Metal clay (sometimes called precious metal clay) can be easily manipulated at home making it perfect for unique and fun jewelry like the Han Solo in Carbonite pendant in this Instructable. Basically, you roll out the clay, form it as you wish, dry it, tidy it up, fire the dried clay piece with a torch, quench it in cool water, tidy it again and finish as desired.
There are a number of Instructables that illustrate how to make jewelry from polymer clay and then make the plastic look like silver or gold. This is a fine approach, but for me it's not quite the same as having a piece of metal jewelry. Fortunately, for a little cash and a small amount of time you can easily make copper or silver jewelry with fairly common tools from metal clay.
So get your Star Wars geek on and make your very own pure copper Han Solo in Carbonite pendant in a few hours. I suggest starting with copper clay because it's a lot cheaper than silver so mistakes are easier on the wallet. Once you feel comfortable with the copper piece, or if you just feel like jumping right in, you can make one out of silver clay by following essentially the same steps and be the most chic geek on the street.
NOTE – YMMV. I am not an expert in jewelry making nor am I a metalsmith or metal clay expert. My formal training in using metal clay comes from a one-day class. I've learned alot from the excellent sources on the internet on how to use metal clay and how to finish pieces. Some are from Jewelry Making Daily,Art Jewelry Magazine, and Holly Gage.
SAFETY, SAFETY, SAFETY! While metal clay seems to be generally viewed as non-toxic, please be careful in its handling, wash your hands, don't use your tools for both food and jewelry making. Once the piece is dry, you'll likely be generating dust which is probably not so great for your lungs, so wear appropriate protection like a dust mask. If you follow this Instructable to torch the piece, you'll be using a propane torch. Fire is dangerous, in case you hadn't heard, so be extremely cautious. If the piece is not completely dry when fired, it might burst/explode, so wear safety glasses. You'll be making a very, very hot metal piece which will give you a nasty burn if you're not careful. You'll also be quenching the hot copper piece in water, brushing it with a prickly brass brush, and if you choose to add a dark patina to finish your piece, you'll be using a solution of Liver of Sulfur which is a stinky chemical. Wear safety glasses/goggles and protective gloves as appropriate during the torch firing, quenching, pickling and patina process in case things go poof or boom or splash. Be sure you have adequate ventilation for all of the above and dispose of all of your waste thoughtfully. Whew.
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Step 1: Familiarize Yourself With Metal Clay
Metal clay is made of metal powder mixed with an organic binder. A nice history and how to make your own from scratch can be found here. I buy mine online premixed and ready to go so haven't tried making it from scratch myself. It's really easy to roll metal clay like dough, shape it any way you want and finish it without the use of specialized tools. If the piece is reasonable in size and once it is thoroughly dried, it is heated to first burn off the organic binder and then to form pure metal pieces. For pieces made of copper or silver metal clay you can use just a butane or propane torch – no kiln is required!
By the way, you could use 3D printing to make metal pieces, too. I haven't tried this out and it seems a bit more expensive than this diy approach, but some of the services/vendors that do this are 123D, Tinkercad, I.materialise, Sculpteo and Shapeways.
Step 2: Get Ready to Go..but First
Which Clay Should I Use?
If you're a beginner, I suggest you try making pieces from copper clay first because it is so much less expensive than silver and mistakes happen, as you'll see in this Instructable. Some can be repaired, but practice makes perfect.
For pieces made from copper clay, firing without a kiln is clearly do-able though you'll find some disagreement on this point on the internet. In my own experience and as described in this Instructable, it can be done without a kiln. I've only tried one brand of copper clay – ArtClay Copper, so can't vouch for other brands working as well with torch firing.
Alternatively, based on my own experience, it is really easy to use silver clay for home projects. I have fired a number of pieces made with PMC+ (available from CoolTools and RioGrande) with a small butane torch or on top of my propane stove following basically all of the same steps described below.
For working with copper clay, I suggest you look at this video and the reference sheet for ArtClay Copper.
From what I have read, if you're like me and don't have a kiln, stick to silver and copper clay.
Before you start
There's one important thing to remember about metal clay - it dries out relatively quickly and once dry is no longer able to be molded. Make sure you have everything planned out and ready to go from the time you open the clay to the time you set the initially formed piece to dry. Put the clay you are not using back in its airtight pouch immediately. If it does dry out, don't despair. The dried material can be filed and the dust rehydrated to make a paste for repairs and adhering pieces to other pieces.
Before you fire your piece, make sure it's really dry. A piece with moisture in it will develop steam during the firing process and at best you might get a blister inside the piece. At worst..well, I don't exactly know what will happen, but let's not find out.
Once your piece is formed and dried, it is known as greenware. It's remarkably easy to snap a fragile greenware piece while you clean up its edges. I know. I've done it twice and you'll see here how it can be fixed if you get a lucky break.
Initial finishing and any repairs are way easier to make to a piece before firing. Don't rush to the firing stage until you feel you're really ready.
Step 3: Gather Materials and Equipment
Materials for the Copper Han Solo pendant
Pre-firing Materials List
Art Clay Copper – 50g is way more than you'll need but lets you make at least two of these.
Han Solo in Carbonite Silicone ice cube tray - Doesn't everyone own one?
Playing cards – Playing cards are used as spacers on either side of the lump of clay when its first rolled out to get the right thickness.
X-acto knife – Anything sharp will do, but an X-acto or an inexpensive breakaway blade is used to rough cut the rolled out piece.
PVC pipe rolling pin - Mine is from scrap and is about 12 in long and 2 in diameter. Any smooth cylinder will do.
Olive oil – Used to coat anything that comes in contact with the clay to keep them from sticking.
Transparency – An acetate or transparency, is handy to roll out the clay upon and to have as a surface to move the piece around from place to place. Some people use a ziplock bag instead.
A large drinking straw and small plastic stirrers – a short piece of the large one is used to initially shape the bail on the pendant (the part that the chain goes through). Keep the ones you get from your local restaurant and you'll have plenty.
Soft small paint brush – any cheap artist's paint brush will do. You'll need this to make small repairs to the piece.
Emery board – just a normal paper one is useful for smoothing the edges of the dried 'greenware' piece before firing.
Coffee warmer – I have an old coffee maker whose electric warmer I use to dry the pieces. You can always air dry them but this will take longer. A mug warmer will substitute.
Small container to mix bits of copper clay and water to make a paste (aka slip) for small patches, finishing touches, repairs
Firing and Finishing
Flameproof surface – I used a charcoal block from Gesswein as a flameproof surface and stacked it on a cut stump to keep it away from my flammable table. There may be lower tech versions that work, too.
Propane torch - Alternatively, a small butane torch should work but a large propane one provides lots of flame and lots of fuel.
Brass brush – this is used to clean off any remaining firescale that doesn't pop off during the quenching process and also to give the surface a bit of tooth before the patina step. I got mine at HomeDepot
Liver of Sulfur – This is to apply the dark patina to give it that real carbonite look. My lifetime supply came from Gesswein here.
Small container – For holding the Liver of Sulfur solution if you choose to patina your piece.
1 liter vessel full of cool water.
Tweezers, tongs, hemostat or pliers – you'll use these to transfer the hot piece immediately after firing into the cool water to quench the item.
In the photos, you'll see this silicone sheet used. It's not required, I just happen to have it and it helps to keep my table clean.
For the silver version of this, I used PMC+ from RioGrande
Step 4: Make and Dry the Metal Clay Pendant
Mold the piece
1. Assemble your materials. You'll need everything listed in the pre-firing list.
2. Mentally work through the process of making the initial piece and putting it on the hotplate. Prepare your work area as shown and lay out the materials and tools you will need. Start up the hotplate/mugwarmer.
3. Your work area should have a) the transparency sheet on which you'll be rolling the clay; b) two stacks of cards each of which is 3 cards high.
4. Pour out a little olive oil. Lightly oil your hands, the transparency, the knife blade and the rolling pin with olive oil. Lightly oil one small Han Solo shape. Be sure to get the nooks and crannies. This is a bit tricky as you need enough oil so the clay won't stick but not so much it interferes with the definition of the shape when the clay is squished into the mold.
5. Open the 50 g of copper clay and pinch off about 1/3 of it. It's better to have too much than too little. What you don't use, you'll return to the container after the rolling and cutting. Close the original container with the remaining clay to keep it from drying out.
6. Work the clay gently in your hands to soften it up a bit. You don't need to be too aggressive. Just get it a little softer than it starts out. Next, form it into a large capsule-like shape.
7. Set one stack of cards on each of the left and right sides of the clay on top of the lightly oiled transparency. The cards will make the minimum thickness of the piece reasonable. Thicker might be easier but it will be correspondingly heavier. Orient the clay between the stacks with its long axis parallel to the long edge of the cards and start rolling. Apply gentle pressure and smash the clay while rolling until you have a piece that is about half again as wide and as long as the oiled Han Solo shape. You may need to move the cards to the opposite poles from which you started and roll in this direction to get it to stretch enough.
8. Make a rough cut as shown in this diagram. Basically you are aiming for a long thin rectangle with a rounded protrusion at one end. That protrusion gives you a little handle to move the piece around but isn't required. Ideally, you don't want to have too much excess on any of the other three sides as you press into the mold. If so, trim it a bit more then return it to the mold.
9. Once you're satisfied that it's a pretty good fit, fold the protrusion over and apply gentle pressure all around on the back to force the clay into the crevices of the mold. I found that tapping the back of the clay with the eraser end of a pencil or an oiled chopstick, helped to give better definition from the mold on the front of the piece.
10. Now, flip the whole thing over and try to get the clay to pop out of the mold and into the palm of your hand. Likely this won't work and you'll need to tug it out by pulling ever so carefully to peel the piece out of the mold. You don't want to deform the piece so be gentle. Carefully, place it front side down – that is with the molded face on the transparency.
11. Make the bail. This is a multistep process. First, mix a small amount of metal clay (about half a pea in amount) with just enough water to make a paste of medium thickness. Second, cut a long thin rectangle that is about half the width of the item with one small end rounded to make the bail. It needs to be long enough to wrap around a couple of plastic stirrers (which will support its shape while drying) and also to adhere to the back of the pendant. Using the brush, apply your copper paste to the top middle side of the back which is where the bail will be pasted on to the back. Stick the rounded end of the long rectangle on the pasted area and press it lightly to get good contact. Once the pasted part is on pretty well, wrap the rectangular end around a straw or stirrers and then gently press it onto the top edge of the pendant. Apply more paste to all of the sites where clay contacts clay so there are no gaps. Be careful that you don't to mar the molded surface on the other side. Check again and add additional paste around the edges to get rid of any open spaces and to smooth it as much as possible.
12. Dry the piece. Flip the soft and flexible pendant over so it is molded side up and place it directly on the hotplate/mug warmer and let it dry for about an hour. Test it for dryness by putting the piece on a cold surface like glass, steel or marble and look for moisture to form under it in a few seconds. If it's still wet, let it dry a bit more.
Step 5: Tidy Up the Piece Before Firing
Once the shape is dry, it is time to clean up the edges. Use the emery board to file down the edges to make them straight, balanced from side to side and the corners square. Catch the filed dust on a non-oiled sheet of transparency and you can use this to make more paste for repairs and other cleanups. Be really careful or the piece may snap like mine did as you can see in the photos. With a clean break like this, just wet the broken edges with water and use the brush and paste to glue the two pieces back together. Eventually it held and I applied a little extra as spackle to hold it solidly together before firing. Use paste to fill in any gaps and smooth edges around the bail that was added. I wanted to level the back side out to remove the marks from pressing it with the pencil eraser so just filled it up with a few layers of paste to smooth it out a bit and then let it dry again completely on the hot plate.
Step 6: Fire It and Finish It
Fire the piece to transform it from metal clay to pure metal
1. Tidy again and make sure no dust is on the item. If so, it will form in place and be unsightly.
2. Prepare to fire the piece. Gather and don your safety equipment and prepare your workspace. Have the vessel with water for quenching right next to the torch area, torch and flameproof surface in a well-ventilated area. Place the greenware item on a flameproof surface like the charcoal block here. Light the torch and play the flame back and forth over the piece. The first thing that will happen is that the organic binder will catch fire and burn off. Don't be alarmed when you see your item start to burn – it's supposed to do that. Keep the flame on the piece the whole time and get it to glow a warm cherry red. From here, keep the flame moving slowly over the whole piece, back and forth to keep that color and heat it for about 15 min. (If you're using silver clay, you want more of a bright orange color for 10 minutes). The charcoal block was pretty well burned away by all this flame as you can see here.
3. Quench the hot copper piece immediately in the cool water. This has two benefits. First, it gets rid of the firescale pretty well and otherwise, if you let it cool in the open air, the firescale that forms on it may pop off and hurt you. Rescue the now pure copper piece from the water and brush off the blotchy remaining firescale with the brass brush in a little water with liquid dish soap. After brushing it may look like it does in the picture here – almost a gold color, not what you'd expect from most copper you've ever seen. From what I’ve read recently, the brass brush imparts the color and a steel brush will leave it more in its coppery state. By the way, the brush is hard on the fingers so be careful.
[By the way, if you're using silver clay, the quenching step can be omitted. The fired silver piece will have a beautiful powdery white surface of pure silver. Use the brass brush in soapy water to polish this away. If you want the silver to get a dark patina, then keep following the rest of the steps.]
Add the patina to finish it and enjoy!
1. If you're going for the real carbonite look, then you want it to be black, right? A relatively quick dip in Liver of Sulfur solution will do that. Prepare a solution of about 250 mL (1 cup) of very hot water with a small pea-sized chunk of Liver of Sulfur. I used a small piece of plastic from a milk jug to make a dipping handle. Wearing gloves, dip and swish the piece in the solution. It will turn colors very quickly. Remove it when you're satisfied with the look, and rinse it liberally in water. Here is some more information on developing a patina with Liver of Sulfur and disposal of the used solution.
2. If you want to restore some shine to it, you can brush away some of the dark patina with either the brass brush or a paste of baking soda and water. Rinse to clean and use a soft cloth to polish it up. The result I got was an item that almost looked like silver or steel but most definitely not copper.
That's it. Put it on a strong chain and enjoy!