Last week’s post took a somber turn as I contemplated the depth of meaning behind this year’s Memorial Day. This week starts on a cheerier note with some exciting updates from my time at the bench! Brace yourself for a rollercoaster ride of successes, setbacks, learning curves, and a few equipment failures.
I took last week off from my day job in order to dive into some new techniques. The first thing on my agenda was to create silicone rubber molds from objects I had on hand. The second was to begin experimenting with metal clay (that’s where the molds come in). A third pursuit appeared as a result of the second: learn to solder my jewelry. (This is, to be frank, a very basic skill that I should have had for some time now. Despite being a huge fan of campfires and marshmallow roasts, I’m intimidated by torches and have been hesitant to use one.)
With my two-part molding kit, a cut-off bathroom roll end, a seashell, and some sticky-tac, I was able to create a very realistic mold. I wanted to start fairly large, so this was no place to test silver clay, which is costly. Instead, I cast some polymer clay and was reasonably pleased with the result. There are minor imperfections (including some stray glitter) but overall I was satisfied with first part of my experiment.
Next, I cast some much smaller shells. I intended for these to be as three-dimensional as I could make them, which turned out to be more of a challenge than I had anticipated. Tiny shells are delicate, and I had difficulty affixing them to the bottom of my mold frame without destroying them. Eventually I settled on using super glue, which had the disadvantage of leaving voids at the top of the mold where the shell did not rest evenly.
Playing with Metal Clay
With my molds prepared, it was time to start testing out the clay. I started with PMC Flex, which has been discontinued, so I had to remind myself not to get attached to the medium. From descriptions, it seemed like a good beginner’s clay. I purchased a scant 5 grams, but this still turned out to be enough to make a few pieces.
Most beginner tutorials I came across emphasized rolling and cutting the clay, so that’s where I began. Using two playing cards as guides, I carefully rolled out a tiny bit of clay and cut a pair of abstract hearts using a small cutter from my polymer clay days. These hearts were incredibly small and thin, and I worried about their fragility. Nevertheless, I managed to transfer them onto a small ceramic tile for baking.
Next up were my newly created molds. To my surprise, the deeper, three-dimensional molds were quite easy to fill, although they required a fairly hefty amount of clay. The shallower molds were prone to letting the clay slip out. I was lacking some fairly basic tools, which I’ve since acquired, so maybe next time will go more smoothly. I baked my first pieces in a toaster oven at 350° F for 20 minutes, in order to thoroughly dry the pieces. Not all metal clays require this baking step; the manufacturer recommends it for PMC Flex.
It’s Getting Hot in Here
At last, it was time to face my fiery fears and apply the torch to my creations. I’d had a kitchen model sitting on my shelf since January, along with a can of quality butane. I’m super clumsy when it comes to filling even a fireplace torch, so I was intimidated by this behemoth model, even though it promised to be ideal for crème brûlée, and thus perfectly accessible to a newbie like me.
As I went to fill the canister, butane flooded the stand base. I had my partner try it. Same result. We tried another can of butane. And once again, fuel spewed everywhere. But some made its way into the canister. Unfortunately, the trigger lock also failed to function. My firing plans were foiled!
Feeling rather peevish, I promptly ordered a replacement torch for overnight delivery. I was ready to face my fears! And there was no time to waste. Early the next day, the torch arrived, and with much trepidation I set my tiny clay hearts on top of the firing stone I’d acquired some time before, in anticipation of this fateful day. I fired up my torch, adjusted the flame, and began the delicate dance between fire and clay.
My firing stone immediately cracked.
I watched in terror as a small fracture opened up in the base of the brick, and rapidly made its way toward the cone of the torch’s flame. “Watch the clay!” I reminded myself. “Salmon glow, two minutes minimum!” The crack grew longer. I imagined tiny shards of ceramic laughing their way past my reading-glasses-as-eye-protection foolishness.
Hearts on Fire
I shifted between watching the delicate little hearts, observing the lengthening crack, and checking to too-slow timer. Finally, three minutes had passed, and with no real sense of how long I’d managed to maintain the right temperature, I shut off the torch and left the tiny hearts to cool down. They were white in color and not shiny, which is exactly what they were supposed to be. However, when I attempted to polish them I got less than satisfactory results, so I suspect they were under-fired. I’ll hit them again when I have a little more confidence.
After all that, I was more determined than ever to have a success. My vacation time was slipping away, and I’d accomplished little more than a polymer clay seashell and a lot of frustration. I ordered another firing surface from a well-known name brand. I ordered an assortment of silicone molds. I ordered more clay. I watched my budget cower in fear.
Next week I’ll bring you up to date on how things progressed. I had a lot of realizations, and some triumphs. And I bought more supplies (imagine that). Join me next time for the latest updates and new photos of finished stuff!
Cover photo by Tobias Rademacher on Unsplash