Molding Multiples with Metal Clay Models

In its first decade in the United States , metal clay has found its firmest following among craft artists and hobby jewelers. These small-scale artisans have traditionally focused on metal clay’s potential as a medium for one-of-a-kind work, an area where the material shines. As their skills and businesses expand, though, some metal clay artists are beginning to look at metal clay as a starting point for production lines.

“When Peace Talks” pin by Holly Gage of Bowmansville, Pennsylvania.

Metal clay has not yet proven to be an effective substitute for casting: sterling silver is often preferred over fine silver for its relative strength, and the higher cost of metal clay compared to cast silver generally makes it unappealing for large volume production. But some craft artists have begun bridging the gap between one-of-a-kind and volume production by using metal clay to create production models and turning to traditional casting techniques for their reproduction.

Jennifer “Jeff” Bowie of Picklepot Studio in Salem , Massachusetts , saw the potential for metal clay to become a production tool during her very first class in the material. “My first attempts [included] a couple of pieces I really liked,” she says. “One was just a little ball that I pressed a texture on, and I thought, ‘Wouldn’t that make a lovely pair of earrings?’ So I got it into my head to send it to a caster.”

Ganoksin is sponsored by

That first little earring soon became one of Bowie ‘s best sellers, and metal clay became one of Bowie ‘s primary methods of constructing production models. “[With metal clay], I can start with a textured material and go through a whole series of permutations relatively quickly. If I had to photo-etch each and every piece, it would be an awful lot of labor up front,” she says. “I can sit with an ounce of clay and turn out 30 little design models. If I throw half of them out, so what? I haven’t lost a lot of time. and $15 on design models isn’t really a lot of money.”

The speed of design takes some of the heavy labor out of production work. “One of the things I like best about metal clay for production is that it makes it very easy for me to produce a number of design models, and to have fun in the design process,” she says.

In addition, the fact that the final model is a finished piece makes it easier for her to spot flaws prior to casting. “When you send a model for molding, any error you see in the piece you’ll see 100 times after casting,” she points out. “Every hour spent on perfecting the original model is five hours [saved] in clean up later down the line.” Bowie makes it easier to spot potential problems by putting a high polish on all her pieces, even those that will eventually have a matte finish. “It’s a whole lot easier to rough them all up later,” she says.

Ganoksin is sponsored by

After firing her metal clay pieces into fine silver, she solders on findings, such as jump rings for linking bracelets. The relative difficulty of soldering on the material is one of the few downsides to working with metal clay, she says.

“Soldering with metal clay is always tricky,” says Bowie . “Because of the [material’s] porosity, it soaks up solder like a sponge. You have to be very [alert] to solder findings

to Precious Metal Clay (PMC). I had one blow up. There was some kind of vacancy in the interior and it literally exploded. Those things don’t happen in rolled sheet metal.”

Ganoksin is sponsored by

Once it gets to the caster, though, casting metal clay production models is exactly like casting any other production model. “It’s a chunk of metal,” Bowie says. “[Metal clay] affects other processes, such as soldering, but for molding it’s the same as if it were a walnut.”

Although Bowie admits she could use traditional wax carving techniques for her designs, she finds metal clay easier to use. “For one thing, I’m a lousy wax carver,” she confesses. “Reductive carving is hard for me. [Metal clay] is very additive, so I can build a piece far more easily than I could carve it in wax.”

Bowie also likes the quality metal clay imparts to her pieces. “Metal clay has this organic flavor you don’t get in metal,” she says. “It allows my production work to be a little more unique. It lends a certain organic quality to what is normally a very static process.”

Ganoksin is sponsored by

That organic quality is also what Stephanie Olin of Stephanie Olin Designs in Huntington Beach , California , likes about her metal clay production models. “The ones I did originally in PMC look more dimensional, and not like when you wax carve,” she says.

Olin specializes in creating sterling silver charms, which she sells as components for use in other artists’ finished work. In addition to working in metal clay, she often relies on photo-etching on magnesium to convert pen and ink drawings into production models. “One process lends itself to a different look and technique than the other,” she observes. “When I do pen and ink, it’s very refined and controlled, and I can make whatever I want, such as little lines and stippling. PMC is different. [For example], I can’t really do [stippling] unless I hammer it in. I just don’t get the same look. It’s a more organic, raw, or rough look, and a lot of people like that.”

Olin also finds PMC easier to work with than the magnesium plates that result from her photo-etched drawings. “The nice thing about metal clay is you don’t have to do any of the filing or sawing out [that you do with the magnesium plates],” she says.

Ganoksin is sponsored by

Moving into production was a natural step for Olin, who began her artistic career in rubber stamping and eventually moved into designing jewelry based on those designs. A photo spread in a rubber stamping magazine provided the impetus to move into producing charms. “After the photo spread, I was inundated [by calls and letters], and [what] these people wanted was not necessarily finished jewelry, they wanted the charm. I’d say, ‘No, I’m selling jewelry,’ but I started adding up the e-mails and thought, maybe I’m going in the wrong direction. Maybe I need to sell the charms.”

Today, her primary sales venues are bead stores, although she fills small orders through her Web site. “My bread and butter is definitely wholesale volume orders,” she says. “The designers are trying to make a living selling their jewelry, and my charms are somehow adorning it.”

An unfilled market for components is also inspiring metal clay artist Lora Hart of Santa Monica , California , to move into production. “It’s difficult to sell enough jewelry to pay the bills, but components always sell,” she says. “I’m focusing on the bead market because it’s huge right now, and I don’t see it going away anytime soon. People love to make their own jewelry.”

Ganoksin is sponsored by

Hart sees a gap in the silver components being offered to this hobby market. “The components that I have seen in a few bead shops are nice, but they’re either Bali or [traditional designs] you see everywhere,” she says. “When I was starting to do beading, I didn’t want traditional, and I didn’t want Bali because it felt too ethnic. I wanted something in between.”

With this market in mind, Hart has begun work on a line of bead caps, bead cones, closures, and toggle clasps that she hopes to market through bead shops and wholesale shows. She relies heavily on metal clay for her jewelry making efforts because of its minimal set up requirements. “I like to work very early in the morning, and the only torch I can have in my tiny apartment is a butane torch, so I wouldn’t be able to get much work done,” she says, noting that her metal clay kiln doesn’t suffer from the same limitations.

Like Bowie , Hart also appreciates the fact that in metal clay she can create a positive finished piece, rather than the reversed images required by wax carving. A novice wax carver, she simply finds metal clay easier to manipulate. “I prefer working in metal clay because it’s easier for me to visualize what [the finished piece] will look like,” she says.

Ganoksin is sponsored by

Although Hart says she’s aware of some artists who are offering one-of-a-kind metal clay components to the hobby market, taking the next step into combining her metal clay work with traditional casting techniques offers several advantages. “People are trying to market metal clay like sterling silver or pewter, but it is more expensive and it’s more time consuming [than casting], which adds to the labor cost. I’d like to get the cost down. Only serious, heavy-duty jewelry makers would spend $40 on a component to put in a piece, and it would have to be pretty spectacular. If I can get the cost down to where pieces are under $10, that will be great.”

In addition to lowering prices, Hart sees creative advantages to moving away from making each piece individually. “I can spend hours on one piece, sanding and filing and making it perfect,” she says. “That’s great if I’m using it in a [finished] piece that I want to sell. But if I’m making components in order to sell them, I only want to go through that rigmarole once or twice.”

Avoiding the tedious job of repeating intricate work was also the primary motivation for artist Holly Gage of Bowmans-ville , Pennsylvania , when she turned to casting metal clay models. After creating a piece called “When Peace Talks,” which carried significant personal meaning, she wanted to share it with friends and colleagues-but she didn’t look forward to spending hours replicating the design.

“This piece is so intricate and painstaking, producing that by hand took a lot longer than I’d like it to,” she says. “This particular piece has such spiritual value, I’m interested in spreading the message. Being able to cast is an opportunity to do that.”

One of the challenges in preparing the model for casting was to improve the original’s durability, Gage says. “My caster said that the piece needed to be tempered; it’s [in an] annealed state just out of the kiln,” she explains. Metal clay artists typically tumble pieces with steel shot to work-harden them and burnish the surface, but Gage was concerned that tumbling might damage the fine details on the surface.

Her solution was to place the piece in a plastic bag first, and then tumble it. “The shot is only touching the piece through the bag, so it’s not affecting the finish,” she explains, noting that the tumbling none-theless work-hardens the piece.

Like many metal clay artists, Gage is drawn to the medium primarily by its accessibility. “The ease of metal clay opens so many creative doors,” she says. “Doing this in wax would be a lot harder-metal clay is just so forgiving. If I don’t like a design, I just squash it and start over.”

A love for the medium combined with time pressures led Carl Stanley of Santa Barbara , California , to metal clay for the production of a limited-edition piece as a donation to a local food bank. Since he needed only 50 pieces, which would be given to the food bank’s supporters, metal clay was an effective way of producing identical pieces quickly. “I was down to a couple weeks to have [the pins] finished, and I just decided metal clay would be a good way to go,” Stanley recalls.

Stanley carved his pin design into a block of pink rubber formulated for making rubber stamps. Then he took a package of metal clay, divided it into 10 equal pieces, rolled each piece into a ball, and pressed each into the carved rubber. He repeated the process until he had 55 pieces, fired them, and soldered on pin backs.

“I could have opted to make a mold and cast the piece, but I would have run into the traditional problems associated with casting-like injecting the wax and [possible casting] failures because the pieces were fairly thin,” he says. “With the time crunch, I wanted them done quickly, so I opted to make them of metal clay. It didn’t take long to do, and cost-wise it was about $120 to finish the project. Sterling silver would have been less expensive, but more labor-intensive.”

Stanley notes that it was the small size of his production run that made the metal clay reproduction effective. “If I had to do 500 of them, I never would have done them that way,” he says. “It was a little tricky to push them in the mold and make it come out right. There were a couple that did tear and I had to ball them up and start over, but that’s the beauty of metal clay. In a small production run, metal clay works well.”

With its higher material cost, metal clay may never replace casting and die striking in the mass production of jewelry. But it has begun to find its own niche alongside better-known production techniques. Whether it’s used for direct replication of very small production runs or as a production model for casting, metal clay can no longer be classified strictly as a one-of-a-kind medium.

In association with
The award-winning Journal is published monthly by MJSA, the trade association for professional jewelry makers, designers, and related suppliers. It offers design ideas, fabrication and production techniques, bench tips, business and marketing insights, and trend and technology updates—the information crucial for business success. "More than other publications, MJSA Journal is oriented toward people like me: those trying to earn a living by designing and making jewelry," says Jim Binnion of James Binnion Metal Arts.
Category: