Saturday, September 24, 2011

My Favorite Tool?

by Mary Ellin D'Agostino
Technical Advisor

I admit it. I am a tool junkie. I love looking at tool catalogs and love ordering and getting new tools. Budgets being what they are, I can’t buy nearly as many new gadgets and gizmos as I would like, but I still have a pretty good collection.

What is my favorite tool? Most of the trade magazines or online lists ask the favorite tool question regularly. At least once a year I get asked or see a survey on this or similar questions: What tool or tools do I use the most? What is the most valuable tool in my slightly vast collection? And why?

These are really tough questions for many of us. What is that most indispensable tool? Sometime back when someone asked me what tool is my favorite or “must have,” I really stopped to think about it.

My first thought was that it varies over time. For a while, I will use one particular tool extensively. Then it will get misplaced or lost under a pile of something-or-other in my slightly very messy studio. I pick up another tool and that becomes my favorite for a while. Or I go through my drawers and find something that I haven’t used or seen in a while and go with that. So do I even have a favorite?

After thinking long and hard, I was actually able to answer these questions and my answer has remained the same through the years, no matter what new toy tool I am favoring at the moment. I have two three eleven one favorite tool.

My best working tool that I never loose and use the most when working with any medium is actually a matched set - my hands and fingers. I smooth clay with a damp finger. I roll, manipulate, and shape the clay in my hands. I hold other tools for fine work in my hands. I use them to modify and shape other tools. I can use them to make brand new tools. And they don’t get lost. I give you HANDS™ the truly indispensable tool that you already have and don’t have to rush out and buy.

But then I remember seeing, reading, and hearing about artists who have disabilities. They don’t always have working hands. A painter who is quadriplegic uses his mouth. An artist with no hands uses his feet. A right-handed person with a broken arm learns to use her left hand. I had to learn to use the mouse with my left hand when I got tendonitis in my right. Hands are not the be-all-end-all in the tool department after all.

What directs the hands? The artist’s mind. No matter what tools you have or don’t have, your best resource is to think about ways to create. How to use that stock of tools you have. How to make do with what you have when you can’t, or choose not to, afford that new expensive gizmo everyone is talking about. And when you do get that expensive and complicated do-hickey, you have to use your brain to figure out how to use it.

The best tool money can't buy: your mind.

So here it is: My most valuable tool, the one I use the most and cannot do without is inside my head. Even when I think I have lost it, my mind is working on the problem. It will eventually help me figure out what to do and will direct my hands and fingers to do what I need them to. Sometimes it takes a while or I have to trick it into working on something I am avoiding, but my mind is my most important and favorite tool. Hopefully, I use it all the time.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Artist’s Journal: A Celtic Cross Commission

Exploring Shrinkage & Discovering the Power of Lavender Oil

by Yvonne Yao

For those of you who read my first project post on the “wingtip ring,” you will remember that my ring design turned out much smaller than I had intended. This is because, in my enthusiasm to create my design, I overlooked the importance of properly calculating shrinkage when it comes to working with PMC.

Recently, I was requested to design a custom Celtic cross for a client. I chose PMC as my creative medium, both because I do not possess the equipment to cast and forge in my studio and because of PMC’s wonderful sculptural attributes! My client had two requests, that the cross be specifically 1 3/4” in height and that it be engraved. So, I knew that I needed to apply some of my lessons learned from the last post.

Once I finalized my design sketch, I set to work by first creating a simple polymer clay model of the cross to get a feel for the height, thickness, and construction method. Satisfied that I had a sound approach, I double-checked my calculations. PMC3 has a 12-15% shrinkage rate and is one of the stronger fine silver clays. With that in mind, I calculated that my cross would need to be 2” tall before firing in order to achieve the finished 1 3/4” height.

I made a long PMC3 snake and cut the appropriate lengths for the cross and end caps. I rolled the remainder of the snake two cards thick to create the ring that backs the cross. I assembled the segments of the cross while the clay was still wet, by first moistening the ends to be connected and blending. When that was not effective I added some clay paste to help create a solid joint. However, in the future, I will probably experiment with more dry assembly since I think that will make the pieces easier to work with and support.

I allowed the cross to partially dry while I used a linoleum cutter to cut lines into the ring. Then I turned my attention to the surface, first sanding it to a smooth finish with 400 grit sandpaper, and then working back into the surface to create a rustic, uneven texture. I hoped that once oxidized, this texture would give the cross an age-worn, handmade look. Finally, I cut three groove lines into each arm to represent the holy trinity.

Once the cross was finished and textured, I mixed water into the fresh PMC3 clay to create a tacky clay-like slip to join the cross to the ring. I then finished the pendant off with a simple sterling silver bail, bent into the shape of a “U” and inserted into the top end cap of the cross 2/8” deep for stability. Finally, I wet the back of the cross and engraved it with the fine tip of an Exacto knife, finished it with light sanding, and fired.

Because I used sterling silver wire for the bail instead of pure silver, I fired the cross at 1300º F instead of the 1650º. This is because sterling silver is an alloy of copper and silver and an alloy has a lower melting point than pure metals. Firing at 1650º F would have melted the bail. So, I fired the pendant at 1300º F for 30 minutes.

[Ed. note: Firing for a longer time, at a lower temperature allows the metal particles to 'shrink' or sinter more closely together, creating a denser piece of metal.

The result was lovely! However, upon taking the pendant out of the kiln—I found fine hairline cracks along the center of the cross and a more significant crack along the base of the top end cap, where it connected to the body of the cross. Not un-fixable, but it definitely required some delicate repair and I knew it would need to be re-fired. This made me worried as to whether a second firing would cause the pendant to even shrink more.

With that concern in mind and some handy advice from Lora Hart, I had a decision to make. I could make my own clay paste with distilled water and fill in the cracks, leaving just enough clay on the surface to allow for shrinkage into the cracks. Or, I could use Oil Paste, which fires exactly as it is patched with no shrinkage. I didn’t have any Oil Paste, so I took Lora’s advice and stopped by Whole Foods to purchase a bottle of 100% pure lavender oil (no alcohol in the formula) to mix my own.

Using fine tip tweezers, I packed the homemade oil paste into each of the cracks until I was sure the crevices were filled and there were no air pockets. I sanded each patch to leave only the slightest lift on the surface so that I would not face a monumental sanding job later. Then I re-fired the piece at 1300º F for 45 minutes.

[Ed. note: When firing fresh clay to fired or milled metal, apply to the white, freshly fired surface or use sandpaper to give the metal some 'tooth' and always fire for at least 45 minutes to allow the fresh clay to bond more securely with the fired piece.]

Viola! The homemade oil paste worked beautifully! Even more of a relief, there was no additional shrinkage. The cross measured to almost exactly 1 3/4” in height. Hallelujah!

The pendant was then oxidized with jeweler’s black and finished with a green jeweler’s sandpaper to give it a final rustic touch. I hope you like the final result as much as I do.

See more of Yvonne's work here.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Found: Great Ideas

by Jennifer Roberts

We recently announced that we are sponsoring the latest Metal Clay Artist Magazine contest. The theme is “Metal Clay +.” So, what does that mean?

“Metal clay needs to be featured prominently in the design. You can use any kind or combination of metal clays you wish! The rest of the piece must include one or more non-metal materials – resin, polymer clay, glass, enamel, porcelain, bisque, cement, beads, fabric, found objects, etc.”

Depending on your point of view, that may seem like an incredible menu of endless, exciting possibilities or just enough rope to hang yourself with. So, over the next few months, we will offer up some of those “+” examples for you, compliments of our talented Senior and Certification Instructors. Click the images to view larger.

This month, found objects!

Ruth Greening
"Shell Shock" (right)

"A River Runs Through"
Quartz crystal beach rock and river rock
. (below)

Janet Alexander
PMC3 + stick pendant.
Janet found this stick while hiking and the pattern was carved by insects!

Lora Hart
Left: "Button Ring"

Below (left to right):
"If You Need A Hand," "Parapet" (felt), "Communion"

Bottom row:
"Vessica" (silk cocoon)

All photos of Lora Hart's work by Marsha Thomas.

Monday, September 19, 2011

What Does Fresh Mean to You?

Posted By Lora Hart
Artistic Advisor

I belong to an organization called SNAG (The Society of North American Goldsmiths). Every year SNAG devotes an entire issue of their self-published magazine, Metalsmith, to an ‘Exhibition in Print’.

The work included is always contemporary, avante garde, and thought provoking. I usually spend an entire afternoon devouring its contents – first pouring over the amazing images (more than once) and later skimming through the forward by the editor. I may even move to the computer to search for more information about the jewelry makers whose work particularly speaks to me.

I was so thrilled to see a Flickr friend's work
(which I have seen in person) on the cover!
Congratulations Amy Tavern.

This year for some reason, I started with the text. The interview with jurors Cindi Strauss and Lola Brooks was particularly enlightening. The theme for this year’s exhibition was the term “Fresh”. That’s it. No definition, no guidelines. The artist’s were free to come up with their own interpretation and submit photos of work that they believed fit the category.

A single word can be understood in infinite ways. Just check the dictionary or Thesaurus. And it seems that the lack of a significant description may have impacted both the entrants and the exhibit. Because, as it happens, the jurors did have a specific idea of what “Fresh” meant to them. Out of 433 entrants, only 30 were included in the show.

Reading the interview really crystallized the fact that acceptance in juried craft shows, gallery exhibitions and other opportunities is purely subjective. As a juror for the 2010 volume of the PMC Guild Annual, I was aware that I brought my personal agenda regarding craftsmanship, subject matter and originality to the judging table. As an artist responding to calls for entry, I know that the results of my submissions rest on any number of criteria, the least of which may be my work.

Strauss and Brooks noted that the show was judged blind. Meaning that they looked only at the work, and didn’t learn artists’ names until the exhibition was set. They also mentioned that they didn’t take resumes, bio’s or artist statements into consideration. What? Artist statements? I’ve never included any of that information in a submission! And now I wonder if that lack has played a part in a disappointing outcome.

I have included a short statement about a particular piece occasionally. Something I thought of after noticing a quote printed next to a photo in one of the Lark 500 books. What has the world of academia trained graduate students to consider that those of us who are self taught might never have thought of?

As it happens, the “Fresh” exhibition is as fascinating, entertaining and inspirational as ever. I only wish I could see some of the work that wasn't accepted into the exhibition. I'm pretty sure that my standards aren't quite as stringent as the jurors. I bet there was some amazing work that ended up on the cutting room floor.

I love the idea of using a single word to inform a piece of jewelry. Whether it’s for a play date with friends, participation in an online challenge like Ring a Week, or an actual submission to MCAM or the CornerStone Challenge (to name a few), why not let serendipity be your muse? Get a real, paper, dictionary; flip to an arbitrary page; close your eyes; and let your finger land on a word that you’ll use as a jumping off point for creativity. But first you may want to go to your local bookstore to find the print version of Metalsmith or join SNAG to have one delivered right to your door. I assure you, it will open a world of possibilities!

Monday, September 12, 2011

What to Teach: Project or Technique

by Linda Kline
Director of Education

My last two posts have explored options for where to hold your classes. Considering many different opportunities -- community centers, colleges and schools, shops, galleries, and even your home -- it comes down to the basic premise that ‘one size does not fit all.’ You have to find the location that feels best and works best for you and your students. The same principle holds true for what to teach.

Some teachers like the approach of teaching a specific project with everyone making essentially, or with limited variation, the same project, i.e., a ring with pearl stem setting, a bezel set cabochon pendant, a multi-textured photopolymer plate bracelet. I think of this as the “clone” approach to teaching, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. There are a lot of pros and cons to this style of teaching.

If you have several students who are on the same proficiency level, this approach works great. You can easily control the group and keep everyone working along at the same pace with a goal of getting the kiln started in time to finish the project by the end of class. If, however, you have students who insist on marching to their own inner artist beat, it can throw the group into chaos. Now everyone wants to deviate from the plan and come up with an original concept – not bad if they have the skill to pull it off, not good if they don’t or if time is an issue, which it generally is.

What the student may fail to appreciate is the prep time we teachers have invested in our class. We step out our projects and have a fair estimation of how much time each step requires. We measure, allot for, and order the required amount of material and findings. We have written out the directions and prepared a project guide. In other words, we’ve done our homework and we’re prepared to teach the project as presented. We know what to anticipate. But we may not be prepared for a student going rouge.

If someone insists on “stepping off the page,” so to speak, encourage them to stick with the program. But if they simply can’t resist the urge to creatively run amuck, gently remind them that time is an issue and you want to see them complete their project and be happy with the results.

Teachers have to be part magician, part juggler, part psychic, and part psychologist. We have to be able to anticipate problems before they occur, and pull a rabbit out of our hat in a nano-second….all with ease, panache, and a smile on our faces. We have to keep the group organized, help anyone who is falling behind, watch the clock, mix up the liver of sulphur, and answer questions. In short, we make the impossible possible.

Next time, we’ll talk about some of the pros and cons associated with teaching techniques. Until then…

Creative blessings,

Friday, September 9, 2011

Health, Safety, & Copper Based Metal Clay [Copper II]

by Mary Ellin D'Agostino
Technical Advisor

This is part 3 of my ongoing series on Metal Clay Health and Safety.

In Health, Safety, & Copper Based Metal Clay [Copper I] I covered some of the issues surrounding the use of copper clays and promised to continue by discussing high level copper toxicity and inhalation. As noted in my last post, no-one has reported major illnesses relating to the use of copper metal clay. As long as you are working with moist copper based clays, the main issues are skin absorbption and ingestion of clay on your hands--so wash those hands! Some copper ingestion is vital to health, which is why you see it in vitamins. For a good general discussion, check out this Wikipedia article on copper in health.

Natural Copper. Photo from

Have you ever heard of metal fume fever? This is usually associated with inadequate ventilation and molten metals, but since it involves the inhalation of tiny (fumed) metal particles, it is a risk for the metal clay artist working with copper and bronze clays. Base metal clay workers should be aware that tin (in bronze) is the most common cause of metal fume fever, but that copper can be a culprit as well. The first symptoms of metal fume fever are a metallic/sweet taste in the mouth, upper respiratory tract irritation, nausea, and sudden thirst. The first line of treatment is to get the person into fresh air. Check out Charles Lewton Brain's articles in the Orchid Archives on metal dusts, metal fume fever and general metal safety issues.

The very tiny invisible particles of metal in metal clays can stay in the air for a very long time (days). They can also be stirred up into the air very easily after they have settled, so keeping your studio clean and dust free is a really good idea. If you do much sanding, carving, or finishing dried copper and bronze clays before firing, you really should invest in a good positive studio ventilation system--see part one of this series for a discussion of ventilation.

Now for the tricky part--just how much dust is a problem? I have researched this issue and the OSHA limits for exposure to copper dusts and mists is an average of 1 mg/m3 for an 8 hour period, which does not really mean a whole lot to me other than that having more than a little copper dust in the air for long periods of time is a problem. When the copper in the air is fume sized particles, the limit drops down to 0.1 mg/m3 for an 8 hour period. That is one-tenth the amount for mere dust! The most readable discussion I have found on this is an OSHA response to a question for clarification on how appropriate measuring of dust and fume limits. These limits were set at levels that should prevent upper respiratory tract irritation. I could point you to scads of technical articles and charts I waded through, but they pretty heavy going. Let me know if you want more references. If anyone requests, I can do some further research on how a metal clay artisan could go about measuring the levels of dust, mists, and fumes in their studio air. So let me know.

Be aware that severe copper toxicity can even result in death, so pay attention to any initial symptoms and take care of them. Use wet wipes to clean up copper and bronze dust. Use a HEPA filter and vacuum and keep those filters clean. Wear a dust mask when working or finishing dried copper and bronze clays.

I highly discourage teachers from doing children’s classes using copper and bronze clays because of the health risks. The recommended exposure limits are set for adults and children are often more at risk than adults in these kinds of exposures. All of the exposure literature only considered adults. Stick to the much more biologically inert silver clays when working with kids.

Part 1 of the series on [Silver] Metal Clay Health and Safety
Part 2 of the series on [Copper I] Metal Clay Health and Safety

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Blocking the Block

Posted by Lora Hart
Artistic Advisor

A FaceBook friend messaged me the other day. She was having a problem that plagues every artist I've ever heard of. She said her creative motivation was on an extended sabbatical and wanted to know if I had any suggestions. I did, and thought I'd share them with you to file away for future artistic ennui.

Sir Isaac Newton of apple bopping head fame discovered the physical law (which I am reminded of almost daily, thanks to a current television commercial) that states 'an object in motion tends to stay in motion, and an object at rest maintains it's slothful position unless impacted by an outside source'. Or something like that.

\sum \mathbf{F} = 0 \Rightarrow \frac{d \mathbf{v} }{dt} = 0.

What this means to artists is that the longer you allow 'writer's block' to have it's way, the more your creativity will hide in the dark corners of your brain and refuse to come out and play when you ask it to. You have to take an active role in convincing your imagination to return to the studio. Another advertiser shares the secret to success.
Okay. Sometimes it's not as easy as that. But to shift the status quo, you have to shake things up. Some other smart person said that the definition of insanity is "doing the same things over and over, and expecting a different result".

• Rearrange your studio or change the location of your work space.
• Take it outside. A computer or sketchbook works just as well at a cyber cafe or a bench at the park as it does in your house.
• Have a play date with some friends. Crafting with others is sure to get those creative juices flowing. 
• Take a class in another medium. The more techniques you have to draw on, the richer your work will be.
• Use low cost materials. Sometimes the expense of materials is enough to scare away our willingness to experiment. Go to the craft store and look for supplies that mimic your chosen art.
• Sit in your studio and make components. In the case of jewelry, create a supply of bails, granulation balls, molded elements, or new textures. Making anything will invite the muses to return.
• Take part in a challenge. Let another source give you some ground rules to follow and then use your own voice to create something that you might not have thought of otherwise.

The important thing is not to let it go too long. Get back on the horse, don't let the b*&stards get you down, show ennui who's boss! If you just can't shake it, get your potassium levels checked. There may be a physical reason for your malaise.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Artist’s Journal: The hand of PMC

Distinguishing between PMC+ and PMC3
By Lois Lynn

Editor’s note: For our readers just meeting Lois, she is a PMC artisan who last worked with PMC when the only PMC products on the market were the original formation and PMC+. Lois spends a little time getting to know PMC3 and thinking about when each variety of PMC might be the best choice for a project.
In doing so, she utilizes a simple testing method that is useful when comparing the properties of any metal clay with another.

Lois talks about the “hand” of clay – a term borrowed from the world of textiles and useful in discussing many materials. What is the hand of fabric (or clay)? The best
definition I found was “The sum total of the sensations expressed when a textile fabric is handled by touching, flexing of the fingers, smoothing and so on.” In essence, the clay's "personality."

In my last post, I detailed my exploration of PMC3 making an object from wood clay with embellishment and then comparing it with an object made in the familiar (to me) PMC+. As I stated in the June post, I did find differences between the clays, but I feel I still need to compare these two further as I’m not clear on the hand of each when forming and handling them. Are there differences and will the way each handles affect the artist’s methods of construction and finishing?

To determine whether there are differences and if the differences prove significant to the making of a final product, I set up a very simple experiment. I fashioned an uncomplicated form from both clays so the differences between the two would be more obvious.

I divided six grams of PMC3 into three parts, each part smaller than the one before. I created a “handle” to grip the clay on each and teased each into a tear-drop shape. I placed a hole in each “handle” and added a small CZ’s to each. I repeated this process with PMC+.

I fired all of my test pieces together at 1650 F degrees for an hour to increase their strength and durability. After brushing and tumbling, I mounted them on a chain mixed with “cornflake” keshi pearls I harvested from an old necklace. I added “found” pearl findings to complete the look.

I like the flash of the CZ’s…it helps draw attention to the earrings. I was looking for a very natural, soft look. But once I had the earrings constructed, I wondered if the PMC pieces may need a little antiquing to make them stand out a bit more…give the overall effect more dimension. I’ll wear them awhile without antiquing before I make that decision - let the soft effect have a bit of time so as to give it fair consideration. I may try antiquing just one earring or just around the CZ’s to make them stand out and then make the decision.

So what did I learn about the clays? The PMC3 is a bit stickier and handles more stiffly. It seems more cohesive, good for keeping the form in one piece and shape retention, but its cohesiveness makes it more difficult to tease the desired simple shape from it. The material doesn’t have as much give. I also found I have a little less work time before the clay starts to dry.

I found the PMC+ has a slight advantage in creating the teardrops. It has a bit more fluidity and give to it. Pulling the shapes from the “handles” is a bit easier and the shapes seem to be more rounded and pleasing to me. Good if you’re experimenting with shape and testing the medium, bad if you want the initial shape to hold while manipulating it.

The PMC+ does shrink a little more as the pieces made from them are consistently a bit smaller than the PMC3. The CZ settings hold up about the same in both clay types. Other than that, the two clay types seem to be comparable as far as manipulating them.

These are very subtle, small differences, not really important unless you’ve used one of them for a long time and suddenly find you have to use the other, as I did during certification. There were enough differences between them to throw me off at the beginning but I quickly adjusted.

I feel I do have a good sense of both clay types now, so next time I think I will be trying a more complex project using PMC3 exclusively. I’ve been wanting to make an antique-style ring for awhile, so I think that will be my next project. It’s a rather complicated and precise design with construction challenges, so wish me luck!