My wife frequently wears a pendant that I made for her. It is a silver heart with dichroic glass fused in the center. I had no silversmith training and shaped the heart from silver clay, which is like modeling clay.
Silver clay is made of fine silver particles suspended in a binder that burns away during firing. After the binder disappears, the silver particles fuse together to form solid silver. The silver can be fired in any kiln that will reach 1650 degrees F. (However, a small digital kiln is most suitable.)
Sallie Bly, a certified Silver Art Clay teacher and distributor, kindly agreed to answer the 20 most frequently asked questions on silver clay.
THE TOP 20 QUESTIONS ON SILVER CLAY
1) What is the difference between PMC and Art Clay Silver?
Both companies manufacture metal clay. They are like Pepsi and Coke--similar but slightly different. Both companies have clay, syringes, paste and paper; both have high-fire and low-fire products. However, they each have unique products that the other does not have. If you learn to use one company’s clay, you will be able to work with other company’s clay. However, when you fire, refer to the Art Clay Silver firing guide for Art Clay Silver and the PMC firing guide for PMC.
2) Can I fire the metal clays without a kiln?
Yes. You can use a butane torch or PMC's hot pot. In my classes I teach how to use the torch. However, I do not recommend it. I have had too many students who rely on the torch and have had irreparable failures. If you under-fire, the piece will not be strong and will eventually break. If you get the torch too close, you will melt the silver and lose detail. Recently a student who uses the torch brought me a piece that had broken into several pieces when torched. I knew by the look of the interior that the piece had not been dried thoroughly before firing. Had this piece been fired in a Paragon SC-2 kiln at Ramp 3, it would not have broken.
I believe that most bead stores and ceramic shops would agree to be a firing station if they understood what was in it for them. Firing stations charge between $5.00 per kiln load up to $10.00 per piece to be fired, and most people want to wait for their pieces to be fired. That means between 20 minutes and an hour of shopping. Most of my students say that they would prefer having someone fire their pieces in a kiln as opposed to learning how to use a torch. Locally we have an excellent firing station in a bead store.
3) How many coats does it take to coat a leaf, and why does the leaf curl when I am painting it?
This is one of the hardest questions to answer without being in a classroom. It depends on the size of the leaf, the structure of the leaf's vein, the end use of the fired leaf, and how thick your paste is.
Your first few coats are vital to your project. The paste should be air-dried for the first coats, because if the leaf dries out before you get enough paste on it to weigh it down, the leaf will curl. Even when air drying, don't let too much time go by before adding the next coat, or again your leaf will curl.
4) What happens to the leaf and other combustible objects in the kiln?
Straws, leaves, cork clay and other natural products we use to support the clay burn away. Sometimes they leave residue in the kiln. Occasionally use a small computer vacuum cleaner or canned air to clean out the kiln interior.
5) Does the clay come in gold?
Yes, gold comes in clay and paste. However, a good alternative to gold is Kuem Bu. This is a special gold leaf that adheres to the silver by a hot embossing method. It is 22K gold.
6) If I don't like what I make, can I melt it down and sell it for scrap?
Yes. However, I always advise my students that no matter how much they dislike something they have made in metal clay, there is someone out there who will love it and pay them more for it than they would get as reconstituted silver. One of the designs I had to make in my Level II class was really ugly, in my opinion, and I thought I made it even uglier than it was intended. I put it up for sale at a high price, because we all know that the biggest mistake an artist can make is to sell something too cheap. The woman who bought it was so excited about having a one-of-a-kind handmade silver necklace. I made a lot more than I paid for the silver.
7) Can I refill the syringe with paste?
Yes, but there will be air bubbles that might ruin your design. I keep one syringe that I have refilled with thick paste that I use as a filler. It is just as good as my sludge pot.
8) What is Art Clay Silver?
Art Clay Silver is a pure metal powder mixed with non-toxic binders and water. When fired, the binders burn away and leave pure 99.9% silver.
More practically it is a product that feels like clay and behaves like clay. However, when it is fired in a kiln, it becomes pure fine silver.
9) Is Art Clay Silver sterling?
No. Sterling has alloys added to the fine silver. Art Clay Silver is 99.9% pure fine silver. As a note, most people who are allergic to silver are actually allergic to one of the alloys. Therefore, they are able to wear fine silver.
10) Can I make what I see at the store?
Depending on your artistic ability, yes. If the piece were cast by the thousands, you could probably buy it cheaper than you could make it. However, if the piece you want to duplicate is an expensive one-of-a-kind art piece, you could get into trouble because of copyright laws.
The real advantage of the metal clays is that you can learn to make one-of-a-kind pieces that reflect your style for a small percentage of the price and minimal training compared to years of training in traditional metalsmithing.
11) The silver clay shown in magazines sometimes is shiny, sometimes has a matte look, and sometimes it is colored. Do all of these come from the same clay, and how do they get the colors?
The silver finish is determined by how you work with the clay both before and after firing. A high shine is achieved with sandpaper, rotary drill using 3M radial bristle discs, magnetic burnishers, or just good old-fashioned elbow grease.
Most people think that Liver of Sulphur gives silver an old, black effect. Wrong. When used correctly, you can get the color and effect you want: gold, amber, magenta, blue, and then black. Most colored pieces are made with Liver of Sulphur or enameling.
12) Can I fire the clay with sterling silver findings?
The new low-fire clays (650 for Art Clay Silver and PMC3 for PMC) mix well with sterling silver. I have had only one case where they were incompatible. I now always test the sterling silver finding or sterling silver wire I want to use with a little metal clay on it in the kiln first. If there is no reaction, I continue with the project.
13) If a piece breaks after firing, can it be soldered?
Yes. However, Art Clay Silver has a product called Oil Paste that works with pieces that have been fired and burnished. It is like soldering in the kiln - easy and successful.
14) I have read that gemstones can be fired directly into the clay. Can I fire my diamond in it?
Most CZs can be fired into your projects. I have seen several failures with stones that were supposedly tested for the heat required for the metal clays. One beautiful diamond-like CZ became cloudy and had an opal appearance--very attractive and fortunately it worked with the design, but a failure nevertheless.
One CZ lost all of its facets and became a rounded piece of glass. This was a real failure, and I had no solution for fixing it.
In my studio, I test all stones personally before they are worked into projects. If a stone fires correctly the first time, it will fire the same way (at the same temperature) in each subsequent firing.
As for you diamond, the answer is no. However, you can place a setting into your piece and set your diamond in after the firing.
15) Can I enamel on the metal clays?
Yes. You might have read that it is not recommended to enamel on sterling. There again, it is the alloys that cause the problems.
Fine silver is an excellent source for enameling. PMC artist Mary Ellin D'Agostino has even developed a new technique for adding the enameling into the clay before it is worked into a design.
16) How long is the clay good for? What do I do if I open the package and it is dried out?
The clay is good indefinitely. Until it is fired, it can be reconstituted and reworked into something else.
I had a 20-gram piece that I wasn't happy with. I kept thinking that if I just added one more thing here and there, it would be great. Eighty grams and one year later, it was time to give it up. Because it sat on a bureau in a hot dry room for a full year and because it was so big, it took a week to reconstitute. The piece I made with that reconstituted 80 grams is one of my favorites.
17) After a student works hard on their first piece, they often say, "I don't like this. Do I have to fire it?"
Yes. There is a big difference between what your piece looks like when it is still in the clay stage and what it looks like after it is fired. I always tell my students that it is imperative that they fire their first pieces. I guarantee that if they do not like it, I will exchange it for the same amount of silver clay. I have never had a student take me up on it. However, once students can tell from experience what the finished piece will look like, I back up their decision to reconstitute the clay and start over.
18) How much does the clay shrink?
The clay will shrink approximately 10 percent. PMC makes a ruler that allows you to create your piece taking that shrinkage into account.
19) Can I really make metal clay jewelry if I am not an artist?
I strongly believe that inside everyone is an artist just waiting to be discovered. I have had students that had never done anything "crafty" before taking my class. A lot of them go on to sell their work starting with friends and co-workers, and some have become affiliated with a gallery. You do not have to believe in your talent to learn, but learning and doing will help you to believe in yourself and your talent.
20) I don't want to teach, so why would I want to be certified?
There is a greater demand for classes than there are teachers and places to learn. When you take a certification class to teach, not only do you get the recognition of being a certified teacher and a 35% discount off the clay, but you learn many techniques for working with the clay. By the end of certification you learn how to work with the paste, syringe and clay. You learn how to roll the clay out to a uniform thickness, add texture, and make bails. You learn how to get the shiny mirror finish, add CZs prior to firing, and set gemstones into the settings that you have placed in your piece. You learn how to work with Overlay Paste on glossy and non-porous surfaces like porcelain, glazes and glass. You learn how to work with cork clay and how to mix dichroic glass cabs with silver clay. You learn how to embed wire and place pins into your piece prior to firing. You even learn how to make two types of rings--flat band and round band. By the time you finish with certification classes, you really know how to work with the clay, fire it (kiln and torch), and color it with Liver of Sulphur.
I hope you are enjoying your summer and getting ready for a busy fall.
With best wishes,
Arnold Howard Paragon Industries, L.P. – Better Designed Kilns 2011 South Town East Blvd. Mesquite, TX 75149-1122 Voice: 972-288-7557 & 800-876-4328 / Fax: 972-222-0646 firstname.lastname@example.org / www.paragonweb.com