Category Archives: metal clay

Process – Metal Clay Components

My personal jewelry style is very sculptural and nature-inspired. I like detailed, intricate jewelry that makes you look closely. I utilize technical skills honed over decades, laboriously fabricating components over the course of many hours, days or even weeks. But it all begins with metal clay.

Vickie Hallmark: fine silver clay components fired and ready to use in jewelry

What is Metal Clay?

Metal clay is an intriguing high tech material that has only been around for twenty years or so. Think of using simple tools to sculpt a piece of clay, but then popping it into a kiln to perform a bit of high-temperature alchemy. Voila! Clay transformed into pure metal. Originally, only fine (pure) silver was available, but now there are many choices, including sterling, multiple colors of gold, bronze, copper, and steel.

Vickie Hallmark – tiny flowers and leaves made from gold clay, ready for use in jewelry

Metal Clay Components

I love metal clay for its immediacy and sculptural qualities. I could carve traditional waxes and cast them to produce my small components. However, skill with clay allows me to use a minimum of time and very simple tools to work directly in metal and make each piece an original.

I typically warm up with a batch of tiny leaves, each cut as a disc from a sheet of silver clay then individually shaped by hand. It’s a meditative process that gets me into the groove before I start to work on more complex sculptures.

Vickie Hallmark – small silver clay sculptural components

For floral designs, I have flowers with 5+ petals, roses, fuchsias, and trumpets, and lots of leaves, big and small, lobed and veined. I also often use small quote plaques on the reverse of complex pieces, and these are made with clay.

Vickie Hallmark – hummingbirds and gold flowers, components for jewelry making

Once I’m warmed up, I can graduate to the fauna. I commonly make birds of every variety and pose, goldfish, and bees. The challenge is transforming a tiny lump of clay to a highly detailed sculpture the size of my fingertip. Each bit is dried, carefully sanded, and kiln fired to reduce it to pure silver or gold. Finally, I sort components into multi-compartment boxes for use at the bench. Only then will I design the base of the jewelry piece and sit down design and arrange a special vignette.

To see what Is on my bench at the moment, follow me on Instagram.





New Glass & Silver Pendant Finally Finished

Why do simple ideas sometimes get more involved? I thought I was going to whip out a few simple Garden Window Pendants, but then the muse took over. The simple oval I’ve used so many times looked flat and boring, so I cut a new shape. Then I had to carve out the corners to make that triangular shape more reminiscent of birdhouses. I decided to fix the flatness issue by adding a couple of bezel set sapphires and a bunch of vine decorations.

Vickie Hallmark hand-painted enamel bird on glass fine silver pendant

Then the back looked neglected, so I added more leaves and berries there as well. After firing, I tried a plain heavy jumpring bail, intending to texture it with pliers, but that just didn’t seem substantial enough. So I cut out a selection of bails. Only to have them be too small after firing. Remember that shrinkage thing, Vic? So I finally got smarter and cut a bail from an index card to match to my original index card template for the pendant. Fool me only once! That simple bail called out for some decorations of its own.

Vickie Hallmark hand-painted enamel bird on glass fine silver pendant back

You can see the next issue coming, can’t you? The simple ball chain just won’t do. Now I have these visions of a necklace to suit the pendant.

When, oh when, will I get to those other glass paintings?

Art and Design of Metal Clay Jewelry 2012 Calendar Now Ready to Pre-Order!

The fabulous Holly Gage has done it again! Along with jurors Emma Baird, Tracey Spurgin, and Lesley Messam, Holly selected work from over 300 submitted images to fill the pages of the 11″ x 17″ (open size) wall calendar.

From the gorgeous detail of Terry Kovalcik‘s locket on the front cover (above) to the work of the three jurors on the back, the calendar is filled with inspiring images of the best in metal clay today. Works from about forty of the best known and most accomplished artists in the field are accompanied by statements of inspiration or technique and website addresses. The calendar includes conference and competition deadlines to keep you on track.

This edition of the calendar is the most eclectic ever, showcasing silver, rose gold, bronze, copper, and steel clays. Take a look at the calendar preview and pre-order your copy today here.

I’m incredibly honored to be included again this year, with my syringe cloissone Vine earrings showing off enamel with silver clay in the month of October.

Fighting Artistic Resistance

Back in the studio this morning, trying to attract the Muse, I’m pushing ahead on the enamel setting, despite feeling that the work is too much the same as some previous creations (but different enamels). Just do it, I tell myself.

copper with painted enamel of oriole bird set in silver metal clay

When we sit own each day and do our work, power concentrates around us. The Muse takes note of our dedication. She approves. We have earned favor in her sight. When we sit down and work, we become like a magnetized rod that attracts iron filings. Ideas come. Insights accrete. 

— from “The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles” by Steven Pressfield

I realized again today, as many times in the past when I’ve had a bit of a creative block, that I haven’t bought any new music in some time. So I’ve caved to Reistance long enough to visit iTunes and purchase a couple of new albums. In my memories, specific albums are attached to major work. Something about the music actually makes the connection to the Muse easier. So today, I’m listening to Barton Hollow by The Civil Wars and Brandi Carlisle’s “The Story.”

Understanding Metal Clay Sintering

Many artists tend to view metal clay as a bit of a voodoo material. They have a recipe that works (usually the manufacturer’s recipe), and superstitiously follow it exactly, right up until it doesn’t work or they need to do something different, and then they’re at a loss. Understanding the process of sintering can help demystify firing metal clay, and allow us to approach new situations with an educated guess as to what might really work.

Composition of Metal Clay

7001 SEM
Metal powder

Metal clay is composed of super-fine particles of metal plus a binder. The metal particles may be all the same identity, such as in silver or copper clay, or they may be a mixture of different metal powders in the cases of bronze or other alloy clays. The binder is present for the express purpose of making the clay malleable, amenable to shaping in various ways. Once the binder burns off in the kiln or torch, what’s left is essentially a shape composed of tiny pseudo-spherical particles of metal with lots of air space between them. As you well know, filling a vase full of river rocks leaves a lot more air space than filling that vase with sand. Smaller particles pack more closely, which explains the drive over the years to reduce the particle size of the metal clays. As we see, this has desirable results in terms of strength in the finished product.

Between the point that the binder burns off and the finished product comes out of the kiln, a process called sintering takes place. This is very much like what happens when you dump your ice container into the sink. The individual ice cubes stick together, with holes remaining between the cubes. However, the ice in your sink is above its melting point, so it will eventually puddle in the sink. Ice does sticks together even below its melting point, as is obvious in ice makers left for some time. How does sintering actually happen?

Metal Atoms Moving
The key to understanding sintering is energy. Those particles of metal are actually composed of even smaller balls called atoms. The atoms in the center of the particle are happily surrounded by other metal atoms, but the atoms at the surface only have neighbors below and maybe some to the side. Each atom wants to be surrounded by other atoms, but the surface makes that impossible. Even so, the atoms will try to arrange themselves so as to maximize the connections to neighbors and minimize exposure to the outside world. Those little critters are very social and like to be in the midst of a group. Yes, the atoms can move, IF they have energy.

Consider an empty shoebox sitting on a table. Now pour a bowlful of marbles into the box. The marbles are just a mad jumble, probably mounded up in the center. If  the box is jiggled slightly, the marbles will start to move, rearrange and pack tightly. The mound in the center will slowly disappear and the surface will flatten. Those marbles at the top of the pile, touching only a few neighbors (three probably), will eventually wind up in a flat layer surrounded by a hexagon of six neighbors. The atoms deeper down may have neighbors below, above, and in the same layer for a total of twelve. That jiggle applied to the box is heat — energy that allows the marbles to move.

Now suppose one lonely marble is placed on top of a nice flat, but incomplete, layer. When the jiggling starts, that marble will run around on the surface, here and there, until it finds a hole, whereupon it will drop into the layer with all its friends. Happiness!

What if more heat is added, by jiggling the box more energetically? Then the packing down will happen faster. Unless too much heat is added, at which point the marbles will start to pop out of the lower layers onto the top surface rather than always wanting to drop into holes. That’s the melting point — when so much heat is added that the marbles don’t care about staying together nicely. Even more energy might cause atoms to fly out of the box!

Neck Growth
When a metal clay project is formed, the metal grains of atoms are separated by binder, touching each other occasionally. The atoms that exist at those points where the grains of metal touch are happier than the atoms off on the surface by themselves. When heat is added, those surface atoms wander over to hold hands with the larger group, forming a neck between the particles. Eventually the particles become more and more connected, and the holes between them become smaller. Atoms migrate from the surface to fill the voids, which causes shrinkage.

As long as energy is available, the movement continues. First the particles stick together, and then it takes time and more energy to fill in the voids. This is why metal clay fired at low temperature or for short times isn’t as strong — the connections within the piece are smaller. For the strongest, densest material higher temperature and longer firing times are advisable.

Predicting Results
From this understanding of what really happens on a microscopic level during firing, we can make predictions about what might happen in new situations. Heat provides energy for the connecting process to happen and speeds up the work, so increasing the temperature is good, right up until the point that melting is a concern. Because of inaccuracies in thermocouples and variations in heating distributions within a kiln, it’s not wise to try to get too close to the actual melting point. That’s why the top firing temperature recommendations are typically at least 50 degrees below the material’s melting point.

Even so, at lower temperatures, as with stones or glass, sintering will happen but more slowly. It’s wise to fire longer if using a lower temperature. Just because the manufacturer’s directions give a certain temperature and time doesn’t mean that other choices won’t work. Just follow the general guidelines — the lower the temperature, the longer the time. Firing longer than the recommended time is not an issue, and is probably beneficial, although at some point the tradeoff becomes pretty marginal.

With this picture of the microscopic process, we can also start to understand why sintering on the outside can happen while leaving the core of a piece powdery. It takes both energy AND time to do the work of moving those atoms. If the piece is heated very quickly or the piece is thick, the outside layer may become hot enough to sinter, since the atoms don’t have to move very far. But the interior may not get warm as quickly, and atom diffusion distances depends exponentially on temperature, so  even a small difference in temperature can result in a huge difference in neck formation. For comparison, moving an atom from the surface of a project into the interior one millimeter away is like driving your car 50,000 miles. Just because the car is at highway speeds doesn’t translate to quick arrival. Taking a plane would be better, or a spaceship, and even so it’ll still take time.

The upshot is that both time and temperature are important to ensure a well-crafted product. To maximize productive sintering, fire at the highest safe temperature tolerated by the materials in use. To maximize connections between particles, and therefore strength, fire for as long as circumstances allow, factoring in impact on schedule, equipment and personal patience.

complete firing
incomplete firing

The desired result should be to produce a completely fired project, with a surface such as shown in the first image from the PMC website. Low temperature or short time firings may result in incomplete firing, as shown in the second image.

New Directions: Powder Metallurgy (Metal Clay) in a Sheet Metal World, Part 1

I’m delighted to announce that one of my jewelry entries will be included in a fabulous online exhibition titled New Directions: Powder Metallurgy (Metal Clay) in a Sheet Metal World. The exhibition, hosted by Crafthaus,  will be presented in two parts, and Part 1 just opened yesterday. The exhibit is curated by Susan Breen Silvy and Christine Norton and was juried by Ann Davis and Jeannette Foese LeBlanc.

A print version of the exhibit will be displayed at the Metal Clay World Conference in Chicago in July, and there will be an expanded hard-copy catalog from the exhibit available for purchase at that time. The proceeds from sales of the catalog benefit CERF, the Craft Emergency Relief Fund. My work will be presented in the second part of the exhibit, opening on July 17 on Crafthaus.

Included amongst the treasures in this first half of the exhibit are

Lorena Angulo
Bird Nest


Catherine Witherell
In Florence They Dance on Mosaic Floors

and functional/decorative objects.

Cindy Miller
Tadpole Spoon

Ring a Week 13/52 – Benefits of Working in a Series

My desk is starting to be littered with rings…and we’re only one quarter of the way through the challenge. Because I liked the ring from last week so much, I decided to riff on its design. That brought me to thinking about the benefits of working in a series.

I was quite taken with the simplicity of the design last week. The ring was, in many regards, the easiest and quickest to build of all the rings I’ve made so far in this challenge. On the other hand, it wasn’t by any means the least of the collection. In fact, it seemed rather refined, with the reverse relating so beautifully to the front, the egg shape echoing the nestling, and the satin finish yielding an elegant, polished tone. Where do I go from there? Do I do the obvious and simply reproduce it with a different image in the center? Do I add enamel to bring in a pop of color? Do I set it aside to revel in my feeling that it’s superior and I can’t top it, so I should go back to another design for a reinvention?

Instead I decided to try a merging of two designs, which is quite typically where I’m always working. I like that “on the fence” place, I guess, where I try to combine two ideas that I’ve been working on separately to find something new and exciting. That’s when I spotted the toggles lying on my work table, victims of a rejected class proposal, looking forlorn and forgotten. One of the toggle rings had a similar shape to my nestling ring, with an oval opening in the center. Ah…I could cut my top a tad differently and add an extra triangle for a roof to make a birdhouse ring!

Away I went to quickly cut out the pieces needed, deciding to place a perched bird inside the birdhouse. That’s where I erred a tad. I placed the bird too high, forgetting that the roof would hide its face, leaving it a birdhouse for a headless bird. Not quite what I had in mind! So I omitted the roof and just embellished directly with rose and leaves. I guess I have another iteration to try for next week.

I’m missing my Master Muse tutorial sessions. I enjoyed designing the projects and photographing all the steps and writing out instructions. I wonder if there would be any market for small PDF tutorials to sell through my Etsy shop. Beadmakers do this all the time; perhaps it’s time for metal clay to get in on the fun. This birdhouse toggle clasp is first in line for such an experiment.

Ring a Week 12/52

I found a new simple ring design that I love. I think I might make a whole handful of these. Here’s the first, Nestling.

Fledgling Bird Ring by Vickie Hallmark in fine silver. bird, tree, branch, nest, baby, metal clay, pmc

Fledgling Bird Ring by Vickie Hallmark in fine silver. bird, tree, branch, nest, baby, metal clay, pmc

It was rather serendipitous design. I cut an oval and then a frame for it that had a hole too small. As both were drying, I cut another image into the proper size oval. Eventually I stacked them all up with the ring embedded between. Easy as it possibly could be.

And I finished ahead of my deadline this week!!! See the rest of the challenge offerings at the Ring a Week Flickr site.

Ring a Week 10 and 11/52 — Metal Clay Strap Band RIngs

This week I made two rings to make up for one of the weeks I missed due to being away. After prowling through my sketchbooks for new ideas (why haven’t I drawn anything in there lately??), I decided to try a new strap band ring design. The band was fired flat, then drilled and attached to the top with beaded rivets.
I’m not crazy about this strap band design. The rings feel too flat and dimensionless to me. The strap band attaching at the edges makes the ring shank less than round. I did like the ring face designs, so I think I’ll try to do the shank differently with a similar top. Even as I write this, modifications are popping into my head. Next week’s ring is coming right along (maybe I’ll even be on time).