Monday, December 31, 2012

Sterling Silver PMC Clay - How Thin Can It Go?

Editor's note: We leave you on this last day of 2012, with a post about one of the most exciting developments of the year. Thank you from all of us for a wonderful year!  Here's to a 2013 full of more surprises, new developments, and abundant creative energy.

by Janet Alexander
Technical Advisor

Lila Diamantopoulou sent in this request about testing sterling silver metal clay. She wanted to know if she were to make a bead in sterling silver only two cards thick and 20mm wide, would it slump upon firing and how big could she go? After deciding that 20mm was too small, I made three larger beads. The first two were flat beads 35mm x 26mm (before firing). I domed the third bead and made it 45mm x 26mm. All are two cards thick.

There were many variables that could have affected the outcome of this test. I knew that if I added a raised texture to the surface of the beads, then that would make them thicker and stronger. If I carved texture into the two-card thickness, then that would make the bead wall thinner and weaker. Along those lines, I thought about adding decorative syringe to the surface of at least one bead, but that would have added strength to it. So, I decided to add decorative elements by making a texture using scratch foam. I impressed the texture on the backside of the bead, keeping the thickness at 2mm while allowing for some kind of decoration on the bead. Let’s face it who wants a plain bead?

While designing the bead, another variable occurred to me. Do I make it a flat-sided hollow bead or domed? Doming creates strength, so I opted for domed. I wound up with three beads - one domed and two flat.

Time to fire and another variable crept up - how to orient the beads in the carbon. I knew that if I placed a bead with its widest side horizontal to the kiln floor, there would be a higher chance of slumping. Vertical placement seemed to be the better option to decrease slumping. For testing purposes, I used both placements.

Note: With the one bead on its side and the other flat, I had to move them farther apart so that I could ensure I would  only have 1/2" of carbon covering each bead. The carbon covering the vertical bead will be "taller" in the stainless steel container than the carbon over the horizontal bead. Additionally, I needed to make sure the vertical bead had 1/2" of carbon under its lowest point. 

I fired all beads for two hours, making sure to allow for ample soaking time of 1500F degrees. I fired the domed bead by itself with it placed vertically in the carbon.

The Results

I had mixed results with the flat beads. The vertically placed bead slumped inward a little on one side, maybe due to shrinkage while sintering. The other bead, placed horizontally in the carbon, slumped inward twice as much on both sides.

Little to no slumping

Slumping on both sides

But the domed bead came out just fine!

Until next time. . .

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Sintering Considerations

by Janet Alexander
Technical Advisor

When firing your clay in the kiln, there are a few things to think about: support, placement, heat, and time.

I like to place my sterling (for the first firing) and fine sliver pieces in a fiber bowl with vermiculite to support them. If I have an item with a wide side, then that side is placed perpendicular into the vermiculite. This avoids sagging because gravity has less effect. 

Be sure to raise the bowl off the kiln floor so that the heat can move around the whole thing. This keeps the bottom of the bowl from being cooler. If you don’t use a bowl, then raise the kiln shelf off the kiln’s floor and support the items, if needed, using fiber blanket or thick fiber paper.

Always note the locations of the kiln’s heating elements. Most front-loading kilns do not have elements in the door, so the front of the kiln will be slightly cooler than the back. Top-loading kilns tend to heat more evenly throughout. If an item contains a stone or sterling silver embedded element, place it towards the cooler area of the kiln. Note that you should never fire pieces with sterling silver embedded objects higher than 1200 degrees F, but do fire them longer to assure they attach.

I have discussed the importance of testing your kiln temperature at different degrees in the past. I cannot stress how important this is. Some members of the local Metal Clay Guild in Dallas recently tested their kilns and found kilns up to 10 degrees F higher than the kiln’s readout.

Sintering time can be a challenge in some circumstances, for example, in a classroom setting where time is at a premium. It is always best to sinter metal clay for the longest period of time recommended by the manufacturer whenever possible. If attaching pre-fired items together, then heat the piece as high as allowable for the metal with the lowest melting temperature and fire for the longest time.

Until next time have fun claying around!

Monday, December 17, 2012

Planning Makes Perfect

Posted by Lora Hart
Artistic Advisor

Last week, I wanted to create a sample for a new class. I always base my class projects on the techniques they'll make use of - and let my students put their own spin on the design. Likewise I like to reveal my own artistic voice in every piece of metal clay or traditional jewelry work *I* produce. For this project the techniques I wanted to include were 1. a template for a custom bail 2. a cabochon set with milled bezel wire 3. a two-part firing for the pendant (once for the pendant base and again for the addition of the bezel wire) 4. a riveted element.

Starting with those parameters, I wanted to make a piece that displayed my creative vocabulary and could easily be identified as my work. Often times as teachers, we want to make samples that are universally appealing and that our students can identify with. This attitude sometimes translates our intention into a jewel that is beautiful - but nondescript. One of my core beliefs as an instructor and artist is that it's always possible to produce an item that looks unique to the maker, even when one is taking a class or following a set of specific instructions.

I decided to sketch a few ideas before breaking out the clay - an unusual method for me to take. Usually I open a new package of my favorite material to just see where it takes me. But this time I wanted to be more mindful and explore various ways to "get the job done." I knew I wanted to include a number of my go-to design choices - namely slip printing, a double 'mickey mouse ear' style hanging mechanism, and an historical element (this time a wink to Victorian Lover's Eye jewelry).

'Legally Tender'
I bought a quantity of clear quartz cabochons at the 2010 PMC Conference with the intent of setting them over interesting or colorful objects. I've used the quartz to magnify handmade felt, a small out-of-focus picture of my Mother, and a piece of gilded leather torn from an old jewelry box. This time I used a common object that every one of you has in your wallets right now! Can you guess who's behind the quartz?

I'm very pleased with the way my sample came out. You can see that I'm not a skilled fine artist. My drawings/sketches are very rudimentary - but they helped me refine the nebulous idea I had in mind, and even gave me a few options for future designs. Next step? Hanging it of course! I'm imagining a few different chain assemblages that will compliment the materials used and style of the design. Perhaps I should continue in the same vein and sketch a few variations on my theme.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Lemons and Lemonade in the Classroom

by Linda Kline
Director of Education

Every teacher must have a favorite tool in their tool box. Mine is a hammer. My motto, “When all else fails, beat the crap out of it!”

A few weeks ago my class made syringe projects. Some people just take naturally to the syringe….others, not so much. I’ve seen people use it with amazing grace and style….just like a natural extension of their hand. They can write with it, draw with it, and control it with precision for beautiful, detailed results. On the flip side, there are those who literally have their hands full….no pun intended. No matter what we try, the syringe just doesn’t work for them. As painful as it may be, I encourage them to make at least one syringe project because there are so many amazing techniques and skills that can be achieved with the use of the syringe…….and if you don’t try, you’ll never know!

This group suffered more than a few mishaps. As a teacher I’ve learned that it’s sometimes okay to let your students make their own mistakes….. like when it comes to laying on enough layers of paste or getting a syringed design sturdy enough to survive the firing and cleaning process.  I ask them, “Does it ‘feel’ like a piece of jewelry?” There’s no substitute for experience when it comes to learning these lessons. But when impatience gets the better of them and they fire the piece prematurely - without sufficient silver - the inevitable “meltdown” poses multitudes of opportunities for making lemonade from lemons.

Take the case of the Boo-Boo Ball…………

Several students made syringed beads created over hard cotton balls. The heat from the burn-off of the cotton can cause the silver to overheat and sometimes melt if it isn’t thick enough. So yep, we had several cases of Boo-Boo Ball…….partially melted beads. Of course, they could have added more silver and re-fired. Instead, I reached into my little bag of tricks and whipped out my trusty hammer. I had them cut the beads open so they would lay flat on a metal block and we literally hammered the crap out of them. The students were amazed at the unique and abstract pieces of silver they salvaged and even more excited that they could create inspiring new designs from their unfortunate meltdowns.  It caused a frenzy of excitement in the group and now everyone is trying to mimic those mishaps.

As Marlynda Taylor, one of my PMC sisters and mentors once told me, “There is no such thing as an ugly piece of PMC jewelry…….it just isn’t finished yet.”  Rethink it….recreate it….or when all else fails, beat the crap out of it!

Creative blessings,

Monday, December 10, 2012

Intent is Everything

by Kris A. Kramer

I have an appreciation that PMC artists and artisans observe the world, well, like a photographer or painter observes an interesting character or a brilliant sunset. Differently. A photographer sets up a tripod, the painter sets up an easel. What goes through each one’s mind at that point? 

What goes through your mind when you sit down at your workbench? Do you have a particular piece in mind, or are you facing a lump of clay like a writer’s blank page? When you create, are you creating a signature piece for a collection or are you making something that you think will sell? 

Here is a personal evolution that you might understand. When I first discovered PMC, my workbench was like a research laboratory.I explored and tested clay, syringe, slip, paste with regards to each one’s limitations in shape, textures, strength, and what I could do with it. Everything was an experiment.  I made the “successes” my own or put up for sale. The failures were not failures at all; they were feedback, each one giving me huge insight and knowledge.

Then, in a program I took called the Montana Artrepreneur Program offered by the Montana Arts Council, I learned more about a brand. Branding is not just what cattle ranchers do to their livestock to identify ownership. Similarly though, a brand is a design, symbol, or other feature that distinctly identifies your work. As in, if I saw one of your pendants without any description, I would know that you made it.  Let’s assume you have a distinct style and a brand, which most of you do whether or not you know it. 

Back to the chair at your workbench. Put aside that you might be fulfilling an obligation like a custom order or producing inventory, what goes through your mind at that point?

Wait. First, add this new information. When asked, “…what’s selling the best?” in an article in American Craft December/January 2013, gallery owner Stefan Friedemann replied with this.

“In the gallery, we have work that will appeal to passersby, as well as the 'museum pieces,' and we do well selling both. What we find the most difficult to sell is work by artists who are between those two niches. They could be artists who have very interesting ideas but feel like they need to make something sellable, or young artists who haven’t fully matured yet. But the serious collector wants a major statement or lasting value, and walk-in traffic wants something very easy, wearable. There isn’t a middle niche.”

Here’s how, as a PMC artist, you may observe the world differently. Do you want to just let your creativity flow, or will you let a gemstone or cabochon inspire you? Do you want to incorporate a new texture you’ve made? Do you want to stay true to your style and brand? Are you creating something that you want to be a best-seller? Do you want to stretch your limits with a new signature piece that you fantasize on the cover of an art museum magazine, posthumous, well after your claim-to-fame in PMC world? Remember, there “isn’t a middle niche.”

Here’s my theory/wish/hope/dream. It matters not, your what and why. What matters is not that you kill the special moment with these questions. What does matter is that you appreciate the value in setting a pure intention. Intent is best clean and simple. For each piece you design and set out to make, pick a path, focus intention, follow through, commit to your creative process, and tap into Creativity--yours and the Universe’s.

Lastly, what does Creativity do that lets you know it is your friend? It gives you permission to change your intent and direction at any time. As many times as you need. To keep your intent clean and simple, all you need to do is be true to yourself. Make what you love--what you would wear, what you would buy, what you would collect."

Friday, December 7, 2012

Problem with Embedding Sterling Silver Wire

by Janet Alexander
Technical Advisor

I had a student email me about a problem she had with some embedded sterling silver wire in her piece. She decided to use the sterling silver because it is stronger and holds its shape better than fine silver. She embedded the sliver between two layers of PMC3 metal clay making it a loop coming out of the bottom of the piece. It was to hold a dangling object.

She said she fired the piece at 1300 F for 30 min in order to give it the best strength and highest shrinkage. She chose not to fire it at 1650 F because sterling silver is an alloy of copper and silver, and copper has a lower melting point than pure silver. Her problem is that the sterling silver wire became weaker and broke easily.

I responded with this answer:

Firing sterling silver above 1200 degrees F makes the metal brittle and can actually cause it to crumble. The melting point for sterling silver is 1640 F / 893C. Maybe using a fine silver embedded jump ring or incorporating a hidden bail made from PMC3 clay would have worked better. This way, the piece could be fired at 1650 F for two hours.

Keep the questions coming! I hope to hear from you all soon! In the meantime have fun claying around.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Name Game

Posted by Lora Hart
Artistic Advisor

I was reading my FaceBook news feed the other day and was struck by a comment from a maker I don't know on the wall of one of my friends. The writer was bemoaning the high cost of silver, but saying that she didn't want to start using base metal clays because she thought they presented more as 'costume' jewelry than pieces made with sterling or fine silver. That statement kind of stopped me in my tracks and got me thinking about how our own perception of the materials we use may subconsciously influence our customers' impressions of and appreciation for our work.

Cartier articulated tiger brooch
When I was a child, there was a definite difference between my mother's fine jewelry (almost all of it gold) and my baubles, bangles, and beads - almost all brightly colored plastic. Some of the things I wore were actually costume-like (who else had a pink plastic tiara studded with sparkly rhinestones?) so the appellation made sense. But even in earlier decades the description 'costume' was confusing. Chanel and Cartier offered whimsical designs made with precious materials that were considered costume jewelry. Today Miriam Haskell's brightly colored 'costume' confections from the '40's bring high prices on the collector market, although they were made with 'paste' gems and base metals.

Felieke van der Leest
Necklace: Brian the Lion
Today, with the rise of artisan/studio jewelry, more unusual materials are being used to adorn the body than ever before. Steel, powder coated copper, plastics, polymers, base metals, and even paper are just some of the materials being used in the manufacture of jewelry. But don't think that using less expensive supplies directly relates to the monetary worth and desirability of the finished product. An important element to remember when pricing and presenting your work is 'perceived value'. Take into account not only the cost of materials used - but the skill, labor, artistry, blood, sweat, and tears that were employed when you designed and built your work.

From Google:

Fine Jewelry - Jewelry made of precious metal such as gold or silver and set with precious or semi-precious stones. 

Bridge Jewelry - Bridge jewelry is jewelry that "bridges the gap" between fine (precious) jewelry and costume jewelry. An example of bridge jewelry is sterling silver pieces. Wait - I thought you just said that silver was 'fine' jewelry!

Costume Jewelry - Jewelry made with inexpensive materials or imitation gems.

As you can see, metal clay falls into all of these categories. There is yellow gold, rose gold, and green gold metal clay; sterling and fine silver metal clay; many of us use precious and semi precious stones either fired in place or set traditionally. We have also embraced the 'new' base metal clays and lab grown gems. The two examples I used to illustrate this post represent the far ends of the 'costume jewelry' market. Most of what we make as metal clay artisans will fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. A spectrum that is yet to be defined, because as far as jewelry is concerned - what's in a name? The only thing to consider is whether it brings you joy. Joy in the making, joy in the collecting, joy in the wearing.