I feel like a traitor. My love for metal clay is no secret, and when I first started learning traditional metalsmithing, I participated in more than one debate about which was “better” or, more specifically, found myself defending metal clay to more traditional metalsmiths as a “worthy” medium .
And then, from out of nowhere, just last week I said to a friend, “The real beauty of metal clay is in texture. Other than texture, there’s not much you can do with metal clay that you can’t do faster, cheaper, and easier with traditional metal sheet.” Gasp! As soon as I said it, I had a vision of a little metal clay guy looking sad and forlorn. “You too?” he seemed to say. “What about all the other stuff? The FUN stuff?”
Yes, I’d forgotten the fun stuff, the other wonderful qualities of metal clay, like its variety of form (it also comes in paper, veneer, paste, and syringe), its ease of use, its ability to be joined without soldering, and its ability to be carved, among others–plus the one that drew me to it in the first place, its magic.
The Magic of Metal Clay
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying metal sheet isn’t fun, but there’s just something about the combination of playing with metal clay in your hands (like playing with clay or PlayDoh as a child)–and it later resulting in metal jewelry–that is amazing. Rolling and coiling and carving and stamping it, all fun–and don’t forget that metal clay has the playing-with-fire factor, just like metalwork. Sure, metal fabrication has hammering, and hammering’s my favorite, but you can texture and hammer on fired metal clay pieces, too, because they’re real metal after proper firing.
Just about anything that metal sheet can do, metal clay can do, too, and I love to see artists who recognize that and work the combination to their advantage. It’s truly the best of both worlds, allowing for the maximum variety in techniques and skills related to metal.
One thing that metal clay does that metal sheet doesn’t do is dry up, and I found a whole dried-up package on my bench recently. Fortunately we can reconstitute metal clay, and not just as slip–you can turn dried metal clay back into workable metal clay in just a few simple steps. Here’s how.1. Crush dried metal clay in a mortar with a pestle. Pound the clay hard to break down all the lumps and then grind in a circular motion until you have a fine powder. 2. Optional: Use a tea strainer to sift out the most stubborn bits of dried clay and grind them again. If they don’t cooperate, discard them. (Editor’s note: Thanks to a comment from a smart reader, there’s a better option than discarding here. Fire those stubborn hard bits like you would regular metal clay designs. Then you can recycle it like other scrap silver. You can also hammer it out, texture it, maybe patina it, and work it into a jewelry design, because it is, after all, regular metal at that point.) Store the powder to be reconstituted later or continue with the next steps to do it now. 3. Put most of the powder on a large ceramic tile, saving some to add later if the mixture gets too wet. Use an eyedropper or spray bottle to add a very small amount of water at a time, starting with just a few drops or sprays. Mix with a palette knife or spatula, scraping from the outside in as you go. Just add enough water to moisten the clay and work it together until you have the consistency of breadcrumbs. Add a little more powder if it gets too wet. 4. Keep mixing until the clay begins to clump together. You can also add glycerin to help the clay retain water, but use it very sparingly (about a drop per ten grams of clay). 5. Lightly oil your hands with vegetable oil or a lubricant like Badger Balm (whatever you use on your hands when you’re creating with metal clay) and begin working the clay with your fingers. If it won’t hold together, add another drop or two of water. 6. Knead the clay well in your fingers. If it feels grainy, put it under plastic wrap and roll it out very thinly. Fold in half and roll again, repeating until the lumpiness disappears. Voila! Wrap the reconstituted clay in plastic wrap and let it rest for at least an hour before using it as you would fresh clay.
Whether you’re new to metal clay entirely, a metalsmith wondering about this strange metal form, or an old pro at metal clay looking for a great all-in-one resource, Sue Heaser’s book Metal Clay for Jewelry Makers: A Complete Technique Guide is for you. From the basics of working with and maintaining metal clay and complete firing instructions (torch, kiln and gas stove, for all kinds of clay), to an overview of additional techniques to use with metal clay (resin, enamel, riveting, soldering, polymer clay, glass, and more) and mixing different clays–and so much more–Metal Clay for Jewelry Makers is a thorough guide that belongs in the studio of every metal clay jewelry artist. The handy step-by-step technique to reconstitute metal clay above came from this book, too.