Basic Wet Clay Working Tools
No matter what kind of metal clay you choose to work with in your jewelry studio, fine silver, silver alloy, bronze, copper or gold, you will need a few special tools to handle the clay while it's moist. or "wet". This article explains the basic wet working tools various tools and what they are used for. When options are available, we describe the specific uses for each option and compare it to the other choices.
A work surface is used to roll out clay slabs and sometimes for basic construction. The surface needs to be something that the clay will not stick to. There are several different types of surfaces that will work for metal clay. What you should not use is anything made of paper or wood, or anything that is absorbent and would pull moisture from the clay.
Choose a glass surface that has rounded corners and finished edges so you do not cut yourself on raw glass edges. Window glass is very thin and has sharp edges, so it is not a wise choice. A tempered glass cutting board is a good choice since the glass is harder to break, comes with nicely finished edges, and they often have feet that raise the board up off the table. Having a surface that is raised is a great way to keep your clay and work safe from tools.
The drawbacks to glass are that it is heavy and breakable and it's not completely non-stick.
Self Healing Cutting Mats
Choose a mat that is large enough to accommodate the largest slab you will make and allows room for your cards or clay thickness gauges. The thickness of a cutting mat is a little less than ¼" so it elevates the work and keeps tools away from freshly rolled clay. You will need to use a release on the mat to keep clay from sticking when rolling slabs.
Self healing mats are popular work surfaces, but we can't figure out why. Clay sticks to them. If you use one of these types of surfaces, you will need to use a release on the surface. Rub Slik or spritz Cool Slip on the surface to keep the clay from sticking.
Teflon is a non-stick material that can handle temperatures up to 550ºF, making it the perfect non-stick surface for metal clay work. A thin sheet of Teflon taped to a table top is often used as a work surface, but these are so thin they are easily to dented, do not offer support and are not easily moved. If you use a plain sheet of Teflon, such as a baking sheet liner, try taping it to 12" square tile to get it up off the table top and clear of tools.
Clayboard: A sturdy Teflon-coated work surface featuring non-skid feet that is elevated above the table top. The Teflon surface is thick and sturdy, and replacement surfaces are available should the Teflon become scratched.
Tuff Cards: Small, thick Teflon project cards. After rolling a slab, the clay is moved to a Tuff Card for cutting, assembly and further work. Tuff Cards can be placed on a hot plate for speed drying and even placed in the oven up to 550ºF.
A rolling tool is a rolling pin that is used to roll clay into slabs. Rolling tools should be smooth, non-stick and wide enough to allow room for thickness gauges and still leave space for the clay in between. A rolling tool should be at least 6 inches long. A longer roller will give more flexibility in the size of the slabs possible.
PVC Pipe or PVC Rod: PVC comes in white or gray and can be purchased at a hardware store. The lengths available are sometimes very long, so you'll need a way to transport and cut it and the edges cleaned up before use. Solid rods are not typically found in hardware stores, but pipes are common. White PVC must be coated with a release. Grey PVC tends to be non-stick.
Acrylic Roller: Acrylic rollers are clear and smooth but tend to stick to some clays. Art Clay does not stick to acrylic, but PMC typically does, so a release is needed for PMC.
Cool Roller: Offers an all-in-one solution to rolling slabs. Calibrated spacers are placed in milled grooves on the solid PVC roller, eliminating the need for thickness gauges. Available in 7" and 12" lengths. Spacers are available in sizes 2 through 7 and also to accommodate textures.
Ultimate Non-Stick Roller: Made from a special material, this roller is both solid and light weight. Designed to work with Clay Thickness Rolling Frames, but can also be used with cards and other clay thickness guides.
Clay Thickness Gauges
Projects will often call for a card thickness for a slab. This is because playing cards were the original tool used to gauge the thickness of a metal clay slab. Other tools such as Clay Thickness Rolling Frames and the Cool Roller offer options to the limitations of playing cards.
Playing Cards: A pile of playing cards would be stacked left and right of the clay lump and the rolling tool rolled over the cards to produce a slab of that thickness. Cards can be taped or glued together and marked so they can be easy to located and avoid constantly counting out the number of cards needed. Playing cards are small and do not offer much room for rolling slabs for rings and other larger sized slabs.
Clay Thickness Rolling Frames (or Rolling Frames): Are frames that are made to the thickness of playing cards. Each frame is marked and color-coded for the thickness it represents. A Rolling Frame is placed on the work surface and the clay placed in the middle. This allows the clay to be rolled from any direction and the clay slab that results is very even in thickness. Frames can also be placed on a texture and the clay rolled on the texture at a given thickness.
: A tool that combines the roller and the thickness spacers. Calibrated and color-coded bands are placed in milled grooves on the Cool Roller and slabs are rolled to the desired thickness by rolling over the clay with the roller. The Cool Roller can create a slab of any size or length up to the width of the roller, can be used directly on textures, is compact and easy to use, and the bands are easy to change.
Clay Release for Tools and Textures
Metal clay sticks to most surfaces. Many tools, textures and work surfaces must be treated with a release to keep the clay from sticking. Olive oil, olive oil balms and special non-stick metal clay products are used for this purpose.
Olive Oil: Inexpensive and readily available, but has a greasy feel. Watch for gunky buildup on textures. Try using a small squeeze bottle to dispense just the right amount. Using too much olive oil on tools and textures can make the clay muddy. Go light!
Olive Oil Balms: Badger Balm and Burt's Bees are popular, but leaves a gunky buildup on textures. Use only on hands, rollers, tools and work surfaces. Contains bees wax, so it can be rather sticky.
CoolSlip: A spray release formulated for metal clay. A light mist allows clay to release cleanly without any buildup or gunk. Use on tools, textures, rollers and work surfaces.
Metal clay sticks very easily to unprotected hands. A conditioner is applied to the hands to keep the clay from sticking. Everyone has a different skin type, and some hands are dryer than others, so it is recommended that you try different products until you find the one that works best for your skin type. Olive oil, olive oil based balms, ClayMate and Slik are used to condition hands.
Olive Oil: Good for hands that tend to be rough.
Olive Oil Based Balms: Badger Balm and Burt's Bees are popular balms used as a hand conditioner. Both contain bees wax and can be somewhat sticky.
ClayMate: A creamy conditioner that is used for extra dry hands. Wash hands before applying, then apply to hands and fingers and allow to soak in for a few seconds.
Slik: A balm that does not include bees wax or olive oil, is smooth and silky feeling on hands. Gives the best protection to normal to dry skin. Wash and dry hands, then apply a thin coating of Slik to hands and fingers.
Metal clay begins to dry when it is exposed to air. To keep the clay workable and moist longer, it can be conditioned with olive oil, Claymate or Slik.
Olive Oil: The clay is made into a patty and olive oil is applied to one side and kneaded into the clay to give it a better consistency and more working time before drying. Add only a thin coat.
Claymate: Formulated for metal clay, Claymate includes anti-stick ingredients. The clay is made into a patty and Claymate is lightly buttered on one side then kneaded into the clay to provide additional moisture, extend the working time and a better consistency. Claymate is especially good for use with PMC silver clay.
Slik: Formulated for metal clay work. Slik includes anti-stick ingredients. The clay is made into a patty and Slik is buttered onto one side then kneaded into the clay to give it more working time and a very smooth, pliable consistency.
Clay Shapers have silicone tips that does not easily stick to clay. They are available in a variety of useful tip shapes for tons of design options, and the tips are available in both firm and extra firm hardness. The firm tips give a softer impression because they are more bendable while extra firm gives a sharper impression. Used to blend seams, reinforce joints with clay, and for modeling and texturing. Paste and very wet clay will stick to these tools, but when dried is easily flaked off and recovered.
Once you have a slab, you'll probably want to trim it or cut a shape from it. This can be done with tissue blades, a scalpel or a needle tool.
Tissue Blade: A 6" long blade used to cut. Thin blades can be flexed to allow for smooth arcs. Stiff blade are available that do not bend and offer very straight cuts, and there is also a wavy version that makes a corrugated cut.
Scalpel: Similar to a craft knife, but with a much sharper and thinner blade. The scalpel is used to cut and trim wet clay into shapes and strips.
Needle Tool: A long needle is fixed into a handle and used to cut shapes and remove bits that have been cut from the main shape. Needle tools are perfect for cutting shapes from templates. Some have large needles that distort the clay as it is cut. Look for a very fine needle tool such as the Ultra Clay Pick which is ultra-fine and flexible. You should also have a beading awl on hand for times when you need a sturdy tip to pry or poke at something.
Ball burnishers (also called Divot Tools) are small ball styluses mounted in a wood or metal handle. They are used to impress a divot in the wet clay to mark for drilling, for making a place for stones to be set, for texturing and burnishing in tight spots.
Paint brushes are indispensable and necessary for working with wet metal clay. A good quality red sable brush is used to apply water and paste. You should keep at least 3 sizes on hand for various applications. We recommend sizes 0, 3 and 5. Size 3 is the most often used size and is very good for water and paste application. Always wet the bristles of a natural brush before using with paste. This keeps the bristles from absorbing the water from the paste and ending up with a lot of dry clay near the ferrule. Red sable offers the smoothest application and does not leave brush marks. Synthetic fiber brushes, such as Taklon, do not offer the smooth finish possible with Red Sable.
The mini palette knife is one of the essential tools for metal clay work. You'll use it to make, stir and apply paste, to move work from place to place, cut off chunks of clay, etc. The blade is very thin and flexible.
A snake roller is a piece of plastic or acrylic that is used to roll out long snakes of clay for use as decorative elements or findings, to roll out ropes for ring shanks and bracelet blanks, for example. A snake roller can also be used to press balls flat and as mini work surfaces. Some use CD covers or pieces of glass as snake rollers. CD covers can flex in the center resulting in uneven snakes, and glass is thin and often has sharp edges. A 1/4" thick piece of material is best for easy handling.
A good pair of curved tip tweezers and a pair of diamond tweezers are the basics you'll need for metal clay work. Curved tip tweezers allow for handling of stones and small parts with the ability to place them precisely. Diamond tweezers have grooves in the tips to hold on tightly to larger stones.