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.

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.