Metal Clay workshop

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!

 

Beginners’ workshop

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.

 

Modeling

I tried my hand at copper as I am hopelessly in love with this metal.

copper metal clay

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.

dry metal clay

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.

 

Firing

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.

metal clay oven

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).

fired metal clay

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

metal clay jewelry

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!

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21st century problems

After my neck, my hand is going on strike with a bloody tendonitis. I should give my computer mouse a hearty, highly sarcastic thanks for that. It doesn’t stop me from making stuff, but it slows me down.

Damn, I’m getting old.

Although in the meantime, I’m doing some interesting reading!

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Setting up a workshop

With September and the start of autumn and school term, I went through the tidying up frenzy that seizes me every two or three years.

It happens because I live in a small flat and I can’t keep many things. This is to date the most irritating thing about living on my own. I inherited from my father that impossible logic of ‘Oh, I’ll keep it, it might be useful one day’. That’s how you end up with a literal hill of rubbish destined to the dumpster the next time you move (feel the experience?).

Generally — and this time was no exception —, come the frenzy, I toss around all my clothes (from my closet, that is) and put away everything I don’t wear anymore, to be given to charity; I go through all my furniture (‘Do I really need you? Are you conveniently placed? Eh, you can sod off.’) and its contents; I attack every corner with the vacuum, clean, scrape, until I end up with much more space, both in reality and in my mind.

This fascinating anecdote leads me to something more relevant to this blog. I finally took the time to think and reorganise my beading set up. I’ve always wanted some sort of workshop. I threw away half the stuff in my bedroom that had no other use than sit there collecting dust, and bought a table. After a lovely time cursing Ikea designers over three generations, I was ready to free my living room table from its burden.

workshop in progress

I have yet to put this new workshop to the test. I might make a few changes with use and probably to take into account my resolute laziness.

workshop

Isn’t it nice ? I think it’s nice. Yet again, I don’t have much light. That’s living on the ground floor for you. But I’m closer to the window so hopefully it won’t be so terrible.

For the curious, you can glimpse some of the drawings and pictures I like to hang around me. Facing my desk are three frames: a digital painting by Cali Rezo, a page from Moi je by Aude Picault and a drawing I made long ago. On the right wall: Corto Maltese by Hugo Pratt, Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson, Blacksad by Guarnido and Diaz Canales, a feather I painted, the Visiteur du futur, Rorschach from Watchmen, an old family picture, and a portrait of my great-great-grandfather. Someday, if someone asks, I might tell the story behind that one.

The computer on the opposite side is — or used to be — my video editing station. I seldom use it now, but I still have some ideas in mind that will require I get back into it.

Now that I have a decent-looking working space, I think I’ll make more step by step accounts of my creations. But first, I’ll buy a comfortable office chair with wheels. Resolute laziness, I said.

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Addiction

jewelry addiction

 

My supplier has a dubious sense of humour…

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Sewing table

I got my hands on a sewing table!

Sewing table closed

Well, it’s not exactly a table, but it’s full of compartments and hopefully it can contain all my beading stuff. I need to sand and re-varnish it, that work is currently in progress.

Sewing table open

I say ‘hopefully’, but maybe ‘in some perfect world nowhere near reality’ would be more accurate. The space that beading material takes is insane, especially if you function like I do. This is supposed to be my living room table. I have four tin boxes that I haven’t been able to close for months, a full bag of scales and three or four small plastic boxes for jump rings and crimp beads.

Workshop without a sewing table

Good thing I don’t entertain often.

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The Infernal Cycle

Jewellery making cycle

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Taking jewellery pictures – Tutorial

In order to sell jewellery (or anything, for that matter) on the internet, it’s no secret that you need to take particular care of your pictures. An online shop works like a shop window, but the potential buyer can’t come in to touch or try on the items. Pictures are all they get, which can be frustrating as we all know they are not always trustworthy. Who hasn’t bought something online that looked amazing on the photo and then got sorely disappointed when they received it?

I try to always post pictures that bring out my creations while showing as many aspects of it as possible. I do retouch them, but only to enhance, never to cheat.

I’ve made a step-by-step of how I usually proceed. I hope this can be useful to new sellers that would stumble upon it.

 

Disclaimer

You should know I am lazy as hell. Also, as jewellery is a hobby, I refuse to invest too much in my shop. My way is therefore very much a ‘nevermind-that’ll-do’ way.

 

What kind of pictures should I take?

Fashion products are all about overexposed photos on a white background. Whatever you are trying to sell, the good thing about having an online shop is that you can create your own style.

Bear in mind that photography is a profession and that every customer is surrounded on a daily basis by big brands that know exactly what they are doing because selling is also a profession. Here, we have to focus their display on a personal, handmade, small business identity, but without looking amateur about it.

 

First, the material.

One cool thing about living in this day and age is that it’s not hard to get a decent camera. I use my smartphone. It’s 5 megapixel, which is plenty. Stores and advertising always make you worry that the resolution won’t be enough, and direct you towards overpriced 8 or 13 megapixel, but you won’t see any difference unless you print on a poster. Plus, Etsy recommends pictures 1000 pixel wide only, otherwise they’ll take too long to load (the internet customer has very little patience).

 

Then, the setting.

First and easy rule: you need light. Natural light is best, unless you own a photo studio.

jewellery pictures tutorial

For this tutorial, I’ll take ‘Morgane’ as an example. They are red Czech glass drop beads earrings with Swarovski crystals and silvertone caps. I’ll show a few tricks o get to the above picture’s quality.

 

Lighting

One important trick is to avoid lights that are too aggressively bright. Pointing a lamp directly on your item won’t make a good picture: it will be too contrasted, the shadows too pronounced and the colours will suffer.

Pictures0

This was taken with a desk lamp pointed directly at the earrings. Even after enhancing, it’s quite awful.

Pictures0bis

The yellowish tone is gloomy, the shadows are terribly dark and my beautiful red beads lean towards a weird pinkish wine red. I had a hard time taking the picture because my own shadow kept coming into the shot. This photo gives a general oppressing feeling that makes me want to get out of here, precisely what we wish to avoid.

 

DIY is cool

You can easily build a light box, it’s very simple and cheap: this tutorial is good, or this one if you prefer video.

You can also put white paper in front of the light source (tracing paper or baking paper work best in my experience) to diffuse the light and soften the shadows. Just be very careful: hot lamps lead to burning paper. Please don’t burn your house or yourself.

 

Or try the lazy way

The best option, and the most simple, is natural light. Usually homes have windows or, even better, a garden; use that. This is my set.

jewellery pictures tutorial

The surface on which I display my jewellery is a cardboard box lid put on a stool. I bought the box in a general store for something like 4 €. It’s large enough and has some kind of snake skin imprint that gives it a discreet charm. My white painted wall often shows in the pictures too. I don’t really like it but it’s neutral enough and I can’t afford to change it. Nevermind, that’ll do (I did warn you).

Pictures2

A white display stand is best in my opinion. White reflects the light best, it looks professional and the items come out great on it.

 

Taking the pictures

Etsy, the platform I use, allows you to post 5 pictures per item; you should definitely use them all. Try to vary the shot angles and positions of the item. It all depends on what you are selling, of course. Get creative! Or course, pay attention to framing and ban any blurry picture.

I take at least one frontal picture that shows everything, one to show the beads or stones’ colour, shape or veins up close, and one where I am wearing the jewellery. As I don’t like showing my face on the internet, I crop that picture to leave only the necessary part. The rest is up to my mood or the item itself. For earrings, I always take one picture of them hanging to a simple wine glass so the buyer can see how they fall.

[Update: I made a more detailed article about listings and Etsy shops!]

 

Enhancing

Now, I took a picture of Morgane. It doesn’t do the earrings justice yet. It’s dull, a bit lifeless, and the red beads are much better-looking than that in real life. So I will now retouch it a bit.

Pictures3

Any picture editing software will do for enhancing. I use Photoshop because I had professional use for a license once upon a time (it’s an old version I haven’t updated in years), but you really don’t need to spend that much. Gimp is an excellent freeware, but Paint on Windows or Preview on Mac OS X are enough too. Very little browsing is necessary to learn on any software the basic manipulations I’m about to describe, or their equivalent.

 

Levels (Ctrl or Cmd + L / Image >Adjustments > Levels…)

I won’t go into technical details because we don’t care and I’m no expert.

Levels are easy to understand: the graphic shows the levels of brightness and darkness of your image. The higher the level, the lighter the picture part. Fiddle with the little cursors and the picture gets lighter or darker. By all means, go lighter. Be careful not to ‘flatten’ the picture by removing too much dark tones : contrast is essential to keep.

jewellery pictures tutorial

Now that’s better, but not perfect.

 

Curves (Crtl or Cmd + M / Image > Adjustments > Curves…)

Same concept. You have a line over the light and dark tones that you can wiggle around as you like. Add brightness while keeping darkness to maintain contrast or even add some.

jewellery pictures tutorial

Now, that’s quite good!

 

Last corrections

If I messed up the framing, I’ll crop the picture to correct it (in the toolbox / shortcut: C). Sometimes, putting the item slightly not in the middle gives a great effect. That’s called the rule of thirds. Don’t use it too much though; we are showing a product to sell, not making art photography.

Then, I shrink the picture to 1000 pixels for posting on Etsy (Ctrl or Cmd + alt + I / Image > Image Size…) and voilà! Morgane at its best.

jewellery pictures tutorial

I hope this was useful!

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An Actual Shop

I recently photographed my work displayed on a stall. This is for a project I hope will come to be in the next few months. I am working with a good friend of mine who is a professional engraver. The stall is all DIY; I think we did a great job!

Here are the pictures of my part of the stall. I also put them up on my shop’s about page!

MercysFancyShop1 MercysFancyShop2MercysFancyShop3 MercysFancyShop4 MercysFancyShop5

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Side job

Did you know that, if someone can make jewellery, they can probably repair it too (even if it’s not something they’ve made)? I happen to love it; to me, it’s like playing Legos.

jewellery repair

I am getting more and more popular among my coworkers…

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Work in progress #2

I’ve recently been inspired by Viking jewellery. I love the turtle brooches with several strands of beads. I’m trying to make something close with the materials I have laying around.

A word of warning: making jewellery is not my main activity. Therefore, I never took the time and money to put together a good working space. I work on my cluttered living room table, with terrible lighting and even worse seating. I don’t give much of a damn about my comfort, so let it be known I’m quite a bad example.

WIP-viking1

Yes, I put my beads in a tin box that once contained cheese crackers… The computer is for picture reference and music.

WIP-viking2

Even after sketching, I prefer to lay down all the beads and pieces. What I have in mind and what is possible or better looking are often different. Plus, it makes me check if I actually have enough material to make the whole necklace.

WIP-viking3

I mixed amazonite and blue agate with silver-coloured chandeliers that can hold three strands of beads. Their style is rather victorian(ish) than Viking, but nevermind, it’s still pretty. I’m adding some metal beads and caps here and there.

Final result coming soon!

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