Thursday, September 20, 2012

Base Metal Clays

by Staci Louise Smith

Silver metal clay was my first love.  I love silver jewelry. 

(some of my silver work)

 However, when the price of silver jumped, I bailed and had to try out this base metal clay. I started with fast fire bronze, since the ONLY book I could find at the time was this one.  (and its a good one too- I recommend it)
I bought the book, clay, and the firing tools I needed. I got a second set of dry working tools and I was off.  I am by far no expert, but I will share a little bit about this medium, since there is just not a lot of information out there. 
First I will start by saying, I only bought a second set of dry working tools, since I could wash the clay off my other tools more easily so it wouldn't contaminate my silver clay.  However, for sanding and filing I got a second set.  Its worth it, because if you get bronze clay bits in your silver its going to ruin it. 
From all the people I have talked to, the only sure way to fire bronze and copper clay is in a kiln. So I highly recommend firing in a kiln, in carbon.
Not all carbons are created equal, and this is where the guess work and playing around starts.  I have tried many carbons before ending up with one I like.  It's a personal preference really, they all offer various finishes.  I have talked with people who don't think they all fire the same either. 
You will also have to choose a firing container.  I used my good old stainless steel container for about 6 months. 
However, stainless steel is messy, and will spall, creating a black build up in your kiln.  So when Cool Tools came out with firing foil to make your own pan, with no mess, I bought it.  I loved it, for about a year.  It's inexpensive, and keeps you kiln clean, but it eventually wears down, and mine got holes in it, and then items near the holes were over-firing (bubbling). 

So I may go back to my good old stainless steel.  There are also these new ceramic firing vessels I'd like to try. I hear good things about them.  Perhaps down the road I will try them as well.  They maintain a better heat, so you have to reduce the firing temp while using them. 

Am I making you want to try this product?  There is honestly a lot of guesswork, and a lot of figuring every time you change a variable.  There are a lot of failures.  You get guidelines for firing, and most times they are good, but depending on the thickness and size of your pieces, and the age of your carbon, and the placement in your firing container, you can end up with pieces that are under fired, bubble or burst,
and you may never figure out what caused it either. 
I always try to hammer my pieces when they come out of the kiln, to ensure they are fired properly.  They should not crack or break.  If they do, they are under fired.

All in all, I love the look of bronze and copper clay. I love the price.  Even if I lose one or two pieces in each firing, it still is economical for me.  I am also someone who is open to learning via mistake, and doesn't mind a BIG learning curve, so for me, it works.  It may not be for everyone.
Working in bronze clay is a bit trickier at the "wet clay" stage,  then the copper.  It doesn't want to stick to itself as easily as copper clay.  So for working with the clays, I prefer the copper.   I think the copper tends to fire more consistently also.  But for finished results, I prefer the look of bronze, and its my go-to clay for making components.  I use fast fire bronze, and it shrinks MUCH less then the copper as well, and that's another bonus for me, since I like my pieces to have some good chunk to them.  Here are two pieces, one in copper, one in bronze, that i used the same mold for.  You can see the shrinkage difference.
The Moon Baby Focal is done in bronze (and has a patina) and the single wing is made from the same mold, in copper. 

I prefer using molds for the bronze clay, since its sooo hard to get it to stick to itself, its very difficult to hand build things.  I often rivet  finished pieces that were molded, to copper backings or add them to polymer when finished to add more dimension and depth, because its hard to achieve with the base metal clays.  (my hat is off to those who successfully do add dimension, such as Lee Ann of Summer Studio's and her 3-d bronze beads, that is no easy task!)

Above are mine, and below are LeAnn's beads. 
Here are a couple places for information on bronze and copper clay.
So, for those of you who have been working with this medium, what was your most epic fail, or your greatest break through?  Do you have a favorite place to gather information on metal clay?


SummersStudio said...

I have had too many epic failures to narrow things down to just one. I'd say my greatest learning resource is trial and error. Like you say, the base metal clays are a little trickier to fire than silver and you do end up losing a fair number of pieces. But I love the color of bronze in particular. Oh, and I don't really have any magic trick to the beads. Some stick together and others don't.

ciaolucia said...

Great information. I love the copper vessel bead!

Kristen said...

WoW what a great source of information. I had wondered so many things about working with this clay and you answered most of them which totally means I will leave it up to you and others to create this art! LOL

Patti Van said...

This was excellent post, Staci! I will be getting a kiln in the near future for just this purpose. Thanks for all the info! PS: All the pieces in this post are fabulous, thank you for sharing!

Erika said...

Thanks for this information, Staci. I've been curious about how the metal clays work and whether you needed a kiln, etc. I think metal clay is fascinating! And I love your metal clay components!

Kimberly said...

I took a class in PMC silver about a dozen years ago and found that my hands didn't like working that small. I still have the unfired finished charm pieces that I tried and never wanted to reprogram my controller for the kiln to fire it. How lame is that?
Maybe I ought to send them to you so you can fire them for me! I've been thinking of selling the tools and such that I bought. Of course the silver is all dried up now.

I like the way you put this post together, though. I doesn't seem as daunting as when I've read about the base metal clays and their persnicketiness.
I think I'm just sticking to glass for now and running with it.

Joryel Vera said...

When something is created by yourself, it makes a special place in your heart. So is the case with jewelry, thus I mostly trying to create my jewelry by myself. Your stuff is really nice. I wish you have provided the method as well… hoping this in your next post.. thanks…

Silver jewelry Fort Lauderdale

stregajewellry said...

I am so glad to read about other people's epic fails! I had about given up on the bronz clay! I had one whole firing that was nothing but "dust" when I took it out of the kiln. Have no idea why. My worst problem is with size. I will fire matching earring components, both in the same position in the kiln, and have one shrink more than the other. SIGH. I do love the bronz clay though. It's so easy to work with.

Kelli said...

Great info. I bought some bronze clay before I knew it required kiln firing. Now that I have a kiln I need to give it a shot.

Linda said...

Although I don't work with metal clay, I found this post facinating. I always enjoy learning about the process behind the art components that I purchase. It gives me a deeper understanding of the skill required to create the piece. Thanks for sharing, Staci!

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