Must Have Metal Clay Tools and Supplies

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Like any form of jewelry making, there seems to be an endless number of tools and supplies available for the metal clay artist, and vendors come up with new gizmos and gadgets on a regular basis. It would be great to be able to purchase every single one of them. Of course, this is not really possible for the average home-crafter or even professional metal clay artist. So, we have to think long and hard about what sorts of products are necessities and maybe even become creative and figure out alternatives to help us form, cut, fire, and polish our metal clay masterpieces. Let's start with the must-have items.

Roller: Very similar to a rolling pin you would use for making bread, a small plastic roller is used to roll out the clay. These are usually white or clear plastic, about five inches long, and about 12" in diameter. The clear plastic pipes are nice because you can see through the pipe and thus see the clay as you roll it out. You can use other round items to roll out the clay, but make sure they are not porous like wood. One alternative to buying a metal clay roller from a metal clay vendor is to make your own. Just go to any hardware store and purchase the same diameter of PVC pipe. Then cut it to the length you need using either a saw or a PVC cutter (which will give you a smoother finish on the end). Of course, even though PVC is very inexpensive, you can't usually buy five inches of PVC pipe. Normally, you'll have to buy more like 10 feet, so unless you have nine friends who want metal clay rollers, it may be worth it to just buy the roller. They cost as little as $1. Figure 2.1 shows a roller I received from a kit purchased for one of the metal clay classes I took a few years ago.

Figure 2.1

Plastic metal clay roller.

Craft knife: A craft knife, such as an X-acto knife, is perfect for cutting out small pieces of clay. Make sure the blades are nice and sharp and kept very clean. You don't want to contaminate the clay. You can pick up a craft knife at all kinds of places such as your local craft store (of course), hardware stores, and I've even found them at the dollar store. When you do buy one, remember to also pick up extra blades. Once you start using your knife regularly, it doesn't take that long for the blade to dull, especially if you use it for other crafts besides clay. So, you want to make sure you always have at least a few new blades on hand. Otherwise, you will not get a clean cut, and that can be very frustrating because it will require more clean up later for you. Figure 2.2 shows a simple craft knife you can find at most craft stores.

Round-nosed pliers: To make just about any kind of jewelry, you need a good set of handtools, and that especially includes round-nosed pliers, which are a specialized hand-tool for jewelry makers. The nose is round so that you can wrap wire around it and make perfectly round loops (or at least, after a lot of practice they become perfect). While you can often find other pliers at a hardware store, you won't be able to find these there. You'll need to get them from either a jewelry supply vendor (such as from the web), a bead shop, or a craft store. Many of the larger craft stores now carry a decent amount of jewelry making supplies these days, including pliers. When shopping for your round-nosed pliers, make sure the ends are nicely tapered. Sometimes the lesser expensive brands will have a wider nose versus tapered, and that can make a big difference as far as how easy they are to work with as well as the finished product you end up with. Also, try to get a pair that has a spring-hinged handle, just because they are less stressful on your hands while you are working.

Figure 2.2

Craft knife.

Figure 2.2

Craft knife.

Prices vary, but you can spend anywhere from as little at $6 on up to $40, and higher price doesn't always equate to higher quality, so make sure you either are able to look at your pliers in person or that the vendor you purchase from has a reasonable refund policy in case you want to return them.

Chain-nosed pliers: The nose on these is flat on the inside and rounded on the outside. Like the round-nosed pliers, you'll want a pair that has a spring handle. Also, be aware of the length of the handle. If you have smaller hands, pliers with extra-long handles can be awkward to work with. Some vendors stock pliers that have long or short handles, so that's another option to consider when purchasing your pliers. Chain-nosed pliers are used for bending wire, holding wire, opening and closing jump rings, and general all-purpose functions. Make sure the inside of the nose is not textured or it could mark your wire. This is especially critical if you use fine silver wire (as metal clay is also fine silver) because fine silver is a little softer than sterling silver wire.

Flat-nosed pliers: These are very similar to chain-nosed pliers, and sometimes the names are used interchangeably. Just about anything you can do with chain nosed you can also do with flat-nosed, but it's handy to actually have both of these for some techniques. For example, when you open and close jump rings, it's much easier and more effective to have a pair of pliers in both hands as you work, one pair holding one side of the jump ring, and the other pair holding the other side. This makes it much easier to snap the jump ring closed or pull it open and causes less stress on the jump ring. Also, make sure the flat nosed pliers are smooth inside of the jaw. Filing out marks on your wire is not fun!

Figure 2.3

Pliers set. ©Speedy Peacock Photograph

Wire cutters: Wire is a great medium to use along with metal clay because you can actually fire pieces of wire into the clay. This is handy for adding bales to the top of a pendant, for example. You want a nice pair of flush-cut wire cutters. There are a number of different types of wire cutters available, but flush cut are the best for general wire work. Flush cut means that when you cut wire with them you get a straight cut. Some wire cutters will cut more diagonally and thus give more of a pointed end than a flat end to the wire. With a flatter end to the wire, there is less filing required and less of a chance of cutting the wearer of your jewelry with pointy or rough wire areas. Look for a flush-cut pair with a spring handle. To keep the cutter from becoming damaged, do not use it on memory wire (there are shears available specifically for memory wire) or very large wire gauges. Wire around 16-gauge (.051 inches, 1.29 millimeters) is the largest you'd probably want to go with an average pair of wire cutters. You can have problems with dulling or even gouging the cutting area of the pliers. If you need to use thicker wire for your jewelry designs, consider using a jeweler's saw instead. Figure 2.3 is an example of a tool set that would be perfect for basic bead stringing and simple wire work. It includes a pair of round-nosed, chain-nosed, and flat-nosed pliers as well as a pair of wire cutters.

Figure 2.3

Pliers set. ©Speedy Peacock Photograph

Burnishing brush: One of the great things about fine silver is that it doesn't take too much to polish it up. When heating most metals, a reaction occurs that causes fire-scale, which basically means your metal is dark and dirty and needs to be cleaned and shined. Fine silver, unlike sterling silver, doesn't get a fire-scale on it after firing, so a simple burnishing brush, like the brass brush shown in Figure 2.4, is all you need for a basic cleaning after you fire your clay pieces. After firing and cooling the metal clay component (obviously it's not good to touch metal after it's been heated with a torch), you just need to brush the piece with the burnishing brush to give it a quick cleaning. Once you've burnished the metal piece, you can then decide what, if anything, you'd like to do next. For example, you can oxidize it with something like liver of sulfur and actually make it darker so that the details pop out better. Or, if you like silver to have some polish, you can determine how bright you'd like it to be and use a number of techniques for finishing your piece. Chapter 5 provides more details concerning burnishing, oxidizing, and polishing fired metal clay components.

Files: Metal files are useful for filing off rough areas left on your fired pieces. While you do want to do clean up before you fire your dried clay, you can't always catch everything. Therefore, small hand files are what you need to get rid of those little rough areas or scratches. Jewelry supply vendors have all kinds of different types of files available. Since many of the metal clay items in this book are pretty small due to the use of low-fire clay, smaller files are best. You can buy these as sets, and the sets include different shaped files such as round, triangle, knife edge, flat, and half-round. The different shapes are used because you may have different surfaces to file. For example, if you need to get into a hole, then the round file is useful for that. If you are filing something that is a little domed or curved shaped, then the half round shape is useful. It really depends on what you are making and which areas of the piece need to be cleaned up. A good rule of thumb is to try to have a piece as clean as possible, meaning no rough areas or scratches, before firing so that very little filing is necessary after firing. A set of small files, sometimes referred to as jewelers' files, can cost between $5 and $10. Besides using them to clean up rough areas on fired metal clay pieces, they are also useful for finishing off the ends of wire, so that's one reason they are a must-have type of tool. Just about any jewelry maker that works with metal and/or wire will need a set of files. I've actually had a number of sets and have files all over the place in my work area and toolboxes because they are so indispensable. For as little as $10, it's worth having a few sets around. See Figure 2.5 for a sample of metal files.

Figure 2.4

Brass brush.

©Speedy Peacock Photograph

Figure 2.5

Files.

©Speedy Peacock Photograph

Polishing cloth: Just about every jewelry maker has to have a polishing cloth (see Figure 2.6). I mean, there's really no substitute for them, and they are not that hard to find or that expensive. Even many discount stores sell these as do jewelry shops and jewelry supply vendors. They normally cost around $5. While the brass burnishing brush will clean the metal components after firing, you'd be amazed at how much a little elbow grease and a polishing cloth will shine up a piece of silver jewelry. It's well worth the investment.

Figure 2.6

Polishing cloth. ©Speedy Peacock Photograph

Figure 2.5

Files.

©Speedy Peacock Photograph

Figure 2.6

Polishing cloth. ©Speedy Peacock Photograph

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