Monday, November 25, 2013

Rethinking the Stone

I recently taught a Level Two Certification class, and to prep for one of my demos I wanted to make a new piece. The project is to 'Set a Cabochon Using Commercial Bezel Wire'. The project entails adjusting the design to accommodate metal clay shrinkage, firing the base mount, and adding the fine silver bezel in a second firing. After polishing and any patina, the stone is set with burnishers and pushers.

There was only one shell with a hole!
Remember how I like to remind you that you can add your own creative voice to any project? Even one where there are specific parameters you have to work within? Well, I took my own advice and used an unusual object for the cab. In general a cabochon can be defined as a flat bottomed, domed stone. But I don't have much of a feel for mineral stones like Lapis, or Tiger's Eye, or Malachite. I wanted to use something else for my sample.

A friend had sent me a goody bag containing shells, deer antler slices (naturally shed - don't worry!), small pebbles, and other interesting bits. One of the shells had a hole in the "hinge" portion that intrigued me. I don't think it was a natural hole, but it set my imagination spinning and made me wonder how I could make use of it in my design. I did some sketching and some online surfing and came up with a seaweed and pearl theme. After enlarging the shell 119% (to account
I used a pencil to roll some definition
and dimension into my paper seaweed
for shrinkage and for the bezel wire) I made some paper templates so I'd have a good idea of how the construction might go together. I wanted the area where the stone would be set to be perfectly flat, but thought a little 'movement' would enhance the seaweed effect. So, I made my pendant in two parts. Letting each part dry separately gave me the opportunity to sand each to perfection before they were joined. I couldn't really think of how to drape the seaweed while keeping the top part level. I'm sure there's a way, and I'll probably do some more experimenting with this design in the future. 

Some dimensional wallpaper
gave the perfect weedy texture
and LOS did the rest.
To add to the deep sea theme, I used a jeweler's saw with the dry, unfired clay to cut a seaweed silhouette into the back. I always like to add a little surprise for the wearer to discover. After firing, polishing, and patinating the piece, I sewed up a little magic with some glass seed beads, pearls, antique coral, and free-form stringing to embellish the hole in the shell. I haven't actually permanently set the shell yet because I'm not quite sure how I want to hang the pendant. I think maybe a combination of pearls and chain - but I want to have a clear idea before I complete the setting. Imagine if I pushed the bezel over and then decided I needed to solder the chain. That would be a disaster!

This particular 'stone setting' is definitely too ambitious for a student to have completed before the end of class. Just stringing the little beads took two hours. (Oh, to have good eyesight and hand/eye coordination again. Sigh.) But having samples like this one demonstrates how one can take a skill learned in a workshop and let your imagination run wild to create something totally unexpected.

Next time a class project requires a certain element, try thinking out of the box. A true cabochon may very well be a turquoise gem stone, but if you define it as a 'flat backed, domed object' you could also use an antique button, beach pebble, a watch crystal with a photo underneath, or a variety of other artifacts. Try to find a way to add your own stamp to any project.

Posted by Lora Hart 
Artistic Advisor

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Tips and Tricks for the Studio

Problem Torches

Have you ever had a problem with the small butane torch acting like its empty even though you just filled it? That's because over time compressed air from the butane can fills the fuel container. The torch is full of air.

Easily remove this excess air by unscrewing the valve on the bottom of the torch allowing the compressed air to escape. Then re-tighten the screw and re-fill the torch with butane.

Metal and Metal Clay Storage

A great way to store your metal is by placing it in file folders inside a box. I have mine sorted by wire shape, sheet thickness, and solders.

The shelf-life for PMC is one year, but sometimes you need to store it for a longer period of time. I store excess metal clay in the freezer. I find that it lasts for years this way and only takes 30 minutes or less to defrost. I've had some stored now for three years with no problems.

Until next time have fun claying around.

by Janet Alexander
Technical Advisor

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Shrinkage: Friend or Foe?

I just love it when my students have an, “Ah ha!” moment -- especially when it’s something that I’ve been harping about for ages. Then one day the light goes on and they magically GET IT!

That happened in my class last week when someone applied fresh clay to a previously fired silver piece. The result, of course, came out with an interesting arc as the pre-fired silver yielded to the fresh, new silver. It was a serendipitous and beautiful result. 

The fact that metal clay can be fired over and over really amazes beginning students. The one caveat that messes with their heads, however, is what happens when they apply fired to unfired silver. Yes, size matters. ( :) ) The larger the amount of fresh clay that is used, the more shrinkage will result. And the higher and longer the piece is fired, the greater the shrinkage. The results can be unpredictable and surprisingly interesting.

Sometimes it’s the unintentional results that give us the happiest rewards. This is a great way to salvage accidents or previously fired pieces that you have not yet found a use for. Take a brave, bold step and paste some pre-fired pieces to unfired silver and fire them at a high temp (1580) for about an hour. Try using stones for added interest. If you don’t like the result, texturize them with a hammer, add granulation (pre-fired balls of fine silver) and fire again. There are no mistakes!

Some unique and original holiday gifts may get you voted Santa of the Year!
Creative blessings!

by Linda Kline
Director of Education

Image above: Steel wire and PMC Sterling tested for shrinkage. To read all of Janet Alexander's PMC Sterling tests, including extensive explorations on shrinkage, search this blog for Sterling.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Artists and the Causes They Love

The Links in the Chain article is out in the current issue of Metal Clay Artist Magazine and we've talked a lot about bracelets and about PMC Sterling the past few months. But with the holiday giving season right around the corner, we thought it would be nice to share the nonprofit organizations that benefited from the bracelets.

These charities meant a lot to each of the artists who chose them to receive their bracelets. We hope you will be inspired by the list, as we were. 

Cindy Miller -- ASPCA
Evelyn Pelati Dombkowski - Windsor Art Center 
Janet Alexander - Help End Abuse For Life, Inc.
Lora Hart - Visual Arts Center of Richmond 
Lorena Angulo - ThriveWell Cancer Foundation 
Michael J. Marx - Beacon Day School 
Ruth Greening - Changing Rein 
Teva Chaffin - The Mary Parrish Center For Victims of Domestic & Sexual Violence 
Nellann Roberts - Prison Entrepreneurship Program 
Kathleen Nowak Tucci - DFW Rescue Me 
Jeannette Froese LeBlanc - Mount Sinai Hospital, Special Pregnancy Unit  (and the fund she started in honor of her daughter Ella)

Thanks to these generous artists, all of these causes received beautiful gifts!

by Jennifer Roberts

Monday, November 11, 2013

Item Card + Photo = Organized

Time passes. You continue making beautiful creations. One day someone wants that pair of earrings you made months or years ago. How did you make them? How thick did you make the main part and how thick were the added layers? How large were they?  How large were the additional components? What template or shape did you use? How will you price them? Some of the answers to these questions are obvious. Some not so. I don’t know about you, but I can hardly recall what I had for breakfast yesterday. After months or years? Forget it. Here’s what I do.

Inventory Card   

First, I keep a sketchbook journal at my bench. Sometimes by paging through I can find notes on a piece because I often draw and number the steps in order to figure out its construction.

For items I think might be popular or that I plan to sell a lot, I use Inventory Cards. On each Inventory Card I include what is at the right. See below for the Item #. I keep my cards in a little folder. It just dawned on me to file these by item number, because I've accumulated more than I thought.

For a pdf of Inventory Cards,  click here and go to bottom of page.

Inventory Program

I use a software program for my Inventory. For Mac folks, check out the FileMaker product line. For Microsoft people, Access is worth a look. Quick Books is yet another option. Also look for Organization Apps that come in all shapes and sizes. Information I track on each item includes the following. If you haven’t noticed by now, I lean toward the OCD side of things.
  • Item Number
  • Name or Title
  • Number on Hand
  • Create Date
  • Product Line and or Series
  • Wholesale and Retail Prices
  • Date Listed in Online Shop
  • Description, Size Measurements, Notes
  • Sell Info (date sold, # sold, location, $ received, etc.)
  • Current Location
  • Sold Location
  • Dispensed Date
  • Per Year
    • Cost of Goods Each
    • Production Labor Each
    • $ Received
    • Number Sold
    • Cost of Goods Total
    • Labor Production Total
    • Calculated Profit--a Formula


Photographs tell all. Photography is a subject that merits years of study and practice. I’m talking here about how to organize and name photographs so they jive with your inventory. There may be a simpler way match photographs with inventory, so if you know one let us know. Here’s how I do it.

Naming Photographs

I name my photographs the same as my Item #. Each one of my creations is named with the year, a dash, and a number. For example, 12-575 was made in 2012 and it was my 575th design. A design can have lots of items; for example, I’ve made twenty six 12-522s.

Then, I number the photos 1, 2, 3, 4, and Back for the straight-on shot (1), a close-up (2), ride side (3), left side (4), and the back.

Putting It All Together

Someone wanted some cityscape earrings, but I didn’t know the number and hadn’t made them for well over a year. I went to my computer inventory program and did a search for “cityscape.” Ah, that’s the number and that’s the price. I went to my hard-copy file and found my Inventory Card. Oh, I used that rounded-square for the background, the middle one in the top row on the template. I see I used green slats and cut the buildings as such. The photographs, which I found quickly by number, told me what textures to use and where to position the buildings. Phew.

You can spend (waste) a lot of time on this. I tell you though, I was recently accepted into a Christmas show at a community art center. The deadline was in three days. It didn’t matter—I put together an inventory of twenty items in two hours because of my system. And, oh, by the way, I put the item number on the back of my item or display card. I will run the box to the post office tomorrow.

'Got a question or suggestion?  Comment below.
By Kris A. Kramer

Friday, November 8, 2013

Kiln Maintenance

There are several types of kiln insulating materials, brick and ceramic fiber being the most common for use in firing metal clays. Most ceramic fiber kilns are called muffle kilns and this is the kind of kiln I have. Muffle kilns heat up faster than the brick type and can easily be moved from classroom to classroom without damaging the kiln. It's best to not move the brick type kiln because movement can cause the bricks to become loose since they are often held together with mortar.

Over time, the muffle can develop cracks. I've been told that the cracks shown here in my kiln were caused by opening the door while the kiln is very hot. I'm guilty of this, due to opening the door while enameling. These types of cracks are not harmful. As long as the muffle isn't breaking apart into pieces, and the elements are still secure inside the muffle. As the muffle heats up it expands and the cracks close.
You should occasionally inspect your kiln by checking the thermocouple in the back of the kiln, making sure it sticks out from the back of the kiln at least 1/2". It can sometimes inadvertently get pushed into the muffle. The thermocouple measures the kiln's temperature and sends this information to the kiln's computer. If it is pushed into the muffle, it can't accurately measure the temperature inside the kiln.

If you are having problems with melting your metal clay while firing, then you should test the kiln temperature for accuracy with a kiln tester. Here is a link to my instructions on testing.

Sometimes the door's latch needs adjusting. The latch should lightly catch so that it doesn't shake the kiln. The door doesn't need to close tightly against the front of the kiln. There should be some space for the door's material to expand as the kiln heats. If you work with enamels, you don't want the door to shake the kiln when closing, otherwise you may find your enamel has fallen off your piece! On my kiln the door latch adjusts by twisting a screw on the latch.

It's also good to check the kiln's plug wires making sure they are not cracked or damaged.  If they are, seek advice from a kiln repair company.

Until next time have fun claying around.


by Janet Alexander
Technical Advisor

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Know Thyself

This past weekend in a certification class, I saw another reason why it is so important to know yourself, your creative likes, and be conscious of what skills you bring to the table when you attend a workshop. When we take classes (I take them just as you might), there are so many decisions we have to make, an element of stress that we have to contend with, teacher instructions that we have to pay attention to, and a myriad of other considerations that we have to be mindful of - that we don't need to be thinking of our personal design aesthetic at the same time. That should just come in our tool kits along with our pliers and rollers and visors. If you're taking time to try this texture and that cutter, while also learning a new set of skills and techniques, you're doing yourself a disfavor. Know thyself, in creative identity as well as all other aspects of your life.

For some people this might seem like a natural progression, but for others accumulating a 'go-to' set of designs and themes is not as easy. But we are all born with our likes and dislikes already ingrained in our personalities. Sometimes we just need a little direction to bring them forth from our subconscious mind.

In my home, I see my aesthetic everywhere. In the furniture I buy, the clothes I wear, even the dishes I feed my kitties with. Before my move from Los Angeles to Richmond, Virginia last summer I did a lot of purging. And in a dark corner of a cabinet I found a little ceramic container that I had made at camp during my elementary school years. And what was decorating it? What texture did I incise into the clay? Why, scrolls and curlicues of course! The same go-to design I use when demonstrating various things in metal clay classes. Whether I'm making a scratch foam texture, or drawing with syringe - I always make S curves. That shape is in my genes I guess.

Table, Candlestick, Headboard (folding screen), Dresser. All with scrolls.
Take a look around your home, ask your mother to show you drawings you did as a child (you know she still has them), think of the work you admire in the museums that you frequent (I go to the Getty Villa to see Roman and Illuminated Manuscript art as often as I can - or did before I moved to the East coast). Your personal aesthetic is a badge you wear every moment of your life. Honor it. Bring it to life. To your conscious life. To your classes and workshops. To your creations. To your jewels. Know thyself, and then introduce yourself to the world.

Posted by Lora Hart
Artistic Advisor

Friday, November 1, 2013


We asked you to show us what you would make with 100 grams of PMC Sterling and we received some incredible entries. We are so pleased that so many of you were willing to share your pieces and your ideas with us. We particularity enjoyed getting a glimpse into your creative processes.

We entered the names of all of the entries in a random drawing and one lucky winner will be getting 100 grams of PMC Sterling.

Congratulations Ashley Lozano! We expect pictures when you make it. ; )

Be sure to check out our Facebook page to see all of the beautiful and creative entries. You can also view the Metal Clay Artist Magazine article that started it all for FREE here.

Thank you very much to everyone who entered and shared their beautiful work and thoughtful ideas with all of us.