After a long time spent researching, wondering, and hesitating, I have finally tried working with metal clay.
From what I had found on the internet, the best known metal clay is silver clay. As I love silver jewellery but have no skill whatsoever in metal working, this is a great alternative.
The concept is simple: around the 1990s, some smart Japanese people came up with a way of recycling the precious metals dust created in the making of electronic components. Adding water and a specific binder to the dust, they obtained a paste very much like polymer clay or play-doh… only it’s still metal.
You can then model an object, leave it to dry then fire it at very high temperature. The binder burns and the water evaporates, leaving only the pure, now solid, metal. That is to say, making stuff in copper, bronze or silver is now possible for anyone!
Sometimes I really like living in this century.
What can I say? I’m cheap.
On the downside, silver metal clay is outrageously expensive. 25 g of clay cost almost 60 €, plus there is an important investment to make into the material.
If that wasn’t enough, all precious metals are strictly controlled in France. I couldn’t sell silver jewellery without going through a long and painful administrative process that I am not even sure would succeed.
And lastly, silver clay, once fired, is very pure: it’s 999 silver. That way, there is no need for a special oven: a blowtorch or a gas cooker are enough, unlike copper or bronze. It makes silver clay easier to fire, but this is utterly absurd in terms of professional jewellery making. Silver is a soft metal. What you buy in a jewellery shop is usually 925 silver, which means 925 ‰ silver mixed with 75 ‰ copper to make it more resistant. Selling jewellery that might easily break is not my idea of being professional.
Hence my hesitation: I needed to be sure I would enjoy the possibilities enough to justify overcoming all these obstacles. I found out later that there was many other metals available in clay form, which solved the selling problem. So I decided to start there!
At my initiative, three of my friends and I signed up for a beginners workshop with Météor Clay, a French small business I can’t recommend enough. Farida, the business owner, came to my flat with all the required material and introduced us to metal clay: either copper, steel, or several types of bronze. She is a sweet lady whose business is crazily upstanding. Their general goal is to offer good material for a very reasonable price, and they stand by it even if it means their profit is lessened.
I won’t tell all the details of the workshop as it would take too long (it lasted from 10 a.m. till at least 6 p.m.), but I’ll highlight the best parts. The quality of my pictures is not the best, unfortunately, as we were inside during a cloudy sunday.
I tried my hand at copper as I am hopelessly in love with this metal.
Météor’s clays come in powder: the binder is already mixed in, all you have to do is add water. That way, you can preserve it indefinitely. Once you’ve made the wet clay, you can keep it in the refrigerator, but it won’t last more than a few weeks.
In many ways, this is similar to cooking. You make a dough, give it a shape, then bake it!
Just as, I assume, polymer clay, it is easy to stamp textures and shapes on it, and cut, roll, or model it. As long as the firing temperature is the same, you can also mix metals. Clays can be mixed or ‘glued’ to one another. For example, you could make a flat copper surface and put white bronze parts on it. Or you can try something close to mokume gane. Or you could make 925 silver (doesn’t solve the selling problem, though).
The possibilities are huge, to say the least.
Once you are done playing with the dough, you leave it to dry.
Once dry, the clay has hardened but is still fragile and will break if you are not gentle. This is when you can sand, engrave, and make holes to set them on a finding later. Once fired, you won’t be able to alter it much aside from polishing it or, on the contrary, patinate it. Therefore, your piece has to be as finished as possible.
Météor also created their own high-temperature oven and sell it for 100 €. It’s basic but you actually don’t need anything more sophisticated. Apart from theirs, this type of oven starts with the Prometheus, for more than 500 €. It is not specifically designed for firing metal clays, so it takes longer and uses more energy than necessary. I might buy one eventually if I end up dabbling with enamels, glass and the likes, but that budget is unreasonable for me right now.
Apart from silver, the metal clay pieces must be fired in active carbon. You put them in a stainless steel container, covered in carbon, into the oven and plug it. You leave it for the relevant time depending on the metal.
I am amazed at how simple it is. Of course, you need to be very careful and wear protections when using it: you are firing metal up to 900° C. You can see by the bright orange colour how hot it is.
Once the time is up, you can leave the pieces to cool inside the oven. But it’s best to take them out of the oven after only a few minutes: you will later obtain a shinier finish that way.
The stainless steel is bright red when out of the oven… There should definitely be gloves on this picture (it’s not my hand).
As soon as they are fired, the pieces make a beautiful metal sound when you put them down, even if they still look like dry clay! Very satisfying.
Looks like jewellery
After some polishing, it shines! All that is left to do is set them on hooks and clasps. That, I am familiar with.
At the end of the workshop, we each left with our creations and several tubes of metal powder. I bought an oven and can’t wait to try again!