Guest Post by: Mackenzie Kincaid – winner of the Five Class Challenge
I’ve always been a little too enthusiastic about DIY. It’s why I have a Pinterest account that’s wildly out of control, the scattered detritus of dozens of more-or-less-in-progress projects cluttering up my house, and a bad habit of dragging myself to bed in the wee hours of the morning after spending hours in a YouTube how-to video spiral. It’s far too easy to get lost in all the little details of a new project or a new medium: you get so caught up in getting everything just right that you end up never trying at all. Or maybe you get halfway into it, realize it’s a lot more challenging than you anticipated, and before you know it you’ve got yet another great idea gathering dust in the corner.
That’s the story of me and metal clay, at least. I’ve wanted to try it for ages, but there’s just so much to learn, and so much equipment to get together before I could even think of trying it, and so much conflicting information floating around the Internet. By the time I’d read enough to feel even remotely ready to dive in, I also felt like I was in over my head, drowning in information overload and unsure of where to begin.
Thankfully, Carol Avery and Lifelong Learning were there to save the day. I almost can’t even describe how much easier (and more fun!) it is to jump into a new activity or artistic medium when you’ve got an experienced instructor on hand and a well-structured plan for building your project from start to finish. That’s exactly what we did with the one-day Metal Clay: Silver class at the University of Utah Annex: we sat down in the morning to learn all about using metal clay and work on our projects, and we walked out in the evening with something ready to wear. No YouTube binge or Pinboard required.
Metal clay is exactly what it sounds like: it’s a form of precious metal (it comes in silver, copper, or bronze), together with binding materials, which works and feels just like clay. You can shape it, press it into a mold, stamp it, sculpt it, and when you’ve created something you like, you can fire it. The heat of firing the clay, with a kiln or a torch, burns away the binders and leaves you with a 99.9% pure precious metal piece, so it’s no wonder this has proved to be a very popular method of jewelry-making.
We started our class with a quick introduction to our instructor, each other, and the metal clay medium, and then we dove right in. Some of us already had projects in mind — I’d brought along a few silicone molds I’d made at home from a few antique coins and Victorian picture buttons — and some of us just made it up as we went along. Our instructor Carol had brought along a stunning collection of tools, molds, stamps, and even a kiln, turning our temporary classroom into an artist’s workshop for the day. This is another advantage of taking a class instead of trying to figure it out on your own: every tool we could possibly need was right there at our fingertips, included in our basic tuition for the class, and they came with an instructor to show us the best tips and tricks for how to use them. The process couldn’t possibly have been easier, and the silver metal clay was, as Carol had promised us, pretty much foolproof.
After we’d all stamped and molded to our heart’s content, we speed-dried our pieces using the highly specialized technical equipment known as a skillet, and then Carol loaded up the kiln as we wandered off for a few hours break. While we caught lunch and ran errands, our painstakingly crafted pieces were fired in the kiln, and when we returned, they’d been transformed as if by alchemy from tiny bits of clay into solid metal.
They were still covered in a fine white residue, the remnants of the burnt-away clay binder, but a few moments of work with a stiff bristled brush or a polishing cloth revealed the shining silver beneath, and it really was a kind of magic. To go from a tiny lump of clay that morning to holding a nearly-finished fine jewelry piece in hand in the afternoon felt like a cosmic leap forward in learning. On my own, I’d still be watching videos and trying to figure out exactly how to set up a safe at-home torch firing area. I’m not saying I definitely would have burnt my house down if left to my own devices, but I am saying it was a lot easier to go eat a panini and relax for a few hours while a professional with a kiln handled all the finer details of working with scorching heat.
With Carol’s guidance, our group breezed through finishing off our pieces, whether we were polishing, filing down rough edges, adding a little pop of color with gilder’s paste, or applying oxidizing agents to make our work look aged. Carol had even brought along a variety of different types of cords and beads, and showed us how to wire-wrap a bail onto our pendants, and how to string an adjustable-length necklace with a sliding cord. It’s a little unbelievable how much we managed to pack into a single day; we all went our separate ways as the class wrapped up, with beautiful and unique jewelry pieces, a newfound confidence in the medium, and the knowledge of where to start if we wanted to explore with metal clay further. (Taking more of Carol’s classes on the subject probably wouldn’t hurt!)
I managed to produce six different pieces of varying sizes from my single little lump of metal clay, but I have to say my favorites are these tiny earrings. I made them from my own mold of a Greek drachm coin, and each earring shows a separate side of the coin. On the backs of each tiny disc, my own fingerprints are faintly visible, a reminder that I made them with my own two hands.