Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Copper Clays - Firing Tests

For a while now I have been wanting to try the new copper clay and finally broke down and got some. There are two different kinds, each with different firing requirements. Not knowing much about either, I decided to try both out and experiment with the firing options.

The two types are COPPRClay and ArtClay Copper. I bought the smallest packages of I could of each, made pieces out of each and tried both firing options with each. Details for each clay, including their firing requirements can be found at the links provided above. Here is what I found:

COPPRClay came in a 30 gram package. It has the longer and more complicated firing schedule and should be fired surrounded by activated carbon (the full firing schedule is available at the link above). It was darker in color than the Art Clay Copper and the manufacturer recommends storage in the refrigerator. Even after drying, the clay was bendable and felt more like PMC in it's leather hard state.

ArtClay Copper seemed to dry out less quickly. It came in a larger 50 gram package. It is not recommended that ArtClay Copper be stored in the refrigerator. Both can be dried on a warming plate, just like PMC. When dry, ArtClay Copper is lighter in color than the COPPRClay and feels more like PMC in its greenware state. The manufacturer recommends storing ArtClay Copper in a vacuum sealed bag (like the ones you can buy for food) and then placed in another bag with a moist paper towel. I don't have a vacuum sealer and I wasn't going to buy one just for this so I put the clay in a ziplock bag, pushing out as much air as I could, and then putting that bag inside another bag with a wet paper towel. I haven't used it again, so I don't know how well it retained it's moisture. That will be a subject for my next blog post.

I tried the COPPRClay firing schedule first, but used pieces of both kinds of clay to see how well they fared comparatively. That schedule requires first firing at a slow ramp on a kiln shelf to burn off the binder and then another slow ramp firing with the pieces embedded in the carbon (to create an oxygen-deprived environment and prevent black fire scale). Because of the slow ramps and the cooling in between, this process took me a good part of the day (I mean it took my kiln - I only had to program it and wait). It made my kiln quite messy and darkened the shiny stainless steel firing pan. I don't know if this will happen each time I fire or if it was only because it was the first time using the carbon.

After digging the pieces out of the carbon, the ArtClay Copper was shiny copper. The COPPRClay looked more like terracotta at this point. Once I brushed it with a brass brush, it took on more of a coppery sheen. The COPPRClay shrunk more than the ArtClay Copper and seemed bendier and less strong than the ArtClay Copper piece.

I next tried the firing instructions from the ArtClay Copper, with pieces of each type. The firing time isn't nearly as long - a hold time of 30 minutes. The directions suggested placing the pieces into a pre-heated kiln and also taking the pieces out while still red hot and quenching them. The instructions said this would remove the black coating that forms on the outside of the clay (the whole reason the COPPRClay is to be fired in carbon is to avoid the black coating). It does remove the black coating - at least mostly - and a few minutes in warm pickle removes the rest. The ArtClay copper did quite well with this firing, but the COPPRClay didn't survive. The piece was pretty much all firescale and it crumbled during the quenching process.

Below are photos of the three pieces that survived. All that has been done to them at this point is brass brushing (other than pickling the one marked ArtClay Copper b). The two pieces on the left are the pieces fired with the first (COPPRClay) method and the one piece on the right was fired with the second (ArtClay Copper) method.

The results and my opinion? Well, certainly the firing schedule for ArtClay Copper is much simpler, and it has been advertised that it can be torch fired (which I haven't tried), but the black fire scale coating that came off during quenching was quite thick and left a considerably thinner piece of copper. On the other hand, the ArtClay Copper came out of the first process just beautifully colored with no brushing needed (although brushing shined it nicely). It is stronger and less pliable than the same thickness of COPPRClay fired the same way, and substantially thicker than the ArtClay Copper fired with the ArtClay method.

So at first glance, I like the ArtClay Copper better, except that I prefer the way it comes out with the COPPRClay firing method. I haven't worked with the pieces after firing much, except to brass brush them and I will be anxious to see how actual jewelry pieces will come out using it.

To be continued...

Monday, February 15, 2010

Looking Back. . . and Looking Forward - Part II

My last blog post was a bit maudlin. I was concerned about my sales for 2009 and I was trying to decide where to go from here. You may recall I wondered whether to focus more on PMC or on beading.

Since that blog post, I have made my decision and several things have happened to encourage me in that decision. I taught my first class in PMC, which I believe was a success. It was small, but I was able to give the students a lot of information and gave them a chance to make several things from PMC. In addition, in the past week I have had three sales from my Etsy shop, one of which is my first overseas sale! While not a lot by many standards, this is very encouraging to me, especially since all those sales were of PMC pieces.

It's probably obvious by now what my decision was: I will be focusing the most on metal clay adventures and beading will be done to support that. The first thing I decided to do was re-work my studio a bit. My work table was getting out of hand and I have re-organized it so the essentials for working with PMC and metals are within reach and beads and other things have been put on shelves elsewhere in my studio so my worktable isn't quite as crowded. My before (left) and after pictures are below.

So what's next? Well, I have a few PMC pieces in the works. Some have been made and fired but not yet made into jewelry. Others are waiting to be fired.

And something very exciting for me will be some new experiments. I have been wanting to try copper clay for a while now and have finally decided to take the leap. There are two different types/brands: COPPRClay and Art Clay Copper. Each have different instructions for firing and I decided to buy a bit of both and see which I prefer to work with. Look for my results in my next blog post!

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Congratulations to Lauren!

Congratulations to my Etsy friend Lauren (silentlanguages)! One of her very cool maps is featured in Etsy Finds.

Looking Back. . . and Looking Forward

I have been looking back at the last year or so and thinking about the year ahead. This is the time of year I begin to plan the craft shows I will apply for and pound out my summer schedule, so it only seems natural to look at other aspects of Willow and Me, too. This is hard for me because this is the part I hate the most. I stink at the business side.

Financially, Willow and Me didn't do as well as I had hoped in 2009. I hope it was just the economy, but there's no way to know for sure, I guess. So with that in mind, I am trying to think of ways to improve for 2010. I want to try some new craft shows, maybe heading towards southern Maine and staying pretty much coastal, but that costs money and I am a bit afraid that the economy hasn't improved enough for people to want to spend. I do plan on doing the old standbys that have been good for me in years past.

I have been selling on Etsy just about a year now. It's hard to get noticed, although I can say that I made it on the Front Page TWICE (with the same, item, but still...) and I have started keeping a scrapbook of all the blogs I have been in. I have been in several by people that I didn't know (people that I know count too, but being on a blog written by someone I don't know gives me an idea of how visible I might be to the big world out there), which is good, I think. For the first time, I spent some money on advertising, but there is no way for me to judge if I got any sales from it or not.

I have been trying to study some my fellow Etsiers' shops to see what makes them successful. What are they doing that I could do to grow my business more? I don't want to get rich doing this, but I do need to make some money in order to keep working. Mostly, I make jewelry because that's what I like to do, but it's an expensive habit! One of the things I have noticed about successful shops is their "brand". By that I mean that the items they sell are mostly similar in style.

My items are all over the place. That's because my history of jewelry making is all over the place and it has taken me a while to figure out what I like and what I don't. I have everything from beaded jewelry to fine silver PMC jewelry to Beaded Bouquets. I think there are too many different things and not very much that is consistent throughout my pieces. So now comes one of my conundrums: Where to pare down? What I would like to do is concentrate more on my PMC pieces and concentrate on lines that are nature-inspired, like my leaf pendants and my pussywillow jewelry. That's what I would like to do, but whether it is financially feasible is another question. I still have tons of beads - and I mean tons. I could sell some of them as destash and use the others only to support what I do with silver, or I could continue to do some beading, too. I think I might continue to make a few Beaded Bouquets, if only because I do get requests for them occasionally from past customers.

One of the reasons I want to continue with PMC is, of course, because I like it better than any other medium I have worked with. I feel like there are so many things I can do with it. And this coming weekend I will be teaching my first class in PMC. If that goes well, I would like to teach more, but I also need to work with it more to improve and expand on techniques that I can teach.

I don't have any answers to these questions right now, but I am going to continue to think them through over the next few weeks. For those of you who might read this blog, whether you are a follower or not - whether you know me personally or not, I would love to hear your opinions as well as suggestions and stories of things that helped you. You can leave a comment on my blog here, convo me at my etsy shop or email me at info@willowandme.com.

And thanks to those of you who have followed me and those of you who have supported me and, last but definitely not least, those of you who have bought my pieces in the past!