There are a plethora of commercially made tools on the market. And if you're a tool aficionado like me, at some point you'll want them all! But there are many tools you can adapt from odds and ends around your home, purchase inexpensively from hardware or beauty supply stores, or make yourself. If you take a class, and have the opportunity to use the instructors' loaner tools, make a list of the ones you specifically found useful. If you haven't yet taken a class, print out this page and make a check list of tools you want to acquire. You can find less expensive options that do the job perfectly well, and slightly more expensive, shinier, prettier, sexier, branded versions that may speak to your inner magpie... er... collector. The options on this page are what I consider to be essential. Just the basics. There are more out there, believe me. Pick and choose what you want to use, and what will work best for your designs and process. When you're just beginning - you may not need many tools at all. As you develop your craft and expand your skill set, you may want to add tools that have a specific purpose. Don't buy everything now! Wait and see if you need it. You'll know it's time to add to the pile when you reach for something that isn't there. I've put red dots in front of my favorites.
The absolute basics are - a roller, spacers, lubrication, a flexible work surface, textures, cutters, sandpaper to groom/finesse your dry work, a butane torch to fire it (if you're working with silver clay), and a brass brush to finish the fired piece.
Almost everything you'd ever need will be found easily on any metal clay supplier's web site. I've also noted some alternative sources below. It's a long scroll, but it will be worth it, I promise!
• I put this first because I think it is very important. No matter how good your eyesight is, magnification will help you to see small elements that might need to be groomed, sanded, fixed in some way or will allow you to add tiny details to the design that might be difficult to position or create otherwise. If you wear glasses, adding magnification will help. If you don't wear glasses, adding magnification will help. Either drug store readers or a jewelers visor worn on top of your prescription glasses, or your naturally great eyes, will make more of a difference to your work than almost anything else. Keep them on when your work is fired and ready to be polished.
• There are many materials that will do the trick, but I like to use a thin, flexible, sheet of teflon, sometimes known as Teflex. Designed to protect the bottom of the cookie pan, boxed sheets can be found in the baking department of many hobby stores, and a single sheet can be cut into many, handy 3"x4" pieces. Teflon is, well, teflon. It's slick and your metal clay should not stick to it. But swiping a thin film of lubricant across the surface is not a bad idea. Teflon is perfectly suited to use in either a dehydrator or on a cup warmer. Do not confuse teflon with Silpat. Silpat is a thicker baking product which is made with glass fibers, and should not be cut apart.
• You can also use thick sheets of plastic, like a page protector that has been cut to open like a book. Clay will definitely stick to plastic unless it is lubricated first. Plastic will melt if placed on a cup warmer, and will distort (wrinkle) in a hot dehydrator, but if you air dry your work - there should be no other worries. Page protectors are also really handy when mixing or rehydrating a quantity of clay.
• In addition to the surface that the clay will touch, you might want to think about the surface of your work table - is it perfectly flat? Some wooden or plastic table tops are uneven or slightly maleable, so you may want put a stiff surface like a placemat sized sheet of acrylic or glass underneath the flexible surface. You can find small sheets of plastic at a home improvement store, and glass ones in the quilting department of the craft store.
NOTE: All flexible work surfaces will eventually become scarred with the ghosts of tool marks. When they become unusable or unsightly (and leave ugly marks on the back of your work), it's time for a new one.
When rolling metal clay flat, the use of thickness gauges or spacers will help keep the depth of the clay consistent. Many artists are still using the original tool - playing cards. Although playing cards themselves are not consistent when comparing one brand to another, the overall thickness of a given piece is arbitrary, and a smidgen of a millimeter difference won't matter in the end. Here's my DIY version:
• Take a new stack of playing cards, and remove a two, three, four, and five of what ever suit you prefer. Now use double stick tape to affix the correct number of cards to the back of the face card. Face card 2 = that card and one more. Face card 3 = that card and two more. Face card 4 = that card and three more. Get it? Then cut each stack in half vertically. Now you have two spacers 2 cards, 3 cards, 4 cards, and 5 cards thick. If you need additional thicknesses, you can just stack your stacks. Use an Ace (or the joker) for a single card. I use double stick tape because glue will warp the playing cards, and a simple wrap of regular tape will eventually come apart.
• Plastic, graduated slats come in a lovely array of colors (one color per thickness) and I like them because I can always find them on my messy bench. And the thicker ones can double as a ruler in a pinch. Plastic slats are also easier to clean when switching from silver to base clay. If you were using playing cards, I'd advise to have one set for all silver clays and another for all base clays.
The larger (in diameter) the roller, the smoother the surface of the clay. Try it to see. Roll out some clay (or cookie dough) with a round pencil or thin pipe and you'll see ripples forming. Now use a much larger jar, and you'll notice that the clay surface looks a lot smoother.
• PVC is the metal clay industry's standard. Clay tends not to stick to it, and you can get remnants in any diameter at the hardware store. Markings printed on the pipe list the inner diameter (that's what the plumbers care about most). We care about the outer diameter, so we have to do a little measuring. I like to use a 2" pipe in my studio, but travel with a 3/4" one. Be sure you scrub all the manufacturing residue off the pipe before you use it with metal clay. I suggest a 6-7" length so you can roll a slab of clay as long or as wide you like.
• Polymer clay artists may already have a lucite roller in their tool kits, and that's perfectly fine to use too. In fact there are some lucite rollers made for metal clay that have little rubber rings on the ends which are used instead of spacers! Nice - except you have to change out the rings every time you want a different thickness. Too fussy for me, but you might like them. Lucite and plastic realllly love metal clay. They don't want to let it go. In other words, metal clay sticks to lucite. So lubricate your clear roller with a little oil or balm. And if you've already used it with polymer - make sure you wash it well before switching to metal clay. You don't want to contaminate expensive silver clay!
• A flat sheet of acrylic will create a coil/snake shape! The round roller made a flat shape, so it makes sense that the opposite is also true. I've seen a lot of different kind of flat rollers offered. Some with handles, some short, some opaque. I like a clear, 6"x 2.5", about 1/4" inch thick piece of lucite/acrylic. Sometimes I like to roll really long coils and the shorter rectangles just don't cut the mustard for me. I have mine custom cut at a local lucite supplier, but you could probably find a remnant in the dumpster or in the back of the hardware store. (or you could just use a CD case).
Clay sticks. The remedy to this phenomenon is lubricant. Just a thin film of it! You're not buttering the turkey, or lubing up your car. There are a number of commercial preparations that have been produced and are for sale on many metal clay sites, but the originals are still a really good option.
• Olive oil is the original lubricant and some folks still like it best. Because silver clay is organic, non toxic, 'we' like to use non toxic lube with it. Find a small squeeze bottle that dispenses a single drop. Most new users apply toooooo much oil, and too much oil or lubricant makes the clay grainy and unusable. If this happens to you, add fresh clay to it until the consistency is better.
• Badger Balm or Burt's Bees are hand salves that are made with olive oil. I like to drag the back of my fingernail through the balm to pick up a small amount, then melt it in my palm before applying it to tools and textures. If you've scooped up too much, spread it on your arms. They're probably dry anyway.
NOTE: Do NOT use anything containing petroleum jelly, like Vaseline. It reacts badly with metal clay. At least with silver clay. Since we stopped using it, I don't think anyone has tried it with base clays, and because I don't know exactly why it causes a bad, ugly reaction in silver clay - I'll just say DON'T DO IT.
• You'll need to add water for a variety of reasons - to join one fresh piece to another, to make slip, to rehydrate drying clay. Keep a small water dish with about 1/8" of water near to hand to dip a brush into, and a mister that dispenses a fine spray (I found mine at the beauty supply) to spritz on clay when you're putting it way for the day, or to knead into dry clay to rehydrate it (More on this on another page).
Brushes and Moving Tools
Brushes of all different shapes and sizes will be one of your favorite and most trustworthy tools. In addition to smoothing, sanding (yes I said that), applying this to that, and other tasks, I use brushes instead of my relatively big fingers to gently move metal clay around and to flick away cat hair or other contaminants. You should get into that habit too. It's really difficult to use a hard or sharp tool in a delicate maneuver with any accuracy. I've seen students mark up their beautiful work by using a pin tool or blade to reposition a piece of fresh clay.
• Round - I like to use a #3 synthetic water color brush for most of my work. Donna Penoyer uses a #0. She likes small and delicate, I guess I like broader strokes. You do not want a natural bristle brush, whatever size you choose. A natural hair/fur brush is just too soft to do the majority of jobs.
• Flat - I use a flat, dry, brush to remove excess slip from around a join, to brush dust off gems that will be fired in place, and to move fresh clay from 'here' to 'there'. A flat brush can also be used to develop a crisp edge when 'water etching'.
• Duster - Any type of brush can be used to brush away sanding dust. You could actually use a flat brush for this task, or a make up brush, or a fan shaped brush, or a fluffy, natural bristle, paint brush. Don't get in the habit of blowing away dust. It will loft into the air, and you'll breathe it in and at some point you might have health issues because of it. And if you brush it into a pile instead, you can save it to reconstitute back into slip or lump clay.
• Stencil - A stencil brush is round, but is cylindrical with a flat, cut end rather than a pointed, tapered shape. I use it to dab lubricant in the deepest part of a deep texture. That's all I use it for. First apply lubricant to the texture mat, then just spread it around with the stencil brush. Don't pick up lubricant with the brush. You'll apply too much.
NOTE: Take good care of your brushes and they'll last you a long time. Never stir slip with a brush, or get too much clay in the bristles. If clay (or paint or whatever) gets into the end of the brush (near the ferrule), as it dries it will push the bristles away from the center making it scraggly (that's a technical term) and unwieldy. Rinse your brush well at the end of the working session and re point the bristles to make sure it's ready the next time you need it.
• I use a spatula to mix a sticky slip/paste as I need it, or to spread paste through a stencil when slip printing. An inexpensive plastic one from the art store will be fine, but I do like my small, metal palette knife.
Protectants (plastic wrap)
Okay. I'm just trying to be fancy by calling plastic wrap, cling film, and SaranWrap, 'protectants'. But that's what they do! They protect fresh clay from the air. Air dries out fresh clay. You don't want dry clay. Until you do. Here is where plastic is your friend.
• Use enough - but not too much. Tear off a piece of plastic wrap about 4 inches wide, then cut that in half. DO NOT tear off enough to wrap the leftover Thanksgiving turkey!! Too much plastic wrap creates pockets of air, which we're trying to avoid. Cover your clay whenever you're not touching it. If you stop for a moment to chat - cover the clay. If you have to go look for a tool - cover the clay.
• Sometimes during a working session, we'll tear off a bit of clay and loosely wrap up the excess. And sometimes that loosely wrapped wrap will blossom open, allowing air to infiltrate. Take care to make sure brand new plastic wrap does not blossom open while you're not looking.
• At the end of the working session, I mist my leftover clay, put it in one corner of the plastic wrap, roll it all the way to the other corner (lots of layers of wrap to protect my lovely clay), twist the ends in opposite directions like a hard candy wrapper, and tie once. Then I put it in a baggie (or back in the ziplock package it came in) with a little piece of wet sponge. Overkill? I think not. Although some will disagree. But my clay is fresh the next time I go to use it.
• Yes. There are containers you can buy to put your clay in, or put over your clay, or otherwise protect your lovely fresh clay. Almost any container that forms a secure seal can be used to keep clay fresh. 1. As you're working you might like to upend a shot glass over a lump of clay. 2. You can also buy small silicone storage jars/boxes online. ('Vape' stores call them wax containers) 3. create a hydrating atmosphere in a screw top jar by placing a piece of wet sponge in the container.
• May as well start your life of crime right now! Start stealing straws from everywhere. Cocktail straws, drinking straws, big milkshake straws. You really only need one of two of each kind, but did you know that there are many sizes of each type of straw? So steal from many venues. You'll use straws (until you start buying or making other tools) to cut holes of all sizes for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes the goal is to make a hole, sometimes you want the plug that came out of the hole. You can use little clay disks for all sorts of things.
• Sometimes you want to use a cylindrical tube (a straw) to cut clay, and sometimes you want to form the clay around the cylinder. A straw may not hold it's shape perfectly over time or be durable enough for certain jobs. In that case you might find that knitting needles would work better! Knitting and crochet needles come in many diameters, and are usually made of anodized (colored) aluminum - making them a longer lasting tool.
• Drafting templates are available in many configurations. Probably the most useful will be a circle template, for making lentil beads and such. But I also have a collection of ovals, squares, and other shapes.
• Pin tools are used to cut out those shapes from the drafting templates. I use an actual dressmakers pin - the ones with the pearl on the end. Pin tools designed to be used with ceramic clay are pretty thick. I don't recommend those. The thinner the pin, the less drag on the clay as you cut with it, and the less sanding you'll have do later. Yes there are lots of thin pin tools that you can buy. But if you're just getting started, I bet you can rob your sewing kit and be perfectly happy.
• You can get a round tin of small cookie cutters at the kitchen supply store, or in the polymer clay section of the hobby store. I have thoughts about commercial cutters that we'll get to in the design section. But people love cookie cutters, so I've included them.
• Tissue Blades were originally designed to be used by pathologists to cut up human body tissue to put under the microscope. Then the polymer community started using them, then the metal clay people copied the polymer people. Use a tissue blade to cut straight lines. Just cut straight down in one fell swoop, don't draw it across the clay like a knife - you'll scar the teflon. You can get stiff ones, and flexible ones. But they're sharp! Watch out. (It's worth the danger though. I love my tissue blades)
• I think craft knives (like the X-acto) are overkill when working with fresh clay. You're trying to cut clay, not leather. And you're going to mar your flexible surface with it. Just use a pin. But again, people like them so I thought I'd mention them.
• The great thing about metal clay is that it can take on any shape! Try drying the clay over a jar, or two straws or pencils, a plastic Easter Egg, or any other shape that looks interesting to you. This is the way to make beads or other hollow objects, or develop interesting, sculptural forms. Although this paragraph could easily be put in the design section, I put it here so you can start collecting a variety of objects to make a design dimensional, instead of flat (although flat is nice too).
Metal clay needs to be completely dry before it is put in the kiln because as the remaining moisture is heated and turns to steam it may cause bubbles, blisters, or other eruptions to appear. You can just let the finished piece of greenware sit out overnight to dry, set it in a sunny window, or use a mechanical device to speed drying. Be aware that thin pieces of metal clay may dry unevenly, and warp. Flipping the piece over to allow the under side to dry, after the top side has had a few minutes to dry will help alleviate this problem. To speed drying time - try one of the following options.
• Coffee cup or candle warmer
• Food dehydrator
• Vintage, glass warming tray
• Hair dryer
NOTE: Humidity might cause a previously well-dried piece to re-hydrate. I always put 'dry' clay into a cold kiln to allow any lingering moisture to slowly evaporate as the kiln rises in temperature.
• Take a look at all the sanding boards and cubes that your manicurist uses! Nail files, sanding sticks from a hobby shop, and regular old sandpaper from the hardware store will soon be your best friends. Find a variety of shapes and sizes, so you'll have one to fit any nook, cranny or surface of a given project. You might even want to cut an emery board into specific shapes. I use 320 grit grey sandpaper to re shape sides and contours, and to sand off rough edges, then switch to 400 or 600 for a final smoothing. Nail files sometimes have multiple grits on a single file.
• Finishing/Polishing paper is a product specifically made for jewelry. There are a few brands that work well, but I like the 3M Tri-M-Ite version. I use the green 400 grit paper for coarse finishing and grey 600 grit for a final polish. The other grits I save for after the clay has been fired. Polishing paper is not as rough as sand paper. So 400 grit polishing paper is more gentle than 400 grit sand paper.
NOTE: I like to cut sandpaper into small pieces about 2"x 2" (the exact size isn't really important, just that it's a small piece). I fold one corner down, then fold the opposite corner down to meet it so I have a point in the middle. I call it my 'stealth bomber' fold. 'Cos it kind of looks like a stealth bomber. To make a curved sanding tool, I put my index finger where the two edges meet at the point, with my thumb on the left side and my middle finger on the right (I'm right handed). I like to use just the point, so that I can see what I'm doing. Try it! If you use a big piece of sand paper to re shape the edge of a piece, the majority of the paper is blocking your sight line.
• Here's my favorite tool. My damp finger! When you "finger sand", you're moving material off the high points and depositing it into the low points. Next time there's a scratch on the back of your piece (or marks from an old piece of teflon), try finger sanding before using sand paper. Aggressive sanding removes clay and will thin your work, finger sanding just moves the clay around.
• If you don't like the idea of using your finger, you can use a damp eyeshadow applicator or make up sponge, a baby wipe or any number of tools that you might find at the craft store. I've also used the back of my brush (near the ferrule) to sand in a tight spot.
• A toothpick has a slightly rough surface and is the perfect tool to enlarge or smooth the inside of a hole or deepen a scribed line. Dampen one with water for faster action.
NOTE: Whenever you add water to the clay, no matter how small the amount of water, you're re-hydrating it and making it more fragile. Damp sanding (which you can do with any type of sanding implement) will make the work go faster, but be sure to re-dry the piece before you move to the next step, whatever the next step is.
As you sand your work, you may notice a soft, metallic look. That's because metal clay is more than 90% metal. As you sand, carve or cut into dry clay - you're burnishing the metal particles!
Dry metal clay can be carved using miniature woodworking tools, wax carving tools, or linoleum carving tools. You can also incise or scribe your name or initials into it using a sharp pin tool or compass point. Save the curls and crumbles to use as texture, or to rehydrate into slip or clay.
TIP: I buy #1 'V' cut Speedball linoleum carvers (which come 2 to a package), and insert one into an empty Bic pen cartridge so I can hold the carving tool like a pencil.
• Use a visor or magnifying reading glasses. No matter how good your eyesight is, being able to see tiny details will ensure that your work is as carefully constructed as possible. (Yes I know I listed this before, but it bears repeating).
• To avoid back strain, raise your work on a rubber block or other elevated surface.
FIRING AND FINISHING
Kilns and Torches
• Fine silver and small pieces of certain brands of copper metal clay can be fired with a butane torch. You'll also need a soldering board or fire brick. Make sure to torch fire on a fire proof surface for at least 4 minutes (use a timer). Your kitchen stove is a perfect spot, it's designed to be safe with fire, and (hopefully) there's a vent to dispel the fumes from burning binder.
• Kilns can range from a few hundred dollars up to $1,000.00 depending on your needs. Small electric, table top, 'beehive' kilns will easily work with silver clay, enamel, and keum boo - but are not adequate to fire base metal clays. Small digital kilns will fire all clays, and of course mid size kilns are the industry standard. If you realize that metal clay is your medium - you'll definitely want to invest in a digital kiln!
• Do some research before you purchase a kiln. Front loading, top loading, muffle, or brick are just some of the options, and which you choose will depend on what you may want to do, now or in the future.
• Fiber blanket and/or vermiculite help cushion and support dimensional pieces so they don't slump to develop a flat spot while in the kiln.
• Fiber paper will help reduce drag if firing rings flat on a kiln shelf.
• Use a bar-b-que type spatula or long tongs/tweezers to remove kiln shelves when the kiln is still warm.
• Use a brass brush to do the initial polishing on silver metal clay, and stainless steel for base metal clays. Because silver is such a soft metal, steel will scratch it. Because base clays are so hard, brass won't do much at all. Do not use a brass brush you find at the hardware store, the wires are very coarse and will scratch fine silver in particular. Jewelers brushes are more appropriate.
• If you want a brighter finish than a brush can achieve, you can use polishing/finishing papers or sandpaper starting with a coarse grit of 320 for base clays and 400 for silver clays, and move up to finer and finer grits all the way to 2000 and above.
• A burnisher, whether steel or agate, is difficult to use all over a highly textured design, but will deliver a bright shine to the high areas and edges.
• An ordinary, household, stainless steel spoon (assuming its perfectly smooth) will work almost as well to polish high points as a professional burnisher!
• A rotary or vibratory tumbler loaded with stainless steel, mixed shot will burnish every nook and cranny, polishing the metal to a high shine. It will NOT remove fine scratches or blemishes.
Artisans love the fact that metal clay takes texture so well, but when a piece is also highly polished that texture seems to disappear. Adding patina or antiquing will help to make textured designs stand out.
• Hydrochloric Acid preparations like Black Max or Silver Black can be used cold, are immediate, and develop a deep, rich, black coloration. Use baking soda dissolved in hot water to neutralize the acid. I don't recommend pouring this solution into a dish to dip the piece into, instead use a dedicated brush to apply it. If you dip - there is the possibility that some of the liquid will splash into your eyes or onto your clothing. This product is an acid, but since an individual artist isn't immersing themselves in it on a regular basis, the danger in using it is mild. If your skin is sensitive, you might want to wear gloves when using it. You always want to wear eye protection/goggles when working with patina solutions.
• Liver of Sulfur (LOS) delivers a range of colors starting with gold/straw, then coppery/reds and pinks, then moves on to blue/teal/purples and finally ends up a dark greyish black. The dry chunks and pre mixed liquids are unstable and tend to lose power quickly, especially when exposed to water, light and air - so I recommend a gel version which lasts much longer. Dip a toothpick in the gel and swish in a bowl of very warm water to get a dilute solution, then dip the piece in the solution for a few seconds and then into cold water, then back in the los, then cold water, and so on until you get an acceptable color. Then plunge it into icy water to stop the reaction.
NOTE: Brightly colored patinas are not permanent, although they tend to stay in the recesses of deep textures. While there are some sealants that can protect a brilliant patina for a while, eventually both the coating and the patina will fade with wear. Black patinas are like a tarnished oxidation, and will last (and evolve) unless removed with a polishing cloth.
• There are specific products that will patina copper, bronze, and steel - Baldwin's, Midas and Jax are a few brand names, but you can do some research to find more options.
• Some other colorants that you might want to research are Enamel, Alcohol Inks, Prisma Color Pencils, and Gilders Paste.