Make a Hollow Metal Clay Bead with Barbara Becker Simon

3 Dec 2012

The ability to create hollow-form metal clay beads opens so many possibilities for making large but lightweight metal beads that are much more comfortable to wear and wallet-friendly than if they were solid metal. Making hollow-form metal clay beads also helps avoid some of the issues that can arise when firing large solid metal clay beads, such as cracks that arise from clay creations that weren't completely dry before they're fired and more. Here's a method that Barbara Becker Simon, a well-known metal clay expert, developed for creating hollow-form metal clay beads.

 
Large Hollow-Form Metal Clay Bead
by Barbara Becker Simon
Intermediate to advanced metal-based clay project originally published in Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist August 2001.

In Lapidary Journal, August 2000, I showed one method for making a hollow bead. This was suitable for small, round forms, no bigger than 1-1/4" in diameter. Beyond that dimension and shape, Precious Metal Clay (PMC) cannot support itself during later firing stages, when it is almost liquid.  

The idea for this complex core came from my need to make larger hollow forms, and I developed this system through trial and error. The core is comprised of plastic foam (florist's foam) and wax, designed to be used with PMC. The final coating of wax allows for the shrinkage factor of PMC metal clay. (You can easily adapt this method for use with PMC+; simply make your last wax coat 1/16" thick.)

For the hot, melted wax, use any kind of wax, including old candles or paraffin. Just make sure that it is carefully monitored as it melts in a double-boiler. Never leave the melting wax unattended. Heat it only to the melting point, never beyond, as it can ignite spontaneously.

Materials:

soft florist's foam (sometimes called Oasis)
hot melted wax
brush to apply melted wax
straw *
waterproof work surface
Creative Paper Clay
rolling tool (a piece of PVC pipe, etc.)
straight pins
playing cards
metal clay in lump form
metal clay slip (mixed with water in cream-like consistency)
metal clay in syringe for decorative effects (optional)
olive oil
water
kiln
vermiculite or alumina hydrate
clay saucer or firing ring
assorted clay tools: dental tools, palette knife, razor blades, etc. 

* Use a drinking straw, thin coffee straw, or whatever size you want the holes in your bead to be.

Steps:

 

1. Cut a piece of the soft florist's foam with a razor blade or similar tool. Using the blade, your fingers and any tools you need to define your design, fashion a shape in the foam that is a bit smaller than the final form desired. You can use other materials for this initial core, but I like this soft foam because it is so easily formed and very inexpensive.

2. To make the holes of the bead, use two 3" lengths of drinking straw. Insert one piece of straw about 3/4" deep into one side of the foam and the other in the opposite side. (I find this easier to do than trying to insert one long straw through the entire form. It invariably ends up crooked.) The straws will also act as handles. You can use smaller openings, but this will hamper the removal of the fired paper clay. (You can also cover the entire form and cut holes later.)

3. Paint a thin layer of melted wax over the foam. This doesn't have to be thick, just enough to give the foam rigidity. If you are using another material that is already rigid, you can skip this step.

4. Roll out a sheet of paper clay three playing cards thick. If you are using a particularly thick layer of metal clay, the thickness of the paper clay should increase.

5. Cover the wax-coated form with this layer of paper clay. (I cut the paper clay into strips, piece it over the form, and smooth all seams.) This will be enough to support the metal clay during the firing and yet will not be too difficult to remove. The paper clay will not be altered in any way during firing. (Make sure to clean up all traces of paper clay from your work surface. They look very similar to metal clay and you don't want to get the materials confused.)

6. Set this aside to harden. It may take 24 hours because the paper clay must be bone dry.

7. When the paper clay layer is dry, apply melted wax over the form to a depth of exactly 1/8". (The wax can be brushed on or dipped. This step not only allows for shrinkage, but metal clay should never be formed directly over paper clay. It doesn't stick well and the paper clay will absorb the moisture content from the metal clay, making it difficult to manipulate.)

8. To check the depth, stick a straight pin or a needle tool into the wax until it hits the hardened paper clay layer. Measure how much of the pin is below the surface. Let the wax layer cool.

9. Apply a little olive oil to your hands and tools to prevent the metal clay from sticking. Roll out a sheet of metal clay like you did with the paper clay. A stack of two, three or four cards gives a nice depth, depending on how thick and heavy you want the end result. I have found that two cards' thickness results in a strong and lightweight piece. (If you want to impress or stamp a design into the surface, roll a thicker four-card layer of clay.)

10. Cover your form with the sheet of metal clay by piecing and thoroughly blending the seams as you go along. You can use water or metal clay slip to aid in closing the seams. Make sure to cover with a consistent depth, as thin spots may result in cracks.

11. At this point, the decorative surface or texture is up to you. Have fun! Before I decorate, I like to let my base coat dry completely, unless I am stamping. This way any cracks that result from drying can be "caulked" with more clay. Let the clay dry completely before firing.

12. Set up for firing. Make sure that the form is completely supported underneath with vermiculite or alumina hydrate. I use either a clay flowerpot saucer or a stainless steel ring to hold and contain my support material. Standard PMC fires at 1650°F for two hours. (Editor's note: Fire the type of metal clay you use based on recommended or package instructions.)

13. After firing, if the width of the bead hole allows it, you can pick out the fired paper clay with a dental tool. Usually all it takes is just getting it started and the rest chips away fairly easily. Leaving it in does no harm and adds no appreciable weight.

14. Finish the metal clay to your liking. The polka-dot heart bead had a patina chemical applied, was brass-brushed with soapy water, and then was burnished on the high spots.)

 

Barbara's fish is another example of this hollow-core bead-making technique.

For more dimensional metal clay lessons and metal clay jewelry-making projects, the resource I turn to is Kate McKinnon's gorgeous book, Sculptural Metal Clay. I'm continually impressed with the height and dimension Kate achieves with metal clay and building/pottery techniques--and she shares those secrets in the book and bonus DVD so you can do it, too.

About the author/designer: Barbara Becker Simon is a jeweler, glass bead maker, and teacher. She is a Senior Instructor with the PMC Guild. Learn more about her at BBSimon.com.


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