Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Joy of Metal Clay: The basic tools

Carol a student  from a recent class emailed me a question regarding my recommendations on the basic tools.  For the frugal minded metal clay beginner I am a believer of starting simple. It is easy to get swept up but the excitement of starting something new but remember you need some money to pay for your clay.

What do you really need?  This is a matter of opinion so here is mine:

What you definitely need:

  • Clay (obvious)
  • Somewhere or somehow to fire your clay (This need can be complicated as different metal clays require different firing methods. To keep it simple try and find a dealer or fellow artist who you can pay to fire your metal clay. If you are firing the clay on your own make sure you know what you are doing and take safety precautions. The basics you need to fire most fine silver metal clays is a torch, a fire brick, a fire proof surface, a dish of water, tongues and good directions - can be found on the Art Clay World website)
  • A surface to work on: I use plastic cutting boards from the dollar store.
  • A roller: Buy an acrylic roller.  A dowel can work but will leave impressions on your clay, you can cut PVC piping but the effort and cost is not worth it, unless you are making a bunch for  a class or to share among friends.
  • Cutting tool: A craft knife is quite a handy tool.  Make sure your blade is sharp. Dull blade makes for lousy cutting.  I also like a fine pin tool.  A good one can cost a lot so you may want to wait on that purchase until you know this something you love.  I have tried to make one using a sewing needle but find the needle is not sturdy enough.
  • Water
  • Non stick solution: I use olive oil. There are fancy products out there that work great but olive oil is cheap and easy.  Some students I know purchase it in an aerosol can so that they get a thin layer on the texture sheets. Personally, I put mine in a jar and dunk an old toothbrush in and use the toothbrush to paint a layer of oil on the surfaces I need.
  • Paint brush.  Used to pain on thin layers of clay, to make repairs, to smooth surfaces.  Don't go too cheap on this as you don't want the paintbrush hairs to fall out in your work.
  • Toothpicks:  These are great to smooth  edges,  make starter holes in metal clay and if you are careful enlarge small holes in dry clay.
  • Makeup brush: Cheap ones aren't as good and tend to fall apart.  I splurge and buy the $4 pack instead of the dollar store ones... but these do work as well.
  • Slats:  I am not sure the right word for this but this is the tool that helps you roll you pieces out evenly.  You can use playing cards if you are on a budget.  Generally one playing card is .25 mm thick.
  • Straws:  These are used to make holes, can be used to shape items like bails. I have used them to shape petals too.
  • Sandpaper:  I encourage my students to keep sanding to a minimum. That being said I find that 400 grit sandpaper the handiest.  The higher the number the finer the grit. Again cheap sandpaper is not a good idea, you will find that the sand comes off into your clay dust (which you usually can reuse).  If you want to hand finish your pieces to a mirror finish you need sandpaper (actually called emery paper in the jewellery world) up to at least 2000 grit. 
  • Burnisher:  I  love my agate burnisher. But if you want a cheap option the back of a stainless steel spoon works in a pinch.  I also like using my ball stylist.
  • Clay storage:  You can often use the bag your clay comes in.  Heavy-duty well-sealed bags will work.  I use containers called Buddy Cups. They are inexpensive and they seal well.  I have found that many of the dollar store containers don't seal as well. I have purchased some little ones to use as paste pots for a class and the paste dried out.
Probably will need:
  • Cookie cutters: Depending on your style you may or may not use cookie cutters.  Most  will find that circular cookie cutters are essential.  The great thing about cookie cutters is that you get a quick and easy cut.
  • Stencils:  This is another option for shaping your designs there are a lot out there. I would say that the two I use the most are my circles and my hearts.
  • Textures:  Control yourself if you can, these can get additive. Remember there are a lot of amazing texture around your home and in nature.  Have you ever looked at a savoy cabbage leaf. It is awesome!
  • Ball Stylist: This is a tool with little ball on the end. I love mine it makes neat little dents in wet clay and can act as a burnisher.
  • Non stick paper:  Often people find that they want a separate surface to work on their piece so that it doesn't stick and easy to transport.  You can purchase Teflon paper for this purpose. An cheap alternative is wax paper.
  • Saran wrap: Comes in handy to cover clay to slow drying
  • Thick plastic: Like a report cover, or a split heavy duty bag.  This helps if you need to rehydrate clay but rolling and adding water. It also helps when you mix some of the powder clays and keeps everything from sticking to your roller and hands as you work the water in.

These are the main items.  There are tons of other things you might want or even need.  But above are the basic and items  I use all the time. I have found that these are the things I go back to.  I must admit my first expensive tool I bought was a tumbler as I hated polishing things by hand and it is hard to get the crevices from texture if you are just using hand tools.

More items:
  • Tiny files
  • Tumbler for polishing
  • Rotary tool for polishing and more
  • Pin vise (for hand drilling)
  • Extruder
  • Liver of sulfur to darken your pieces (I recommend the gel rather than lump, lasts longer)
The list goes on and on

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