how it was fired etc.  As I always like to see other artists pieces in progress, I’ll post a couple of pre-firing photos too.

Wild rose pendant in its finished state immediately before firing.
Wild rose pendant in its finished state immediately before firing.
10 Jul 2012

Bringing copper clay to life

Firstly, I must apologise for the delay since my last post, but between health issues, our annual ‘summer’ holiday (I use the word advisedly, it didn’t feel much like summer in the storms) and being kept busy with some lovely custom orders, time has simply got away from me.

As I promised that I’d post this subject some time ago and I’ve already prepared the photographs, I may as well continue and complete the post, even though some considerable time has passed since I said I’d be doing so.

I’m going to show the many stages it takes to make a jewellery set like this from copper clay.

As previously posted, I’ve really been enjoying working with copper clay, a somewhat new adventure for me. I resisted for some time, until I felt I’d mastered sufficient skills with actual solid metal before taking myself off on a tangent. It’s an amazing medium, it allows you to achieve results that would be either very difficult, time consuming or even impossible with solid metal forms. I read an article by an experienced jeweller that said she used PMC for things that she simply couldn’t do by other means – as a supplement to metal, not instead of. So that has been my thinking with it thus far. To try things that I couldn’t otherwise accomplish. Hark at me, like I’m an expert. Far from it, I’m learning at a very steep rate and still have a long way to go.

Whilst it’s amazingly good fun to work with and you can do really interesting things with it (and I’ve only scratched the surface so far) – I don’t feel it’s a short cut to quick or easy results either. It still takes a lot of work to get good results. I suspect in my case some of that is related to the fact that I’m torch firing and not using a kiln – it takes longer to fire the piece in that each one has to be done individually and I suspect that the firescale on the copper I’m using is possibly deeper – and more time-consuming to remove too.

I thought I’d show some work-in-progress photographs of the various stages that a piece has to go through, not as a tutorial in any way (I’m simply not qualified yet to try and impart information on this subject), but purely as an insight as to how much work a particular finished piece represents. The particular design of the pieces indicated is a rather simple technique, pieces that incorporate sculpting and assembly of components can take much longer.

Most of the photographs are of a particular earring and pendant set, although some of them were taken retrospectively with another piece as I simply decided later that I’d missed some stages worth including.

The clay is rolled out to the desired thickness on a non-stick sheet, in this case, using some sheets of plastic as my spacers.

I imprinted the sheet of clay with my chosen texture – in this case, a spiral I formed with a piece of wire.

The shapes are then cut out of the sheet and shaped and formed, as desired, whilst still moist and pliable. They then need some time to dry enough for further handling. I choose to do some of the further work before the pieces dry to the stage of becoming brittle. At this stage it is certainly more clay and less metal (despite the rather incongruous sensation of being cold and metallic to the touch) and I liken it to dry pasta – firm and robust enough to handle, but you could just break it with your fingers if you chose, so it does need some care. I like to drill my holes and refine the shape a little whilst it’s dry to the touch, but not dry enough to fire – it simply seems more brittle to me by the time it reaches that stage.

The left hand earring piece as I formed it initially from the moist clay and the right hand one is after some filing, rounding of corners and refining the shape and surface – as you smooth it, it does take on a more metallic appearance.

At this stage, I leave them on wire mesh to dry really thoroughly for at least a couple of days. I’ve had some pieces crack or pop during firing and the manufacturers advise me this is the rapid vapourising of any tiny water molecules remaining within the clay as I bring it to the flame to fire it. I’m not convinced that moisture is entirely to blame for all my cracks (and I’ve made some modifications in my workflow to address the issue), but I think it must certainly have been in the piece that popped loudly and broke away surface pieces as soon as it got hot.

I fire each piece individually with the torch, in accordance with the recommendations for the particular product I’m using. I can manage either a single large piece or a couple of smaller ones in each firing. I work in reduced light so that I can monitor the colour of the metal and the flame.

After firing and quenching, my lovely smooth piece of clay looks pretty terrible – the firescale on the surface will need removing – and this is perhaps the most tedious stage of the process, although some trial and error has established a pretty good routine for me to get it clean again with minimal elbow grease. First I pickle and then tumble the pieces extensively to bring out the shine of the metal now revealed after burning off the organic binders.
Of course, the metal clay pieces are only components and I also need to make the accompanying metal parts too – in this case, I decided to go for some fancy feature earwires with a co-ordinating decorative spiral. I also make all my own jump rings and clasps for finished pieces.

The earrings are as such now complete and I’ve antiqued them to bring out the lovely aged warmth of time-worn copper, which is my own personal preferred finish for copper. I’m next going to add some colour to this particular set and after some earlier trial and error, had decided that antiquing first and then applying the colour gave the most pleasing end result. Before colouring, I removed the copper clay charms from the earwires to protect them.

I’d originally had it in mind to combine the copper clay pieces with enamels, but whilst researching types and materials, came across the US made product Gilders Paste, which sounded even better for what I had in mind. It’s a solid opaque and intensely coloured wax type substance that comes in little tins and looks for all the world like old-fashioned shoe polish. It can be used and applied just about any way you can think of – you can do anything from rubbing it on with your finger to airbrushing it on as a wash mixed with a solvent. I decided that a short cut-down and very inexpensive paintbrush allowed me to stipple it well into the recessed pattern areas, giving good coverage.

It’s specifically for colouring metal, but can be used on many other suitable surfaces too. I’ve found that it seems to work very well on the less metallic and shiny parts of the clay that were impressed and therefore not as subsequently highly burnished smooth. Still maintaining some of the porosity of the original clay texture gave it a good key to adhere to. I think for a good covering on the metal surface, it would need roughening to give it a better key and would lose some of the metallic sheen and therefore may not be quite as attractive for the effect I was after. On solid metals, I found that it scratched off too easily, but it adheres well to the rougher texture of unpolished clay areas. Solid copper would need a texture for key to work reliably – but I have some ideas for that too.

Once allowed to dry for a number of hours, the piece can be rubbed clean and finally polished – the Gilders Paste is robust once dry and should last well in wear. On these pieces, I stippled both a verdigris turquoise with a darker metallic green to give the appearance of patina but I didn’t want a solid single flat colour. The photo below was taken between wiping off the excess from the surface before fully dry and the final buffing and cleaning.

Some finished copper clay pieces using Gilders Paste for colour:

And finally . . .

As I’ve been typing this, with the TV on in my office, the weather man declared that some places in Britain today (the 10th of July, may I remind you) were actually colder than they were on Christmas Day! So you can see why I had some reservations about declaring our most recent holiday to be our summer one!

4 Nov 2010

New Adventures in Etching

In my previous blog post, I’d shown some new pendant designs using sheet copper, where in the past I’d worked largely with wire based designs. My intention, when stocking up on sheet, before I got distracted with some other ideas, was to set up to do some etching. I’d been accumulating the necessary materials over time and working out the methodology and designs in my mind and sketchbook.

I had in mind that I wanted to combine my love for photography and an extensive portfolio of available images with my jewellery making. It was my idea to take suitable photographs and put them into a stylised monochrome format in order to etch these into copper sheet and finish by oxidising to bring out the texture of the image. I had several images in mind that I thought would prove suitable and had been in my minds eye for some time. All of the designs I’ve made thus far have been based on a photograph I took, albeit some of them have ended up very abstract and not obviously image based at all. But this way I know that they’re unique and original.

I’ve always loved daisies and the first image I intended to try etching was one of my daisy photos. This is just a standard lawn daisy photographed in the grass outside my front door. I don’t like cutting the grass and getting rid of them, so often leave particularly abundant patches of them to grow unhindered.

I hoped that this particular image had enough contrast and detail that it would be self-evident in a very simplified form and set to work to improve the contrast, reduce the colours of the image and retouch it into a very much stylised graphic format, as shown.

The etching method I’d decided some time ago to work with was one using a pure and saturated salt solution in combination with an electric current from a battery holder. I liked the simplicity of working with household chemicals and whilst it does produce a potentially dangerous solution of copper salts that will need careful disposal, the process itself is pretty innoccuous and I was happy that I could work comfortably with the materials within my domestic work space.

The process necessitates putting the image onto the meticulously prepared (i.e. smooth and very clean) metal surface as a resist – something that will mask the copper where you don’t want it etching and leaving spaces where you do want to eat away at the surface. Consequently, the image needs to be worked in negative (and mirrorred), to give rise to the image the correct way round once appearing on the sheet metal surface. Hence my daisy image has been reversed.

As with many jewellery making techniques, meticulous preparation is at the heart of the eventual success – the results are directly proportional to the care taken setting it up – cut corners and you cut quality. And like many techniques, the core of the work is in the preparation, the process itself is relatively easy, but getting to that stage is where the effort lies.

And like many techniques, the methodology often needs fine tuning and honing as you work. It’s all very good working from a tutorial – and this one was detailed and extensive – but there’s no substitute for hands-on experience and practical problem solving – something you can only really do for yourself. So I knew as I set off to produce my first item that the initial results would not be perfect, in fact, I was lined up for a total fail, as others had said they hadn’t done well with this particular technique.

The first etched incarnation of the daisy, which is softer and more granular than I’d intended, but still significantly better than I was expecting.

But despite not working with the ideal materials (I was missing something that I hoped wasn’t going to be a deal breaker) and improvising a little, my first etch was better than I’d dared hope. The image had obviously transferred to the metal (using a laser printed original and heat) – which was actually the area where I was improvising and crossing my fingers – and the etch had happened as predicted.

It’s funny how past experience continues to inform current work. As a technical illustrator specialising in airbrush work, a technique I often used to transfer line illustrations to board to airbrush them, was to photocopy them and then iron this onto the art board, so I’d already settled on this as a potential transfer method.

From a long time in my past, some technical airbrush illustrations. The top one is the front suspension of an Aston Martin Vantage – which Aston Martin helped me with, I took measurements and reference photographs directly from parts on their shop floor. The second one is an SME tone arm – it resides on our turntable.

Where my print had missed in places, I’d patched it in with Sharpie, one of the recommended techniques, but that proved to be insufficiently resilient and gradually lifted during the etch and left holes in the design which then started to etch too. So the result was a little soft around the edges and had quite a lot of background noise where it should have been clean – see the photo above of the finished pendant.

On subsequent etches I used a metallic Sharpie and that was rather better – nail polish was better still, but hard to apply in small amounts. It was evident that the quality of the transfer of the design to the metal was the really vital stage. It’s also vital to cover all of the metal you submerge as anything not protected will etch. I also learned that any duct tape used to cover edges etc. needs to be burnished down tightly, any place where a droplet of etching solution can get inside will also etch.

Digging around on line for methods of transferring my images to the sheet metal (I was trying to avoid the delay and expense of getting some printed circuit board transfer paper, the recommended technique) I found a post in a model makers forum for making printed circuit boards where I think this chap had stumbled upon something that worked, by accident and so I decided it was worth a try as I did have the materials to hand. His recommendation was to use the laser printer, but print onto glossy inkjet photo paper. The glossy coating sticks to the toner too, making the transfer much thicker and with more distinct edges and when done, it lifts off relatively easily after soaking in some nail polish remover (I tried every solvent in the house before I made this particular discovery).

The image transferred to the cleaned copper sheet – you can see from the paper peeled away after transfer that not all of it transferred at the edges. See the finished pendant at the bottom of the article.

It worked incredibly well – the image transferred was crisper, thicker and looked much more resilient, see above. I now had to hold my breath while I waited to see if it stayed stuck to the metal during the etching process. I had visions of it dissolving clean off as I watched.

Take 2 – the initial and cleaned up etch from the better transfer – the edges are crisper and cleaner and the background has remained clean.

The finished pendant from etch no. 2. I cut the sheet to shape and rounded the corners and polished the flat surface, oxidising it to fill in the texture of the etch and only polishing back the top surface.

I was absolutely delighted with the results – a much cripser etch and the areas around the design had remained predominantly clean. I was so encouraged that I went with a much finer design next, with some lettering, to test how much detail would actually show in a sketch-like original. I haven’t yet oxidised it to see how good it looks finished, but I was incredibly happy with the results, it had worked rather better than I’d expected. This is my parents’ boxer Chelsea and this will go on a keyring for my Mum’s birthday. So I have to hope that she doesn’t read the blog.

The process to get an image onto metal started with a photograph which was actually the size I have it here. I partially digitised it as a sketch and then hand worked it to bring out more detail and make it a bit more blocky to be more suitable to etch, then it’s reversed and mirrored before printing – where your image is white will be etched, so had I used the middle positive image I would have got a raised Chelsea with an etched away background – I wanted the image etching, so had to make a negative and then mirror it to ensure she faced the right way and the writing wasn’t backwards.

The initial resist transferred to the sheet metal is on the left – the image area looked clean and detailed and my transfer paper was largely clean, which is a good sign. I blocked over the plain areas I wanted keeping clean with a mask of hand cut duct tape to be on the safe side. The resulting etch on the right – it too will be oxidised to show the detail, which I hope will look like a sketch on the metal.

The finished piece, oxidised and the flat polished surface partially polished back and hanging from
a heavy weight hand made oval jump ring.

My head is now fit to burst with the ideas tumbling over each other in there waiting to see the light. I just need to fine tune my workflow to make it more economic to make things to sell, the method at the moment is a little too work intensive to be profitable.

These are a couple of smaller pendants using the abstract designs I created by coarsely halftoning some photographs – one using a square ‘dot’ and the other was a linear pattern – the resist for the square one is shown above. I’ve finished them simply, with a very chunky oval shaped jump ring to keep the costs down by reducing the amount of work I do on them (they’re already quite labour intensive) – I like the tube bails I’ve used recently, but these add to the time I spend on a piece.