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Exploring BronzClay

This versatile medium adds new dimensions to jewelry design, and it’s easy on your budget
BronzClay rings
Jill Erickson's trio of rings demonstrates a range of styles and finishes possible with BronzClay.
BronzClay snail
Jill Erickson crafted this adorable snail out of BronzClay.
Bronzclay stamp
This piece was stamped with an antique printer's stamp, then treated with liver of sulfur and polished to make the high spots shine.
BronzClay package
Condition your entire package of BronzClay in 30 to 50 gram increments.
BronzClay charcoal
Use a stainless steel container and coconut- or coal-based charcoal to fire BronzClay pieces.

If you’re like us, you have favorite media that you use to make most of your jewelry. You may love to bead, or you may work with metal clay and glass, as we do. Chances are that you experiment with other media, too. 

In any case, you’ll want to give BronzClay a try — it’s an economical alternative to silver clay and can take your jewelry to a new level of creativity. Bronze tones are warm and natural, which makes them aesthetically appealing and easy to pair with other materials and colors, leading to new styles that you may not have explored. 

We’ve had the good fortune to learn about BronzClay from metal clay artist Celie Fago. We visited Celie in her studio in Vermont after hearing high praise about her. She is indeed a giving and gentle teacher, sharing her techniques and creativity without hesitation. She is also an accomplished artist. 

Celie tested BronzClay as Bill Struve developed it, and her input helped Bill improve his formula. Armed with Celie’s expertise, we’ve expanded our knowledge of BronzClay to share with you.

Conditioning and storage

One of the main differences between BronzClay and most other metal clays is that BronzClay benefits from conditioning, or wedging, prior to use. For this reason, you’ll want to condition your clay the evening before you plan to use it.   

When working with BronzClay either in the wet or dry state, use Gloves in a Bottle to keep your hands relatively clean. Plan on conditioning BronzClay in sections of 30 to 50 grams at a time, and condition the entire package once you open it. 

To condition BronzClay, first open the package of clay. Then oil your hands lightly before taking out a section of clay, and repeat oiling as necessary. Work the clay into a ball. Using the butt of one hand, firmly push the clay into your other palm. Roll it back into a ball, and repeat this process several times. You may have to work a little water into the clay to soften it. You will feel the clay becoming softer and more malleable as you condition it.

Place the clay ball in a piece of plastic wrap — but don’t cover it tightly — and store it in a sealable container with a damp sponge. You’ve just created a humidor for your clay. Important: Don’t let the clay come into direct contact with the sponge, or the clay will become too mushy to use. 

You may decide to store your container in the refrigerator. Although there is debate about the necessity for this, many of us believe that BronzClay is easier to work when it is cold.

BronzClay earrings
After firing, take a torch to your pieces for an earthy patina, as in these earrings.
bronzclay necklace
This shell pendant was molded from a real shell.
bronzclay button
This piece was stamped with an antique printer's stamp, then treated with liver of sulfur and polished to make the high spots shine.
 

Working the clay

Generally speaking, working with BronzClay is very similar to working with the other metal clays. It can be rolled and textured, cut, carved, and stamped. You can use most of the same tools with BronzClay as you use with other clays, but you want to make sure the tools can be cleaned, or else use a separate set. Do not use sanding pads interchangeably — make sure you have sanding pads dedicated to BronzClay.

BronzClay differs from other metal clays in two significant ways. First, when attaching two pieces of BronzClay, you have to use thick slip or a small piece of BronzClay, and you need to hold the pieces together for at least a minute to ensure a strong bond. Second, BronzClay is quite flexible when it’s dry, allowing you to bend the dry clay if needed.

Firing

Firing BronzClay must be done in an oxygen-free environment to allow the clay to fully sinter and prevent it from turning black. The following may not be the quickest method, but it will bring good results. 

Wear a respirator to prevent breathing in small particles when filling and emptying your charcoal container for firing and also when sanding dry clay. To fire your clay, fill the bottom of a stainless steel container 1 in. (2.5 cm) deep with activated charcoal. You can use coconut-based charcoal or coal-based charcoal. 

Place the dry pieces of clay in the charcoal, at least 1 in. (2.5 cm) from the edge and not close together. Too many pieces in a load can prohibit correct sintering. If using a large container, place another inch of charcoal in the container, and then add another layer of pieces. Put the larger pieces in the top layer (heat rises), and place pieces near the back of the container if you have a front-loading kiln.

Cover the second layer with more charcoal and the lid. Charcoal should fill the container and the lid should close snugly. 

Place the container on short legs near the rear of the kiln without touching the thermocouple. The legs will allow air circulation and help heat the container evenly.

Finishing

Unlike silver clay, BronzClay is gorgeous straight out of the kiln, and the charcoal creates a natural patina that can be polished, but doesn’t have to be. 

If you want, you can finish BronzClay just as you would any other metal clay. We like to tumble our pieces. Using a brass brush or burnisher also works well, as does hammering, which polishes the high spots.

Firing schedules

  • For any silver metal clay: Full ramp to 1650˚F, hold 2 hours for the greatest strength.
  • For BronzClay: Ramp 250˚F per hour to 1514˚F*, hold for 3 1⁄2 hours or more, depending on the thickness of the pieces.
  • For CopprClay: Two-stage firing: Place items on open shelf, ramp 500˚F per hour to 550˚F, and hold 30–60 minutes. Carefully place items in container as for BronzClay, full ramp to 1700˚F, and hold 3 or more hours, depending on thickness of the pieces.

*BronzClay can blister at too high a temperature, even though the recommended temperature is 1550˚F. Fire at the highest temperature you can before blisters form. You will quickly find the temperatures that work for you in your kiln.

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