Friday, January 6, 2012

Using the Right Tool for the Job

Posted by Janet Alexander
PMCC Certification Instructor and Guest Blogger

I began experimenting with Precious Metal Clay (PMC) two years ago. Metal clay offers a quick way of making a piece of jewelry, saving the jeweler hours of work. In one day I can make a prototype and send it off to a casting company to have duplicates made. A jewelry designer can easily texture or hand-carve a piece in just a few hours with metal clay, whereas traditional metalsmithing techniques would take days to complete.

In my early experiments with Precious Metal Clay, I decided to make a contemporary ring by rolling two snakes to use as a band. The idea was to have them hold an oval plate by notching the coils as if they were prongs for a stone. It didn’t work. I spent an entire day trying to make a material do something that it wasn’t designed to do. Unfired PMC is not springy enough to hold a tension setting, so the ring broke. It would have been faster, easier, and better to make the two ring bands out of thick sterling silver wire, the platform out of sheet metal and solder them together.

It is important to know simple fabrication techniques and when to use them. Having both basic fabrication and metal clay skills gives a jewelry designer the ability to use the best technique for creating a particular piece of jewelry. When making this kind of decision I consider which techniques will save me time, money, and result in the strongest piece of jewelry. I don’t want a customer coming back because the piece broke after wearing it the first time.

Here are some fabrication skills to consider when making metal clay jewelry.
  • Implant milled .999 wire instead of extruding syringe clay to make connective links.
  • Solder bezels together instead of using metal clay slip. It only takes a few seconds to solder and the join is nearly as strong as the bezel wire itself. Joins made with metal clay slip may break or crack.
  • Solder earring posts onto the back of an earring instead of firing in place using slip. The join is stronger and sterling posts won’t be compromised by the high kiln temperatures.

    (editor’s note: When using sterling silver with metal clay you have to make a decision whether you want the clay or the wire to be stronger. Metal clay fired at 1650ºF to it’s most dense form will begin to melt the sterling from the inside out and make it brittle. Sterling fired to 1300ºF will be strong, but the metal clay won’t have sintered to its best advantage.)
  • Don’t use fine silver wire for earring wires. It’s too soft and won’t hold its shape no matter how much you try to work-harden it. The copper content in sterling silver wire makes it stiffer and allows it to be work-hardened. Learn how to work-harden metal with a rawhide or plastic mallet to provide additional strength.
  • Solder jump rings closed instead of using metal clay slip. Solder holds better, looks better, and that is what it was designed for. If you don’t want to solder jump rings, then make them out of heavy gauge wire so they don’t accidentally bend open.
  • When making a negative space design in dry clay, use a jeweler’s saw and blade in a traditional ‘piercing’ application instead of filing the design out. A saw will save a lot of working time and there will be less dust and waste material. The cut out piece can even be used in another design.
  • Instead of making a round hole in wet clay using a straw, dry the clay and then drill the hole with a drill bit. This allows you to place the hole exactly where it needs to go, choose an exact size for the hole, and create a perfectly round and professional looking hole.
I hope this information gives you all a good start on understanding why you should learn some fabrication skills if you are a metal clay artist.

(editors note: Learning basic hard metals skills is not as intimidating as you might think. Some Jr. Colleges, specialty schools and bead shops offer beginner classes in fabrication, and You Tube is overflowing with well-presented how-to videos. At the very least, learn how to make some simple solder attachments and be mindful of when a butane torch will get the job done and when you’ll need a hotter torch to complete more intricate joins.)

Janet is a PMCC Certification Instructor and has been a traditional jeweler for over 35 years. With a Bachelors of Fine Arts degree in Metals and a GIA certification in diamond grading and stone setting, Janet is familiar with a wide range of production techniques and has a unique insight into the nuances of good jewelry design.


Helga said...

A very good post, thanks Janet!

Anonymous said...

Excellent post Janet!



Anonymous said...

Thank you for your sage advice.

Janet Alexander said...

Thank you everyone! I will be writing more tips in the future!