What is Metal Clay?
Introducing Metal Clay or what I like to call moldable metals. Cutting edge technology meets the arts with a new way to work with pure metals such as Silver, Gold, or Copper. Metal Clay is tiny particles of metal suspended in an organic binder. It is not really clay, but it looks and feels like it. Metal Clay also has many working properties of clay. Like clay, it can be molded, textured, and formed into a variety of shapes. Add a little water to Metal Clay and you can use the “slip” like a glue to put leather hard, dried, or even fired Metal Clay elements together to make more complex forms. After the pieces are designed and formed they are fired in a kiln. A wonderful transformation then takes place. As the binder fires away, you are left with a piece of pure, metal as seen in my jewelry. It is then ready for tumbling, buffing, polishing, and finishing.
There are several types of Metal Clay. Fine Silver, Sterling Silver, Gold, Bronze, Copper, and Steel. (I'm sure as soon as I finish writing this there will be more metals added as our industry is growing with new moldable metals and innovations all the time.)
Metal Clay also comes in different forms, such as lump clay, slip, paste, thin sheets and syringe.
How Does Metal Clay Work?
With the proper intense heat, the tiny particles of metal sinter or fuse together and the binder fires away. The result is a hard piece of metal. Because pure states of metal are used in Fine Silver or Gold Metal Clay (.999 fine silver and 22kt gold), firescale or discoloring of the metal does not take place when heated by a torch or kiln. This discoloration is characteristic of many other metals that contain an alloy, or in other words another metal included as part of its makeup. ( I.E.: sterling silver is fine silver with an alloy of copper or nickel silver). Therefore, these Metal Clays are fired in carbon to avoid this discoloration which might otherwise interfere with the metal sintering together.
What is the difference between the fired Metal Clay and conventional fabricated metal?
Because of its structure, Metal Clay is more porous and less dense than conventional sheet metal or wire. In addition, sheet metal has gone through the milling process, which helps to “work harden” the metal and compress the molecules. This means that a piece of jewelry made of Metal Clay has less tensile strength than the same piece made from fabricated or casted metal. Depending on which Metal Clay used as well as proper design consideratons the difference can be negotiable.
In my humble option, Metal Clay can not replace metalsmithing and visa versa. Each technique of working with metal are unique in their own right. Some applications of Metalsmithing can be much more easily accomplished in Metal Clay, but on the other hand some functions performed on a Metalsmith work bench are best done there. As a trained metalsmith, I like to combine techniques and the two work wonderfully together expanding the artisan's tool box.
Knowing the difference takes experience and understanding of your materials. Metal Clay can be sawed, hammered, soldered, and drilled as in “traditional” metal working. Instead, when using Metal Clay many of these functions can be done in the easily manipulated “clay” stage. Texturing the clay with your own textures is just a beautiful thing, and sculpting allows for naturally flowing objects. Other techniques originating with Metalsmiths like soldering ear wires; cold connections; ball riveting; rotary polishing; a variety of stone setting techniques, and more are indispensible along side and inconjuction with Metal Clay work and I love to use them all.