How to Begin?

Since I teach at my studio on an ongoing basis, beginner students often arrive who have never touched metal clay before. My first impulse is to hand them a package of silver clay. But then I look around and see everybody else in the class working with either copper or bronze clay, and ask myself: why start with silver? Just because historically it was there first? Wouldn’t it make more sense for a beginner to start with cheaper materials, so they can feel free to experiment without the fear of ruining or wasting precious material?

So now I work with beginners on bronze and copper clay projects, and it turns out that they are a lot less hesitant to work with these clays than students who have been working with silver for a long time. It’s not surprising, because beginners don’t have to deal with change, and change can be intimidating. I see people with unopened jars of base metal clay still working with silver. And I see people who work with bronze clay but have not opened their copper jars yet. So what do we do to overcome this anxiety? Where do we start with this new medium, which doesn’t seem to be going away?

I say: start with what is most familiar to you. Make something that you have made with silver many times and you feel confident about. There is no better way to learn the differences between the clays. For my beginners I hand out the very same project that I have been teaching to beginners for the past ten years with silver. This is the first project, “Collage Pendant,” from my first book: The Handbook of Metal Clay: Textures and Forms. There is hardly any way to go wrong with this project, and it sets them on the right track. It has occurred to me over the yeas that maybe I should change the first project, but the feedback from my more experienced students has always been: “Don’t fix what ain’t broke.”

So: how to go about it? First, here are a few tips for handling the clay:

1. Don’t mix more than a third of a jar at a time. A small amount is easier to mix and the consistency is likely to be much better. [Edited April 5, 2014] Because the ingredients of the clays may not be evenly distributed through the bottle (even when shaken), it is recommended to mix clay a whole bottle at a time. When stored properly, it will last for a long time.

2. When the weather is warm, cool your distilled water in the refrigerator, or drop a few ice cubes in it. Once in a while roll your clay to a thin layer, spray it with the cold water, fold it and roll it flat again.

3. Don’t leave your clay unsealed or exposed to the sun.

What are the differences between silver and base metal clay when making the “Collage Pendant” project?

1. You can use both copper and bronze clay in a single piece.

2. As your backing layer, always use copper clay.

3. Dry the backing layer before placing the overlays.

4. Watch the backing layer while it’s drying and flip it over as soon as it starts to warp. Keep flipping until it stays flat, or tape it to the work surface.

5. After placing the overlays and drying, check for cracks in the backing layer and seal them.

6. It doesn’t matter which clay you use to seal the gap between the layers.

7. Make a copper bail to match the copper backing.

8. After firing and finishing, use liver of sulfur sparingly, just enough to paint the background brown. Then burnish the high spots. You can use Baldwin’s Patina instead.





Pieces in progress

Pieces in progress

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