I am finally doing it!  Getting out of retail sales (except for in-class supplies) so I can focus on teaching.  Fabulous prices on CZs, lab grown gems, dichroic glass, enamels, books, dvds, tools, textures, and other metal clay related stuff!

I have a huge collection of natural gems as well, but it will take me at least another week to get them up on the website–rainbow moonstone, grey and pink moonstone, all colors of sapphires, ruby, amethyst, citrine, topaz, peridot, and more.

www.medacreations.com 

Mary Ellin

Hi All,

Just on the off chance that you haven’t already heard about it, the metal clay community has organized a way to donate to the tsunami & nuclear disasters in Japan as a group by donating to ShelterBox.orgTO LEARN MORE OR JOIN THE GROUP DONATION, CLICK HERE.  Our hearts and sympathy go to the people of Japan affected by the disasters.  Let’s add a little lucre to help speed them on their way to recovery too.

The PMC Guild is sponsoring a survey to get a better handle on what people are interested in terms of products.  If you fill out the survey, you will be automatically entered in a drawing to win 25g of PMC.  TO TAKE THE SURVEY, CLICK HERE.

 

by Mary Ellin D’Agostino

Ah, a brand new package of metal clay! There are no bumps, lumps, bits of toothpick, cat hairs, or other detritus in it. The moisture is just right and I can make it do what I want it to do. It is always so tempting to open up a new package of clay for my projects. But what about all those abandoned un-fired projects? The lump of too-dry clay in the package that didn’t get quite closed? The trimmings from the last several projects? And what about the clay that got too much badger balm on it? I gave up on that bit a while ago and it is still waiting for me to get back to it. Not to mention the earlier attempt at re-hydrating old clay that I got too much water in.

I already have scads of paste and don’t have any paste-only projects planned.

With the price of silver so high, it is time to get back to re-constituting that old clay. Even the bronze and copper clay scraps have piled up and it is hard to justify opening a new package when I have so very much clay already opened.

No matter what type of metal clay you have, being able to get it back to a good working consistency is a great skill to have and there are many approaches to the project.

Rehydrating Dried Clay
The basics are to grind the clay into a fine powder and slowly add distilled water while mixing or kneading until you get it to the right consistency. Personally, I use a mortar and pestle to break up big lumps, then use a coffee grinder to turn it into powder, sift through a bit of brass screen, then spritz with water and mix. Too much water and you will need to either add more powdered clay or leave the mess open so the excess water will evaporate. Whenever I have this problem, I usually forget it, and come back after it has become too dry! LOL.

There are good instructions on how to reconstitute completely dried clay at

Once you have it in powder form, Hadar Jacobson’s directions for mixing metal clay are fantastic as well.

Maggie Bergman’s method is great for rehydrating whole pieces that you abandoned by putting it between layers of moistened sponge until it re-absorbs the water. Try one or more methods and see which works better for you.

Once the clay has enough (or almost enough) moisture, use the methods described below.

Too Dry to Work
Sometimes clay is too dry to work with—too stiff or crumbly—but not completely dry. My favorite way to deal with this problem (or to continue the rehydration process for dried clay) is to place the offending clay on a cut up plastic bag (this is thicker and sturdier than most plastic wraps), add a spritz or drop of water (sparingly!), fold the plastic over the clay and roll until it is flattened. Open the plastic, fold up the clay, and repeat until the clay seems to be consistent and all lumps are crushed into submission. You can add a little water as you go if it seems necessary, but use less than you think you need.

Finally, and I have never found a substitute for this step, roll and knead the clay in your (lightly greased) hands until it is the desired consistency. You will quickly find out if it is still too dry or too wet. If it is too wet, use one of your tools to scrape the mess off your hands and put back onto the plastic. Then, either add some powdered clay to the mess and go back to working in the plastic or leave it exposed to the air so it dries a bit and try again later.

Crumbly or Hard to Work
If you overwork even new clay it can become cracky and difficult to make it do what you want. Sometimes even when it has the right amount of moisture, the clay just doesn’t work right; it is overly cracky and you can’t make a coil or piece you can manipulate because it just breaks. The easy, but inelegant solution to this is to make a form that doesn’t require a lot of manipulation or finishing. A better solution is to work a few drops of glycerin into the clay. A drop or two of lavender or citrus essential oil is beneficial and will keep mold and mildew from growing on the clay.

It may help to let the clay rest and the water and/or new ingredients to meld into the binders overnight. While “resting” the binders fully absorb the water, glycerin, and essential oil and are re-activated so they are effective again.

Too Much Oil or Balm
Overworked clay often has too much oil or balm on it from your heavily greased tools or hands. This will give you the crumbly, hard to work, cracky problem. Often, if you just spritz a bit of water onto it, wrap in plastic, store and let sit overnight, the clay will be workable. The next thing to try is to add a bit of glycerin. If letting the clay rest and the addition of glycerin doesn’t work, your next best bet is to add more clay to the lump to dilute the grease. This can be fresh clay or reconstituted clay. Mix them together then knead/fold/roll in plastic until it becomes workable again. Letting it rest after mixing is a good idea.

Contamination
But what about the fibers, hair, and other bits of stuff that get in the clay? If you are grinding and sifting the clay, you can remove many of these bits of fluff and stuff during the process. Little dust bunnies form and can be picked out of the clay powder with a tweezers.

Another approach that is especially good if your slip has too many fibers or contaminants in it is to add water until the clay/paste is thin enough to force through a piece of gauze (the kind of gauzy nylon used for sheer window curtains) into a clean container. I usually stretch the fabric over a jar and hold in place with a rubber band. Then I use a pallet knife to force the paste through the mesh. All the lumps and contaminants stay behind and the good paste ends up in the jar. You can either use this as paste or let it dry back to clay consistency. As for the contaminated mess left on the cloth, you can scrape it off and use it for texture, heat bits of it with a torch until they melt to create your own casting grain, or just add it to your recycle bin to be sent to the refinery.

I have found that these steps will revitalize all my problem clays. I hope this helps. Let me know if I have left anything out or if you have a different approach to solving these problems.

by Mary Ellin D’Agostino

While it is clear that we almost always need a bit of slippery stuff when working with metal clays, I am often asked questions about what type, how much, where, and when to use it. Feel free to chime in if I leave anything out!

Why Oil?
Why do we need to grease up? Metal clay can be sticky. It can cling to your hands, tools, textures, and work surfaces. Some days it behaves politely and doesn’t seem to stick much; other days it gets all over everything. Some brands or formulations of clay are stickier than others. Reconstituting clay is a particularly messy and gummy process.

Very often, the answer is to grease up. But not too much. Too much oil will make it hard for you to make strong connections between pieces of clay or to get the lines out of that clay you just wadded up and are re-rolling for another try. What you really want is a light coating of grease.

The type you use is not very important, but there are a few do’s and don’ts. Do use natural or organic oils or balms. These can be plain olive or other cooking oils, spray cooking oils, hand-lip-body balms, or “official” metal clay “release agents.”

Don’t use petroleum based products—anything that includes petrolatum or similar ingredients because these can degrade the binders in metal clays. If you do use a petroleum based product and you form and fire your metal clay object soon after, you may not have a problem. If you store the clay for some time and the binders have degraded, you may find the clay ends up crumbly instead of workable. If you have this problem you can often shape the clay, but may not be able to do fine finishing without damaging the piece. If the binder is degraded and the clay is too fragile to shape after drying, you can make simple forms or elements that don’t need fine finishing or that can be finished after firing.

I like balms because they don’t spill in my kit or on my work table. The brand doesn’t really matter (I use Badger Balm) as long as they are not petroleum based. Most contain ingredients like olive oil, beeswax, and essential oils. You can get them scented or unscented. These are great for hands, tools, work surfaces, and textures.

Cooking oils are great. They are cheap and found in almost any kitchen. I tend to spill bottles of oil. To keep your work area safe from a large oil slick, place a piece of sponge in a shallow container (preferably one you have a lid for) and saturate it with the cooking oil. This will give you a non-spillable source of oil.

Spray oils, whether of the cooking type or a metal clay specific brand can work well, but they are at the mercy of the spray nozzle. Some of these give a fine mist. Others spit gobs of oil. For safety sake, always spray against a solid surface (table, paper towel, or whatever) rather than over the floor. Keep in mind that the extra oil will end up on the floor and create a slipping hazard.

Hands
If you do have dry hands, be sure to moisten your hands with warm water and pat them dry before applying any of the hand creams, balms, or barriers. If you just go straight to the grease, you will have dry greasy hands that will suck the moisture from your metal clay. It is also very important to let the cream or barrier to soak into your hands before doing anything else. This makes a huge difference and is something you should do anytime you use moisturizer—not just when working with metal clays.

Spend the minute or two it takes the balm to soak in before you start working meditating, mentally rehearsing your design plan, or visually checking to make sure you have all the tools and supplies you need. You will know you are ready when you don’t have any greasy or visible residue on your hands. If you really over-do it with the grease and it hasn’t soaked in after 5 minutes, go ahead and rub the extra onto your arms or wherever else you need a little moisturizer. If you get into this habit, you will have a much easier time with the clay and cleaning your hands after working.

The options listed above are great for all metal clay applications. Here are a couple more that are just for the hands that are a boon for those of us with dry skin: Some people swear by Gloves In a Bottle, Bee Balm, and similar products. Some of these products are petroleum based, so you really don’t want to over use them and you want to be sure the lotion has completely soaked into your hands before starting to work.

My own personal favorite for dry hands is lanolin. This is an inexpensive natural product that is used to protect and seal the skin. It comes from sheep and is what keeps sheep’s wool water resistant. I have found lanolin to be the best and longest lasting product available. Rub on your just-washed and lightly dried hands until it is worked into your skin. I usually find this in the baby care section of the drug store. Just be sure to get the pure lanolin (lanolin usp), or you might end up smelling like diaper rash cream. You don’t need the extra expensive one for nursing mothers as that one is food-grade. You can buy pure lanolin online as well.

Where Else?
Rollers, textures and work surfaces may also need some grease when they are new. Once you get a very thin coating of grease on your tools, you don’t usually have to re-apply unless you have cleaned off all the lubricant. Also, some work surfaces need lubricant, others don’t. I use cheap ceramic tiles in my studio and these do need a little lubrication, but once they are “seasoned” I never have to re-lube unless I determinedly wash with hot water and dish soap. Rollers and most textures (brass, rubber, cloth, etc.) will also need some release agent applied to them before being used the first time.

When applying balm to deep textures, you may find Sherry Fotopolous’ trick of using an old toothbrush helpful for lubing up all the recesses and not leaving too much balm clogging up the texture. The toothbrush is great for cleaning those deep rubber stamp textures as well.

When I use cloth for a texture, I add some oil and scrunch and roll the cloth in my hands until it the entire surface is well coated. Nylon and polyester lace and cloth are best because the clay doesn’t usually stick to them. Cotton and other natural fibers are a bigger problem, but if you coat natural fibers with a release, you can often get a good impression without the clay sticking and becoming embedded in the cloth. Be sure to roll the slab out most of the way on a smooth work surface and only do the final rolling on the cloth. This technique of pre-rolling your slab is good practice no matter what type of texture you are using.

On the Clay?!
Alternatively, you can apply the balm to your slab of clay before the final roll on the texture. This is my favorite technique. I roll my clay out a little thicker (1-2 playing cards) than I intend the final piece to be on my smooth work surface, apply a thin layer of balm or oil on the entire surface of clay with my finger, then lay it on the texture (or vice versa), and make the final roll. The balm spreads smoothly and evenly with the clay and works as a barrier/lubricant between the clay and the texture. Apply balm to both sides of the clay if you both sides of the clay if you are rolling between two layers of texture.

The downside to this last technique is that if you do it too often to the same piece of clay, you can end up adding too much lubricant to the clay. So don’t think you can oil, roll, scrunch up, and repeat indefinitely! If you do find you have added too much lubricant, check out my post on Clay Consistency for tips on reconditioning your over-lubed clay.

by Mary Ellin D’Agostino

Ok, so you have rolled and rolled and rolled and just can’t get that perfectly sized, even, and smooth slab to create your masterpiece in metal clay. Cracks, seams, thicker in the middle, raggedy edges…

What is the problem? Aaarrrggghhh!

Whether you are a beginner or a pro, there are a few things to keep in mind when trying to roll your clay out into the perfect slab.

Start Larger
If you are consistently getting a reasonably good center to your rolled slab, but the edges are raggedy, one simple solution is to start with a larger ball or slug (a cylindrical fat pre-form) of clay and trim the slab to the desired shape and size after rolling. This is not the perfect solution, but if it gets you what you want, it is good enough. Of course, this only works if you have extra clay.

The Un-seamed Ball
If you have problems with visible lines in the clay or a ragged edge, it is often due to not having a good pre-form of clay. If you have a freshly opened pat of metal clay you can just roll it out. More often, when working with clay we need to roll it into a ball or a slug that will then be rolled flat into a slab or round into a coil/snake. If there are seams in the clay ball or slug, they often interfere with creating that smooth, consistent slab.

To form a consistent ball without seams, you need to roll it between your lightly greased palms while applying pressure. It doesn’t have to be perfectly round. The key is to press all the seams, lines, and imperfections out—forcing the clay to join to itself.

This is an absolutely fundamental skill to perfect for the metal clay artisan.A good pre-form will create a good slab or coil.

Too wet, too dry, too greasy…? Another key is to have clay of the proper consistency. Aim for the consistency of silver clay right out of the package. It should be pliable, stick to itself easily, but not to your lightly greased hands.

I will write a post on clay consistency problems and solutions later.

Slats, Cards, and Spacers
The next key is to have good spacing tools. There are scads of spacing tools out there. It seems like every company and teacher has a different solution for this essential slab rolling tool. Almost all of the ones being sold commercially will work, but each solution has its pros and cons.

The key is that you have at least two consistent and matching spacers in the thickness you want your slab to be and two a little thicker than you want it to be. A full range of sizes is great!

Stacking up poker playing cards is an easy and cheap solution (just use that deck that is missing the 3 of clubs). You can tape or glue the cards together to create more stable stacks. I like to use popsicle sticks and wooden coffee stirrers — they come in a range of sizes and you can buy them if you need a lot or just grab a couple at the local coffee shop (buy something so you compensate the shop!).

Place the thicker-than-you-want slats on your work surface on either side of the clay pre-form and use your roller to roll out the clay. You may need to flatten the pre-form a little before rolling. The slats will help you roll the clay to a smooth, even thickness (more on this later). Pick up the clay and lay it on your (greased!) texture and re-roll using the slats that are the thickness you want. The key here is that the pre-rolled slab will be less prone to getting stuck into/onto many textures (cloth, paper, & rubber stamps) than if you just roll from ball to slab directly on the texture.

Round?
You often don’t want a perfectly round pre-form. When rolled out, the round ball becomes an oval. If you want it to roll out round, you actually want to start with an ovoid or cylindrical form. Perfectly round is difficult to achieve when just rolling out the clay. Circle cutters or templates are your friends.

The easiest way to get a truly round slab is to roll it larger and then use a circle cutter or template. Another way is to start with a round ball, place it on your work surface (or between sheets of plastic) with the slats or cards around it and use a Plexiglas snake roller (or other smooth, flat, rigid object) to press directly downward.

Metal Clay Memory
Ever notice that it always ends up thicker in the middle? It is especially vexing if you are trying to create a large slab that is a consistent thickness.

Why does it do that? Aaarrrggghhh!

Believe it or not, the cause is the same reason it is sometimes difficult to create that un-seamed pre-form. Metal, clay, and metal clay have memories. Yep, no brain, no mind, but they do have material memories. Like plastic or rubber, metal clays want to go back to the last stable shape or position they were in, so you have to convince them that a new position or shape is where they want to be.

Ever roll out dough for a pie shell? That stuff really springs back after rolling. You have to roll it, rotate it, roll it again, rotate it, roll it again…. until you get it to remain in the size, shape, and thickness desired.

Happily, metal clay isn’t quite so elastic, but you will get a more consistent slab if you roll the slab along one axis, then rotate the slats and clay 90° and roll again. It can also help to start rolling from the center outward in one direction, then return to center and roll in the other direction rather than rolling from one end to the other.

Warping
If you are having trouble with the clay sticking to a rigid work surface or if you are creating an especially thin slab, you might want to work between flexible work surface sheets (Teflon, cut up plastic bags, or sheet protectors). A flexible work surface can really help you get the clay off when it is time to move it. Otherwise, let it dry completely and it should slip off your work surface. If you find that the clay is warping as it dries (especially if you are drying with heat), you can try letting the clay dry naturally in the open air or place it on a permeable surface such as a paper towel or piece of cloth so it can dry on both sides evenly.

Another cause of warping and unevenness can be picking up the clay. When you lift up the clay and peel it off of the work surface, you actually stretch it, so if you are trying to create precision pieces like matching earrings, you don’t want to pick it up after the final roll. Instead, let it dry flat on the work surface.

But how do I dry it on a permeable surface, work it on a smooth (non-porous) surface, and get it to dry without warping? Aaarrrggghhh!

This is a problem. If anyone has found a permeable, non-sticking, flat work surface, please let all of us know what it is!

In life and art there are seldom perfect solutions for things and this is one of those situations. If your piece is reasonably thick and not too large, just let it dry on the work surface before moving it. If the piece is very thin and large, you may opt to do the final rolling on cloth (greased sheer synthetic cloth with an even and fine weave works better than natural fiber cloth) or between cloth and your texture surface. When you pick it up on the cloth, the whole thing can be placed in/on your drying device. If you are using a flat heated surface, you may want to put a screen or a few layers of cloth or paper towels under the piece to ensure air circulation. If you can’t live with a cloth texture, roll the slab slightly thicker than desired and sand it after drying.

To minimize warping, drying without heat is better than with heat. If the piece is still warped after drying and appears to be otherwise acceptable, you can moisten it slightly, place it between layers of cloth or paper towels with a weight on top of it and re-dry it. I will write more on the warping issue later.

And I thought this would be a short post! I am sure there is more to say on this subject and look forward to additional comments, suggestions, and insights!

At the PMC Guild Conference last week, two new metal clay products were announced.

Metal Adventures Quick Fire Bronze was released and sample packages were distributed to conference attendees.  I haven’t tried mine yet, but it should be another advance in the base metal clay toolkit.
Mitsubishi announced and demonstrated their PMC PRO, but it won’t be available until October.  After Firing it is 90% silver and 10% undisclosed metals.  They will tell us about the other metals in October when it is released.  I have the impression they are holding back until all the patents & etc. are properly filed.  It is stronger than the fine silver metal clays, but at only 90% silver cannot be hallmarked as sterling (92.5% silver).  They are suggesting a 1 hour firing in carbon.  It looks promising for rings and pieces that need more strength, but the lower than sterling content may make it a harder sell.

If you can’t wait for PMC Pro to come out, you can experiment with making your own Sterling  or Shibuichi alloys, you can read about them in my article on Married Metal Clays

by Mary Ellin D’Agostino

Where there is fire…

…there are smoke and fumes. Plus, we have to deal with dust from metal clays, enamels, and other materials we work with in our studios.  This is the first installment in a series on the health and safety issues metal clay artists need to consider.

While the binders in silver clay are non-toxic, fumes and particulates from firing are not great to breathe.  Smoke from metal clays is similar to those you get when burning food.  Those are not great to breathe either, but not necessarily something to cause panic (unless the burning goes too far and your house catches on fire!).  You can read reports on organic gasses released during firing on the PMC Guild website.  The Manufacturers’ Data Safety Sheets (MSDS) for PMC Silver and Art Clay Silver may also be useful.  All confirm the non-toxic nature of silver clay binders.

All of them also say to have “adequate ventilation” when firing.  So just what is adequate ventilation?  Linda Kaye-Moses believes that we should be thinking “active” rather than just “adequate” ventilation. An open window and/or doorway make a good start, but not usually enough for even “adequate” where toxic fumes are involved. A fan that blows air from an open window or door toward another open window creating a cross breeze and flow of fresh air is a lot better for general room ventilation.  However, if your work creates a localized source of dust or fumes, a fume hood or filtration system that will suck away the contaminated air is a good idea.  Such a system may also be required in cases where there are not multiple windows and doors that can be opened or when weather makes open windows not an option.  Excellent discussions and advice can be found on the Ganoksin jeweler’s forum by doing a search on “ventilation,” “workshop safety,” or scanning their archives.  Two excellent places to start are Charles Lewton Brain’s articles on Basic Safety Principles, Ventilation in Your Jewelry Workshop,   Jewelry Workshop Safety Report, and Brandney W. Simon’s  Workshop Air Quality.  When you read these articles, you will find links to paid advertisements selling ventilation equipment. There are is a whole lot more on the Ganoksin archives, including discussions and directions for building your own fume hood.  Ganoksin and its Orchid discussion forum is the best resource for jewelers on the web.

If the only concern is dust rather than fumes, a true HEPA air filter of the type sold for home allergy sufferers may be sufficient for your needs.   These can be placed in front of your work area to suck up any airborne dust down to 4 microns in size.  I use HEPA air filters originally purchased for my house-dust allergy.  These are an economical solution for the hobbyist and small scale artisan who is not working with materials that produce fumes.  High production studios, may want to investigate further and purchase filters designed for industrial use.  No matter what type of filter you have, be sure to change the carbon pre- and HEPA filters regularly.  For studio use, you may have to replace them more frequently than for standard household use.

If the concern is also fumes from the materials being used (resins, soldering, firing, & etc.), you should have a filtration system or fume hood that pulls both dust and fumes away and either filters them before returning the air to the room or vents to the outdoors.  Brands include HAKKO, Sentry Air Systems, Electrocorp, Vaniman, Lab-Air, and others—I know, I should include links here, but I am lazy and these names give you a place to start an internet search.  Some of these units are portable and have hoses that can be positioned to focus on your work area.

Further Reading:

The US EPA has an excellent  page with information on comparing the various air purifying technologies and a guide to issues in indoor air quality.  I know the government info is far from perfect, but these sites are great places to start lo0king for reliable information before moving on to the industry, muck-raking, and alarmist sites that pepper the internet.

Coming Soon:
Dust, Fumes, Smoke, and Fire: Part 2:

A discussion of the health and safety risks surrounding the powdered silver, gold, copper, and bronze used in metal clays.

© 2010 Mary Ellin D’Agostino