A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to try my hand a silversmithing, thanks to a Groupon offer that I manage to catch in the nick of time!
I picked up a voucher for a day’s introduction to making silver clay jewellery for £29, when it is usually £85. The course was being held by 24 ct ltd, in Sheffield. Andrew Thompson and his wife Creusa run the class and have lots of experience in making jewellery. They were really friendly and helpful throughout the day!
I and my 9 fellow course mates were taken, step by step, through the methods of using silver clay. Apparently the clay is a by-product of the electronics industry – a Japanese metallurgist came up with a way of re-using silver dust by combining it with an organic binding agent which burns off during the firing process. After being put in the kiln, the binding agent burns off, the silver item shrinks and bonds together, and you are left with an item, 10% smaller than what you started with, but made of fine silver. I think that is pretty amazing! I also learned that Sterling Silver is approximately 92.5% silver and 7.5% copper, which makes it more hard wearing. The items we made at the workshop are made of fine silver – 99-100% silver. They will be less durable than sterling but will be a paler, brighter colour.
We were all offered the choice of either a 7.5g or 10g bag of the clay – all the participants on my table opted for 10g of clay. We were all surprised by how small this amount looked! It would just be enough to make some small items of jewellery. Andrew showed us how we should prepare the molds and cutters with a fine spread of ‘badger balm‘ to stop the clay sticking. For some reason, we couldn’t stop calling it tiger balm all day, which we, inexplicably, found hilarious. Andrew told us to be careful not to overwork the clay, as it becomes drier as it is touched more, and becomes unworkable. He also said we would need to keep a tiny, pea-sized amount to one side for finishing the items later.
I decided to make a raindrop brooch. Following Andrew’s guidance, I rolled out a small quantity of the clay onto a patterned surface, keeping the remainder sealed in its airtight pouch. To make sure I rolled evenly, I used the perspex spacers on either side of the clay, so that the clay was the same depth all of the way through. I then removed the clay from the surface and placed it on a teflon surface before cutting out, so that I didn’t ruin the patterned sheet for next time. I also made a smaller raindrop to go with my brooch. I thought this could make a pretty pendant.
After being surprised at how small 10g of clay looked, we then began to realise that it can go a long way if you are sparing with it! After making the two raindrops, I had about 5 or 6g left. My friend Kat has just announced her engagement, so I decided to make her an ornate heart with her name engraved on it.
For this I used one of the silicon moulds, which again I prepared with badger balm. The silicon moulds have a deeper design than the metal surfaces, so it uses more clay to fit into all the mouldings. When removing the clay from the mould, you have to be careful not to damage the pattern- this craft requires patience and care!
I would not be able to engrave it until later, when the clay had dried. I now had a minute quantity of clay left – approximately 2g. I spotted a tiny silicon mould that seemed to me to look like tiny balls of wool. I had just enough clay left to make a pair of silver stud earrings.
Some of the other women on my table made some gorgeous things! Heart-shaped pendants, bow earrings, rosebud studs and (my favourite), tiny bumblebees!
As we finished each of our items, Creusa placed them all into a dehydrator on separate teflon sheets to harden the clay. This took between 30 mins and an hour, so we all took to crowding around the dehydrator, repeatedly opening the meshed drawer to check if our items were finished yet. A watched pot never boils!
After the lunch break, we were ready to continue working on our items. At this stage, our items are a matte white colour, and slightly rough to the touch. The dehydrator had hardened the clay, meaning we could now work on tidying the items up. This meant gently sanding the edges and using a special tool to emphasise the patterns on our items. This was fiddly work! As you can see from the picture below, as part of this stage of production, I used the special tool to bring out just a few of the curved lines on my raindrop.
The tiny amount of clay we kept to one side at the beginning of the process now came into play. We dropped it into a small pot and added a small quantity of water, to make slip (just like in pottery). We then used this to add texture to the backs of the items, to make them a few millimeters deeper (therefore less fragile) – this is called stippling. After another brief stint in the dehydrator, I was able to engrave the back of Kathryn’s heart with her name.
Finally, it was time for the items to be fired in the kiln. As the items were so small, the entire process would only take 10 minutes. While we were waiting for this, Andrew showed us how we could also fire silver clay at home, using a brûlée torch. I’d love to try this at home, but I’m not sure I’m trustworthy enough! I’d be bound to set something on fire, I’m sure.
10 minutes later, our items were ready! After a quick dip in cold water, we took our first look at them and they appeared….exactly the same as they did before firing… Andrew then explained we needed to brush and polish the white silver oxide on the surface with a wire brush to reveal the silver beneath. We all excitedly began brushing our tiny studs and pendants, and were amazed to see the silver shining through – it was like magic! Finally, the items were burnished in a machine, to toughen the surface, and then Andrew helped us with the finishing touches on the items. He drilled tiny holes in the pendants and soldered posts onto the stud earrings. He explained that it is important that the posts and brooch backs are also made of fine silver, otherwise over time, the copper in the sterling silver will also oxidise our made items.
…et voila! I’m delighted with my ball of wool earrings, and it makes them all the more enjoyable to wear, to know that I made them from scratch. I’ve still not had a brooch back added to my lovely raindrop, but I temporarily attached it to my coat so that I could show it off.
If anyone out there ever gets the chance to go to a precious metal clay workshop, I’d strongly recommend it. It’s an enjoyable, relaxing, but strangely challenging craft, with lots to learn. Plus, the finished products are gorgeous, unique accessories which you can wear for years to come.