Monday, September 29, 2014

Controlled Rehydration

I'm confident that most emerging metal clay artists know the basics of rolling, texturing, sanding, finishing, and rehydrating clay. When clay dries out, we add enough water to make it malleable and workable again. When we have finished fabricating a design, we understand the benefit of a final examination of our work so we have the chance to repair/finesse dry pieces before they go into the kiln (it's so much easier to refine a design in the original greenware than to wait to repair a fired metal object). Sandpaper, files and other tools usually work well on a stable, well constructed piece, but smoothing surfaces and reinforcing joins in delicate areas can sometimes be troublesome (and stressful).

(My iPhone took great pictures of my fingers -  the clay, not so much)
When completing a light sanding, I bumped my arm and broke the
bail in half! I used thick slip in an effort to get the bail to just stay in
place long enough to set up. Then I groomed, filled, smoothed, and
otherwise repaired the break (letting any fresh clay dry in between each task)
before using a damp paint brush and a sponge tool to smooth the work. This
area was only 1/8" wide in the greenware stage and very difficult to access.
I use a process I've come to call controlled rehydration to 'groom' my work when I think traditional sandpaper or needle files may be too harsh. In the past I've been tempted to use sandpaper too aggressively in an effort to get it to work faster, or sometimes my fingers will shake slightly as I remove an unwanted bit of clay or deep scratch - which may lead to breakage and heartache.

Instead, I'll employ a damp watercolor brush, moistened toothpick, barely wet sponge tool (or even a finger) to gently and patiently wipe the offending blemish away. The important thing to remember when using this technique is that any amount of moisture - no matter how slight - will rehydrate the clay to some extent, which is what we wanted in the first place of course, but which can also cause the clay to be more fragile than we might realize.

It's important to be aware of where you're placing your fingers, how much pressure you're using, and to always let one repair job dry completely (even if only for 30 seconds) before you start working in another area. Placing a mini dehydrator or cup warmer nearby will help speed the drying process.

Just the merest hint of moisture (true confession - I use saliva, which is not as wet as water) will be enough to get the job done. Always tamp a wet tool on your wrist to remove excess water before using a 'wipe' motion to smooth or fill the clay (getting in the habit of using silva when working with fine silver was okay in my book, but I have to retrain myself with the advent of base metal clays).

When wet/finger sanding, (or as I call it - controlled rehydration) you're effectively taking material off of one area and immediately depositing it in another to fill a slight gap, pit or scratch; smooth a bumpy surface, or remove unwanted texture marks. When turning to a harsher file is not the best alternative, give controlled rehydration a try. Let me know how it works for you.

Posted by Lora Hart
Artistic Advisor

Friday, September 19, 2014

Can PMC Flex be combined with PMC Sterling to make 960 Flex Sterling?

Can I make 960 with PMC Flex clay and if so is it flexible?
I measured out equal amounts of PMC Flex and PMC Sterling and mixed them together using a folding process to create 960F (F= Flex).

I then rolled the clay to the same thickness and diameter as the disks I used to test shrinkage test in my last report. I fired the disk on an open shelf in a kiln for one hour at 1500°F (1815°C). It sintered perfectly.

I then compared the three discs for shrinkage values.
The Sterling 960F is the outside left disc. Visually, they all looked to be the same size.

The measurements were:
PMC Flex 14.87mm wide and .585" thick
PMC3 15.22 mm wide and 599" thick
960F 13.07mm wide and 513" thick


Next, I did a bend test with the fired pieces, PMC3, PMC Flex, and Sterling 960F.

I placed each disc in a bench vise and bent it using a rawhide hammer. Each disc was annealed after bending a small amount.

All three bent the same with annealing between bending without breaking or cracking.

I tested the sterling 960F flexibility after 24 hours of air drying. It bent nearly as much as the original PMC Flex clay!

I extruded six 960F fine wires and then braided with them (photo on left). It worked well for the first eight minutes, but then the wires started breaking. So, I extruded four larger wires and braided them with beautiful results.

Until next time, have fun claying around!

by Janet Alexander 
Technical Adviser

Testing the New PMC Flex Clay Part 1

As an early tester of  PMPC Flex, I cam to really enjoy the clay's properties. In the coming weeks and months, I'll be sharing some of my thoughts about the clay with you. For this initial post, I was asked to describe just how flexible the clay is and how long it stays that way, how easy it is to rehydrate, and shrinkage rates compared to PMC3. My results are below.

How long does it stay flexible?
What a great question. For this blog, I was asked to test the flexibility of air-dried PMC Flex clay. While looking through my test clay from a year ago, I found a large piece of clay that was in an open packet. It was rock hard dry. At least it seemed rock hard until I cut into it.
I cut it into two pieces with a razor. It sliced very easily. In fact the new sliced face looked shiny like it was wet. So I took a dental tool to see if it was soft. It was!

I then sliced off a piece and it was flexible. After a year of drying, I could still bend it without it breaking! 

Going back to the original question, I cut a rectangular piece of clay, rolled it out 4-cards thick, and  left it drying on the counter top for 24 hours. I tested it again after three days and still bent as much as it did straight out of the package. I compared it to the year-old clay and the bend I could achieve with the two pieces was nearly identical.
Please note that drying PMC Flex on a hot plate, dehydrator, or cup warmer made it less flexible. Drying the clay on a cup warmer may be good for drying rings so that they don't flex as much while finishing them in the unfired state.

Here is an extruded roll of clay bent into a curl shape without using glycerine. No cracks.

How well does it rehydrate? 
I took half of the dried ball of clay I found from last year and cut it into small pieces with a straight edge razor. I spritzed it with water, mixed it with a pallet knife, and rolled it between a plastic report cover. I repeated the process until the clay could be picked up in a flexible sheet. I allowed it to sit overnight and found the clay as elastic as the newly opened package. 

What is the shrinkage comparisons between PMC3 and PMC Flex?
I rolled PMC3 and PMC Flex to the same thickness and cut them into equal round discs.

I fired them at the same time at 1650°F (898°C) for two hours. As you can see in the photo, the shrinkage was identical.

Here are some of my initial findings about PMC Flex:
  • The length of time that the clay remains flexible depends on drying technique. PMC Flex dried on a cup warmer/ hot plate became less flexible faster than clay dried in the dehydrator at 155˚F (68˚C) for 15 – 30 minutes. Air drying allows for an even longer flex time.  For example, pieces 3-cards thick that were air dried were still are somewhat flexible 24 hours later.
  • The thicker the piece of clay, the longer flex time. After 60 minutes the 11-card thick piece of clay still mashed down and sprung back to shape.
  • I found that when drying PMC Flex in a dehydrator, the bottom surface of the clay imprinted the texture of the dehydrator. This could be a problem for an item that has texture on both sides. I recommend placing PMC Flex on something smooth until the outside layer is dry.
  • The clay stays so flexible that I became concerned about drying it in a dome. Would it loose its shape after removing it from the doming plate to dry completely? This was not the case. It kept its shape for the most part. I was able to reshape the dome after it became mostly dry.
  • While sanding the sides and insides of a ring, flexibility became a problem.  I had to take care not to ruin the ring while sanding because it wanted to flex and bend. 

Until next time, have fun claying around!

by Janet Alexander 
Technical Adviser

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Profiles in Artistry - Michela Verani

Michela is a Facebook friend who has been working on the 4th level of the Master's Registry. We had the opportunity to meet in real life about a month ago when she was traveling to pick up a new puppy. Michela brought a few of her pieces for show and tell, and I just couldn't believe it when I saw a perfectly sculpted fine silver fawn. I just had to learn a little more about her background.

CS - How long have you been working with metal clay?
MV - I took my first class in 2003, but started working with metal clay regularly in 2004.    

CS - What skills, interests, or achievements did you bring to your designs from previous, unrelated work?
MV - I have a BS in Plant Science and Botany and was just a course or two short of a Minor in Entomology. Plants and insects are portrayed in a lot of my work. I am happiest when nature is part of my daily life.

The deer sculpture took about 2 days of back and forth
studio work (I never sit and work for extended periods of time). 
In total, it probably took me about 8 hours to get the first
deer done and maybe 4-6 hours to sculpt the 2nd deer,
as I knew where I was going with it.
CS - How did you discover and/or develop your signature style or technique?
MV - I’ve always had to make something, it’s an addiction.  I was introduced to art by my mother, a traditionally trained sculptor though the Boston Museum School of Fine Art.  I guess you could say she was my first teacher.   As soon as she thought I wouldn’t put everything in my mouth, she would give me clay or paints and let me make a mess while she worked.  I started college as an Arts & Crafts major with a speciality in jewelry.  However, after a year the college I was attending dropped the Arts & Crafts major and went to only Fine Arts.  Not wanting to continue in that, I switched majors to my second love, Plant Science and Botany.  I continued with silver smithing as a hobby, but it never fully called to me.  When I heard about metal clay, I just had to try it and once I did I was hooked.  I think the combination of metal smithing and sculpting was the ultimate hook.

My sculptural technique is a bit different from how I've seen other metal clay artists work. I think that learning sculptural techniques from a professional sculptor influenced this. I do wet work and keep my clay moister than most metal clay artists would say is good consistency and keep a damp drape and Saran Wrap over my work until the final finishing steps. I tried the standard metal clay technique of letting things dry between steps, but too much carving back was involved in getting the shapes I wanted, so I decided to try handling the clay the way my Mother handled her clay work.

CS - How has your work or skill set evolved since you began working with metal clay?
MV - My skill set has increased leaps and bounds since I started!! I can't believe that some of my first work won contests or sold. There were two things that were a major push to getting better. First, trying to become a member of The League of NH Craftsmen - they are a juried craft association, and jurying is torture. Nothing goes through a jury without being analyzed and critiqued to the fullest. It took me 4 juries to get into the League. In hindsight, I can't believe I had the "balls" to bring my work to the first two juries. 

The second big push was joining the Master's Registry. While not quite as tough as a League jury, they do let you know where your strengths and weaknesses are, and seeing how they rate your piece is enlightening. Neither are for the faint of heart, but one needs to be able to step back and remove your feelings from your work. Both experiences made me realize my work had a long way to go and gave me the push to get my skills to where they are now. I think this sort of thing is important, while friends and fellow metal clay artists will critique your work, friends take your feelings into consideration and metal clay artists are encouraging to each other. Neither give you the information you need for real, artistic growth.

The head sculptures are the largest pieces
I've done thus far. They are almost 5" x3.5/4".
they are made by doing a hollow form for the basic
form, then sculpting the facial features and adding
accent details. Each one is fired in one piece.
CS - Do you teach?
MV - Yes, I teach in my home studio in Londonderry, New Hampshire; the Lexington Arts & Crafts Society; Metalwerx; The Craft Center of The League of NH Craftsmen; and a few small private galleries in Massachusetts.

CS - Do you consider yourself primarily a teacher or a maker/seller?
MV - I think it's 50/50. I love teaching, I love seeing a student who's never handled metal clay catch fire. I've been told I'm a good teacher, so I think the love of teaching comes across to my students. However, teaching can be draining and there are days that sitting in my studio all by myself is the ultimate gift. I love making and trying new things, and to do that I need to sell my work. Currently I'm working on redoing my brand and website and will be making a push to approach more galleries next year.

CS - How do you feel about teaching others your signature techniques?
MV - I don't mind teaching it, most students will give it their own twist. Those who know me, know it's mine. No one is ever going to be able to make their work look exactly like mine. In this day and age it's a given that artists will have someone copying their work. While it's not ethical, it doesn't seem to be something you can get away from unless you make things and never show them to anyone. As a teacher I feel that it's my calling to show others what I've learned.

CS - How would you like your future with metal clay to evolve?
MV - I'd like to get better. I still have areas in my work that need to be improved upon. I'd also like to start doing larger work in metal clay - primarily sculpture. I'm working on that now. I've just gotten a big kiln and will be starting to see how much I can push the size of my work.

"Rabbit in the Moon"
CS - Why did you choose metal clay as your primary jewelry making material? What qualities do you particularly appreciate?
MV - I like it's malleability, it's ability to be sculpted and formed. To do this in milled metals, you'd need to be working in wax, which adds another barrier between the maker and the finished piece. I also like that you can make a piece, get it all ready to go in the kiln, and if you don't like it - grind it up and reconstitute it. I tell all my beginning students this, and find it frees them up not to worry whether their first piece is perfect.

CS - What would you like new users of metal clay to know?
MV - While teaching metal clay to yourself is all well and good, find a competent teacher!! Teachers have made all the mistakes, know why one thing works and another doesn't. Don't reinvent the wheel, learn from them. I've had self-taught students who are so proud of things that have taken them weeks or months to figure out that a teacher would have explained in the first half hour of class. While it's wonderful they figured it out themselves, just think how much further they could have taken their work if they'd had a class first. Ask around and find a good teacher in your area.

My second piece of advice is, let yourself go, don't try to create your masterpiece the first time you use metal clay - as above, if you hate it just grind it up, reconstitute and start again. You need to learn the zen of the clay. Give yourself time and forgive your mistakes.

Thanks Mikki! Your work is so inspirational !

Posted by Lora Hart

Artistic Advisor