Working with metal clay

Melasdesign Handmade - Metal Clay Design Process

Learn about artist Susan Hicks's process and materials for metal clay design of original jewelry and home decor accents for sale in Melasdesign Handmade Shop and Melasdesign Handmade Darkness. See why a customer was inspired to say "your work is like nobody else's."

The jewelry I design for Melasdesign Handmade Shop / Handmade Darkness is mainly composed of two media: metal clay and laser cut wood. I have thoroughly enjoyed taking advantage of both of these relatively new "materials." The following blog deals with my process in creating metal clay jewelry.

If you've never heard of metal clay, don't worry! It's such a specialized niche. Materials are sold almost exclusively online, and most designers use a small kiln to fire the clay. Classes for learning metal clay design aren't extremely common, and even books on the medium are not plentiful. In other words, it's not the most accessible medium. Some resources are listed at the end of this blog.

But what is metal clay? Metal clay is a medium that starts out wet and malleable, just like ceramic clay. The easiest explanation I've come up with is that each clay (choose from silver, copper, bronze, and even steel, and iron) is made of powder fine metal filings in a sort of goo suspension. This clay is workable and can be handled and formed just like ceramic clay.

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Making Eyes in Copper Metal Clay ##workinprogress ##creative ##eye ##makersgonnamake ##melasdesign ##metalclay ##wip

♬ original sound - Melasdesign 

The most basic metal clay technique involves stamping textures into the metal clay and then cutting shapes and assemble into a piece of jewelry. I am hardly ever satisfied using a purchased texture stamp and prefer making my own patterns. I have carved patterns and forms (see video above) into linocut blocks. I have also used 3D printed textures of my own design, as in this Coffin Bronze Moon Pendant:

Coffin Bronze Moon Pendant

Metal clay can also be modeled in its wet form in an additive process, or carved after the clay is dry in a subtractive process. There are a plethora of tools that can be used, from polymer clay modeling supplies to dental tools. You can get creative with household items too!

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Mock up in polymer clay for jewelry design. ##wip ##makersgonnamake ##witchyvibes ##eye ##jewelrydesigner

♬ say - Official Sound Studio

As far as modeling goes, sometimes I model polymer clay to make a lasting basic model for metal clay. This can be made into a relief mold using a molding agent, so that the metal clay comes out the same as the polymer clay model and not reversed. Even that can require further direct metal clay modeling to clean up features or change elements so the finished piece is one of a kind.

Eye in the Night Sky Pendant

Another use for the modeling agent is making molds out of imprints of found objects. One example was when I "molded" leaves from my yard. I used these mold for beads in my Green Goddess Necklace as well as this necklace, which the customer loved!

Leaf Ruby Zoisite Necklace

 My final creative way to shape metal clay involves designing 3D printed "cookie cutters" to cut the metal clay into exactly the shape I've dreamed up. My Batty Spinner Pendant (it spins!) used this technique, as well as a 3D printed moon texture for the full moon behind the bats. 

Batty Spinner Pendant WIP

So what to do once your metal clay design is formed? Then it's time to dry the clay, either using a hot plate or a dehydrator. Once the clay is bone dry it can carved into an even different form before finishing. Additional lines and textures can be added (like the lines on the bat above). Finishing involves sanding the dry clay smooth and then burnishing it to avoid cracking during firing.

 

The next step is firing, either in a kiln or by torch. During the firing process (generally between 1100-1800 degrees) the "goo" burns away, leaving a pure metal piece in a process called sintering. The finished piece will always be a bit smaller than what was put in the kiln, because that "goo" created mass that is no longer present after sintering. After firing, the cooled piece goes through a tumbling and sanding process. Lastly, a patina may be added by a dip in liver of sulphur or other patina compounds.

The versatility of metal clay opens a world of possibility for artists. In my case, having the neuro-muscular disease Myasthenia Gravis, it has been a great medium to work with, because it requires much less physical effort than traditional metalwork. 

Interested in learning or doing? Here are some resources:
CoolTools is my go-to site for metal clay and metal clay tools. I was lucky enough to have initial metal clay instruction, in person through an art school. Since the COVID pandemic, many instructors have begun teaching online. I have Holly Gage to thank for a huge part in my development as a metal clay artist. She is also part of the Metal Clay and Mixed Media Group on Facebook, which is great for sharing work and learning opportunities alike. Of course there are other groups too! Just search for Metal Clay groups.