Monday, December 21, 2015

Steel Clay: A Peek into my Playtime with a new (to me) Metal Clay

by Staci Louise Smith

I have been playing in metal clay for almost 13 years now.  I just dabble really.  I started out using PMC and have moved to copper and bronze clay with the rise of silver prices (and the size of my pieces growing each year!)

I found that when I started PMC there was a world of books and tutorials and information on the clay- how to use it and fire it.

However, when the base metal clays began to take stage, there was barely anything out there on them.  I think because there are so many, and some of them, like bronze, can be finicky, there is just no sure fire way to get it right each time (pun intended!)  Firing bronze takes some real trial and error to figure out how to properly fire your pieces.

(one of my bronze moons below)

In the process, I have tried white copper clay, because I wanted a silver substitute.  I didn't like it.  It tarnishes a bit like silver plate pieces do, and I didn't like the look of that (sort of a brown tarnish).

So I finally took the plunge and bought some steel clay.  I have been checking into Hadar Jacobson's steel clay on and off for years, but it always was a deal breaker for me, because it said it was brittle after being fired.  To me, steel should be strong, and I want my metal clays coming out of the kiln with all the qualities of the metals they are.

Well, I checked recently to see what is new in the steel clay world, and found she made low shrinkage XT steel clay now, and it says its sturdy enough to stand on its own as a base.  So I bought some- back in August.  I was hoping to have some NEW steel pieces to sell at Beadfest, and jumped right into making a batch.  However, when I went to fire it in my kiln, I realized it fires WAY higher then bronze and my kiln wouldn't go that high.

(Steel clay low shrinkage XT fires around 1700-1750 degrees F).

So, after Beadfest I invested in a new kiln for myself.  Not only can it do steel clay, but it can also do ceramic.  (I bought ceramic clay as well, I can't wait to play with that!)  

Last week I finally hooked up the new kiln, made some more steel clay components, and tried out my new ceramic firing vessel at the same time! 

I must say, I LOVE how they turned out.  

Now, I know that steel rusts.  So, I wasn't sure how quickly this would rust, or how much I would have to seal it to prevent it from rusting.  

Well, let me tell you, it rusts pretty fast!

After tumbling the steel, I took it out and set it on a paper plate and paper towel to dry out a bit.  I didn't get in to sand and polish it right away.  By the time I got in here, about an hour later, it was already rusting.  It didn't rust much on the pieces, but the water that was draining off was rusty.  You can see here on the plate the rust that was left.

So I put them back into the water in hopes they would stop rusting.  I pulled each one out as I was ready to sand and polish it and dried it off really good.

Then I used a fine sanding pad to buff the high spots


Then I used a polish cloth to shine it up a bit

then they looked like these

After that I used Clear Guard to seal them.  I left two unsealed, and lightly sprayed them with water.  After a couple days, they look like this.  There is some slight rust in the unsanded recessed areas.

 I need to put another coat of sealer on the others before I test them.  Once I have sealed them a few times, I want to spray them, and put some in water, and see how it holds up to rust.  

In the meantime, here are my thoughts so far on the Low Shrinkage Steel XT:

1.  It is easy to mix and work with.
2.  It fires in one stage at full ramp, so that is a perk for me
3.  It does require a kiln that fires up to 1750 F
4.  It must be fired in carbon
5.  I really like the antique look of the metal once cleaned up and can see it fitting in with my work
6.  My only hesitation about it is rust.  So, I will work on making sure I find a way to create with it and not have it change over time.  (I will do a follow up on the post once I experiment some more)

For more information on Hadar's clays and how to fire them, check here

Stay tuned for a follow up post about how the steel clay holds up once sealed!  


thecolorofdreams said...

Wow, really good information and so interesting. Your finished pieces look great! I look forward to hearing about your next experiment.

Sasha Crow said...

Love the look of the steel! Thanks so much for sharing the process of your experiments. Having a decent kiln opens up so many possibilities for creating! Congrats!

I am on an opposite path than you are re kiln -- I've been using mine solely for ceramics and now that I somewhat have ceramics down, I want to play with metal clays. I am wondering if you can recommend the best book/video tutorial for starting out with metal clays? I am primarily interested in using copper and bronze.

Thanks again for sharing!

stacilouise said...

Sasha, I have this book and it was VERY helpful when I started doing bronze clay. I haven't found anything else on the base metal clays. They are so variable- there is just a lot of "shoot for this, if it doesn't work, adjust" when working with them. I found copper to be the best and most consistent results for me, but it shrinks more. I love the look of fast fire bronze clay, but it can REALLY be finicky. over firing, not sintering thoroughly. I do recommend this book as a great place to stat though.
Bronze metal clay by yvonne padilla

Leona said...

Hi, Staci. I am an accredited Hadar's instructor. I would not tumble steel in water - as you found out that will speed up any rust process. I hand finish all my pieces and seal the steel with an acrylic spray (I use PYMII) With Hadar's clay, the best source of information is from Hadar's website and blog itself. Secondary sites do not always keep their information as up to date as Hadar. Her blog is located at There is also a facebook group for Hadar's Clay users where questions can be asked and answered.
Steel is a great choice as it is unexpectedly light and can be polished to a high shine or can be heat or cold patina'd. Hadar has even tumbled steel in flat coke for a different patina. Enjoy your steel clay journey.

Lu Heater said...

More & more I am interested in metal clays. I have a medium-sized ceramic kiln which uses cones. I use a #2 cone to fire earthenware bisque. My question....does anyone have an idea how to transfer a ceramic kiln (which uses a variety of temperature-sensitive cones) into a metal clay kiln? BTW, I absolutely love this blog...I read every word of every issue and then save them! Thank You!

Carol Dekle said...

I love how they turned out Staci! The metal has an industrial aged look that is amazing! I hope the sealer prevents the rust from happening, and these will become a regular part of your work. Keep us posted! Congrats on the new kiln!

Saurabh Jain said...

Really like this Raw metal look makes it very unique and attractive. Looking forward for your next thing.

Deb said...

I have a couple of questions for you. I have worked with clay for a long long time and use a kiln with a cone sitter. Do you mean that steel clay can be fired in a ceramic kiln that shuts off when the 1700 degrees is reached? Or does the temp need to hold like other metal clays. This has been my challenge with metal clays since they fire differently. Also, I know that steel wire can be enameled like copper. It would be awesome if the steel clay could be torched and enameled!

stacilouise said...

Leona- thank you so much for the updated links! I am loving steel clay- and it is really light, which is great for larger earring components!
Hand polishing does seem the way to go with these though, the water definitely caused pretty quick rust.

stacilouise said...

Deb- yes, these have a hold time as with other metal clays, and you fire them in carbon as well. You can use the link Leona provided above to check out Hadars site, and here is a link to firing tips and instructions as well.

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