Friday, 29 March 2013

Rings! (sort of tutorial)

I've been reading a lot on Pinterest lately about rings made from polymer clay. There are various ways to do it - I've tried using silver-plated blanks and finishing them with resin, which is nice, but I wanted a different challenge and to make something a bit different. So when I saw my aunt's birthday on the horizon I saw a chance to get crafty and here is the result!

Please bear in mind that this is the first time I've done this, so there's probably lots of room for refinement. I also only decided to do it after I had made the clay plug, so even I don't know the details of how to get an exact replica, only the method :)

Let's start with a beauty shot to whet your appetite. Something like this is what we'll be aiming for. So to begin, build yourself a plug of clay. I chose to layer mine so that when we come to shape the clay later the layers will show as colourful strata in the ring. Make sure you adhere the layers well so that no air bubbles are trapped inside and all the clay is well stuck to itself. If you're making a plug in a single colour (bo-ring!) the best way to ensure you have no air bubbles trapped inside is to run the clay through the pasta machine on the thickest setting then slice the sheet and layer it into a stack in the same way as you would if making a multicoloured stack. It's fairly quick to do and ensures no air bubbles or gaps, which is important otherwise you can end up with holes in your finished ring other than the big hole you intended to be there ;)

Once you have your plug, you need to cut out a ring blank. Lots of tutorials skip this step and just bake the whole plug, but I'm not a fan of baking more clay than I need to bake, nor of sanding and carving any more than absolutely necessary. Do yourself a favour and cut out a blank. It takes a few seconds and saves clay, time, and landfill.

These are my blanks, next to the cutters I used to make them. First you want to cut your plug so it is the right thickness. What's the right thickness you ask? Slightly thicker than you want the final ring to be. Then take that slab and the oval(ish) cutter and cut out the basic ring shape. I allowed more clay at the top of the ring as I wanted to create a carved shape there later. (If you want a ring that is even all the way round you could use a round cutter for this step.) Once you have done that, you're going to want to cut out the inside of the ring. I measured this in a rough way against my engagement ring (see pic below). You could use anything you want. My ring just happened to be handy (ha - you see what I did there? ;)) and I had a kemper cutter that fitted it almost exactly.

You'll be left with a nice neat hole and a little plug of clay. I saved the little plug - I don't know what for yet but I'll think of something. Gauges for modified ears perhaps? Anyway I had spent too long layering up the clay to just add it to the scrap pile. YMMV.

The next step is to bake the blank. Bake it on the tile (you don't want to risk deforming the inside hole by moving it and the clay is fairly thin at this point). I gave mine a bit of extra time since I wanted to be sure that it was fully cured.

When it comes out of the oven leave it to cool on the tile. I like to leave it overnight since I feel the clay firms up even more after baking, so I never sand or work freshly cooled polymer if I can help it.

Admire your ring blank. If you've been neat, it almost looks like you could wear it right now. (Gratuitous here's-stuff-I-made-earlier shot with my ring blanks in the top right corner.)

When you're finished admiring your blank it is time to get down to business. You need a scalpel or other sharp whittling tool, a safe surface (like a ceramic tile), a paper towel or piece of denim (NOT your jeans - if the knife slips the denim is to protect the blade from hitting ceramic and getting damaged. If you use your jeans it will protect the blade, but only by slicing through you.) You might want to look through the blade shapes you have on hand and choose one that is sturdy and easy to handle. I like this curved blade best because I can hold it comfortably and if it slips it tends to cut out of the clay rather than gouge deeper. Note that in this pic the sharp edge is pointing upwards.

VERY CAREFULLY start to carve your blank. I would start with one side and start carving at the top where there is most bulk. Cut shallow, small bits to begin with. Mistakes are easier to conceal if you haven't removed too much material, and the knife will be easier to control if it doesn't have to plough through a lot of clay at a time.

Take your time and ALWAYS CUT AWAY FROM FINGERS, HANDS AND YOUR BODY. Work your way around your blank shaving off little bits here and there until you get the rough shape.

Now you're going to want to start smoothing it. Start with a low grit wet and dry sandpaper - I used 240 and 380 because they are what I had available. Sand lightly and rub the paper against the ring rather than the other way around otherwise I have found that all I end up doing is rubbing the grit off the paper. Wet the ring rather than the paper, and aim for it to be just wet enough to stop dust rising. Rinse the ring regularly as you go along as if you get the sanding technique right the polymer will abrade fairly quickly.

Work up through the grits. I used 240, 380, 600, 800 and 1200. At each grit make sure you work every surface, not just the ones that will be visible. A ring gets worn in one of the most sensitive areas of the body (the finger, pervert!) and so it needs to be smooth all over. For this ring I wanted the sides to be gently curved to show off the stripes, so I worked the clay against the sandpaper in the palm of my hand rather than against a flat surface.

If the ring is for you, try it on regularly as you go to ensure it fits. If it is too small, it is easy to sand off a bit more to make it fit.

Once you like the design and it is sanded all over it's almost done. Buff the ring against a piece of denim (you can safely use your jeans at this point) to bring up a shine and there you go - a lovely, tactile and one of a kind ring, made by you, from scratch.

This ring turned out pink on one side (bottom pic) and purple on the other (top pic). Kinda cool since those are two of my aunt's favourite colours :)

(Important disclaimer: scalpels and other sharp blades are SHARP (duh), so you need to take extra care to avoid injury. I accept no liability for any loss or damage arising as a result of you reading this tutorial.)

Friday, 22 March 2013

The other string to my bow

I was going to call the post "my day job", but then I realised that as a freelancer what counts as my day job and my other creative activities have become blurred. When I have someone's manuscript in hand I work, and when I have time to myself I create polymer clay jewellery.

I am increasingly coming to believe that there is no need to separate my life into neat little compartments. In fact, one talent feeds into the other, and they both benefit from me being in a "good place", whether that means I have enough editing to pay the bills, or I am getting to create often enough that I feel happy and contented.

More and more I am hearing about friends with "portfolio careers" - where they have no one single shining talent, but rather a suite of abilities that may or may not complement and enhance each other. I always held that my editing and my creating were separate and that one did not really feed into the other but that's simply not true.

I work as an author coach, which means that I help and support an author as they work on their manuscript. We take their first draft (or, at least, the first draft that they were willing to share with anyone), and together we explore it and finesse it and bring out the vision that prompted them to set pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) in the first place. In some ways it is like taking the vision in my mind's eye of the piece of jewellery I want to create, then building it up step by step until I have something in front of me that resembles that initial vision. At that point I might seek feedback from family and friends, and then I will sand it and polish it and turn it into something I am proud of and willing to put on public display.

So what I want to do here is to say that I am an editor and a creative, and that those two things can coexist. More than that, they can support and enhance each other. So bring me your manuscripts, your craft books and your stories, and I will help you craft them and polish them and sculpt them until they resemble the work of art you first imagined. I will do so with the utmost care, in exactly the same way I treat my jewellery.

Monday, 18 March 2013

The Knitting and Stitching Show 2013

What a fab day out! My good friend Ella took me to The Knitting and Stitching Show in Olympia as a belated birthday present. So much wonderful stuff crammed under one roof!! I hardly knew where to start, so I let Ella take the lead and wandered along just taking it all in. The creativity was amazing. Check out these favourite snaps of goodies that caught my eye :)

 Kia-Ora - it's too orangey for crows ;)

Knitted farmyard animals filled with beans for juggling (including a hedgehog).

But the highlight of my day was a 2-hour workshop with the very talented Heather Belcher, learning how to make 3D felted vessels. I've made felted slippers before, and I have fulled (whether intentionally or accidentally) more jumpers than I care to mention, but Heather's technique is unique. She uses calico instead of bubblewrap or a plastic resist, and turns a watery, swimmy, messy activity into one of precision and control. I suspect witchcraft.

Her control of water, fibre and fabric is masterful. She tells us to tap on the fabric to get the water to penetrate and then smoosh gently but firmly to get the fibres to lie down. I tap and smoosh, but my fibre remains rebelliously bouncy. She taps and smooshes in exactly the same way and the fibres lie down obediently and stay there. Later on she tells us to glue a piece of calico to the table with water. I glue as she directs but my calico slides around. She does exactly the same and my calico is stuck to the table like Arthur's sword in the stone. I'm in awe :)

We finish slightly early and she asks if we'd like to make felt balls. She half-laughs because it is something kids do when first learning about making felt, but I'm excited because it is something I have never been able to master. I'm struggling, and it is almost comical how badly I'm doing, having been quite confident making my vase. I wail and hand her what looks like an amorphous acid green sneeze which she calmly dunks in water and turns into a compact sphere. More witchcraft. I can't quite believe it so I have another go, and lo and behold I make a slightly egg-shaped but crack free sphere myself. I'm so chuffed! Other participants are amused that I seem to be more pleased with making a felt ball than a vase. They may laugh but I really am. This is something I have struggled with for years.

So, hold on to your hats because now I have this technique under my belt there shall be felt jewellery in my Etsy shop. Oh yes. In the meantime here's some gratuitous loveliness from Heather.

Next time: Shawl pins, silicone and polymer :)

Saturday, 16 March 2013

Silicone mould experimentation - part 2

Impending carb coma aside, today has been a very productive day. Over the last few days I have had a play with the silicone moulds from my first and second attempts (see part 1) and some clay leftover from a custom order.

It was a mixed success. I learned why press moulds need to have a wall round them - basically a thick wall around the edge of a mould makes it harder to deform the cavity when pressing clay into it. My cabochons came out a little wonky as result of using a mould that was too thin-walled but I managed to ease them back into rounds.

So here's what this whole experiment has all been about - what do things made with these moulds look like? Well, I sanded and polished a few items and here they are. I love the magic of gilding wax :)

Before and after - adding gold-coloured gilding wax turns a textured surface into a lovely design.

The cabs on the left will probably become rings once I can find a decent blank for them. I think they'd make cute Boho-style summer wear.

This makes a nice earrings and pendant set. I think the pendant would look great strung on a steel torque in the same gorgeous green colour. Next time I might find a way to create an integral bail like the pendant below. The trick will be how to support the pendant for curing so the bail on the back isn't squashed and neither is the relief pattern on the front. 

And here I tested another mould with a different technique. The mica shift was accidental - I was aiming for mokume gane to bring out a turquoise layer underneath - but the gold looks effective against a contrasting blue steel torque :) I love how this spiral mould has come out - I'll definitely be using it for more experiments. It has a sort of Newgrange/Pictish look to it I think.

My next experiment with caulk will be making two-part moulds. I have a few double-sided charms and round beads that I'd like to be able to reproduce in polymer to turn into custom stitch markers and needle organisers.

Friday, 15 March 2013

Silicone mould experimentation - part 1

I love trying something new, and I love it even better when I can get stuck in and discover things for myself. I'm a huge fan of Pinterest, and have been hoarding tutorials and ideas for a couple of months now. (Follow me if you like). Some of the tutorials on there are hit and miss (you can often click through to some wonderous new invention like the replacement for Mod Podge for example and find a heartfelt plea from the original poster saying that they never made the claims that pinners on Pinterest are making), but some of them are pure gold.

Silicone moulds from silicone caulk is pure gold!

I have been having so much fun. Like my namesake I am a collector of shiny things, and I have a big bag of charms and trinkets that I have collected over the years with a view to making moulds out of them. With 2-part silicone putty being so pricey I put it off and put it off until I discovered this tute.

In great Blue Peter style, here is my own version. Enjoy (and try not to slice your fingers open on the mixing blade when you're washing it later like I did. Repeatedly!)

So here is my tray of trinkets. And below is my set up. I used a ceramic tile for mixing (not the best option as I will explain later), a mixing blade, cornflour (cornstarch), and 151 Silicone in white from the *gasp* pound shop! This has proved to be very economical since not only was it cheap to buy, but because it is in a metal tube I can squeeze out as much as I need and then put the cap back on. I've used the same tube three times so far and the silicone is still fine.

What I did was pretty haphazard. I squeezed out a biggish blob of silicone (looked like toothpaste but stickier), then I added roughly the same amount of cornflour and I mixed it using the blade until I got a paste. (No pics as I had silicone and flour everywhere and a brand new cameraphone ;))

Once it was thoroughly blended I added about the same amount of cornflour again and mixed it in. What I was looking for was for the silicone to become doughy enough to come away from the blade, which would mean it was ready for handling. Once it did that, (again no pics), I stuck on a latex glove and kneaded it a bit. I couldn't knead it too much as it still wanted to stick a bit to the glove, but I managed to wrestle it into a nice manageable blob (a patty, for all you Americans. We Brits, we say blob and we're happy :)).

This is where I made my first mistake. I pressed my blob down onto the ceramic tile and pressed a trinket (a pretty pendant from a local bead shop) into the mass. I smoothed the edges a bit and then very reluctantly went downstairs for a while to try to think of something else while the silicone cured.

MISTAKE! When I came back much later and came to remove the mould I found that the silicone had stuck very firmly to the ceramic. Why? Because silicone bath sealant is designed to stick very well to ceramic! Doh! Fortunately I managed to slide a tissue blade under the edge and slice it off. The mould is fine, but the ceramic tile has a residue that won't quite come off. I don't know yet if that will affect polymer clay if I use it as a work surface, but I wasn't too impressed anyway.

Still, the mould came out very well, with lots of detail. Not bad for a first go.


I learned a lot from  my first go, so I decided to try again with a few modifications. This time I tried using foil as a work surface, so I could peel the backing off the mould once it had cured. This worked OK, but silicone also likes to stick to aluminium (note the second "i", Americans! ;)) and the foil tended to rip, so it wasn't my best solution.

I also tried using baby oil as a lubricant (yes for the silicone. Get your mind out of the gutter. Actually I posted a very provocative post on FB alluding to using baby oil as a lubricant and not one person rose to the bait. I was a bit disappointed to tell the truth, so go on, I'll allow you a couple of eyebrow waggles and an ooh matron. Go on. Get it off your chest.) Anyhoo, the baby oil worked well up to a point. It stopped the mould from sticking so much, but it had its downsides. It also made everything quite slippy, and it was hard to manipulate smaller moulds as they kept sliding off the foil. It also seemed to slow down the curing rate, and the moulds stayed shinier and slicker on the outside than with corn starch.

With the slower curing rate and the reduced stickiness I was able to trim the edges off larger moulds and knead them to make more moulds. The extra working time on the silicone was good, but I got carried away trimming the edges off and reusing them and ended up with at least one mould that was too thin-walled to use, so it was a false economy. See the one on the left of this pic - it is very floppy and the bottom is extremely thin, so it is hard to get a decent moulding from it. The one on the right deforms much less when I press polymer clay into it.


For the third attempt I made a couple more changes. I used baking parchment as my work surface, and extra cornflour as my lubricant. Mixing was messy because the parchment scrap I was using was way too small, but if it were sellotaped to the table or some other surface for stability I think it would be the best thing to use out of the three (ceramic tile vs foil vs baking parchment). I also liked the extra cornflour as a lubricant - I dusted it liberally all over the work surface as if I were rolling out pastry and then put my blob of kneaded mix on top. It was the messiest option, but it did mean that the silicone cured much faster (water in the cornflour acts as a catalyst, so extra cornflour means faster curing). It also meant that as soon as the moulds were firm enough I could move them onto another surface and out of the way.

I grouped my trinkets into themes, so I could do several smaller objects on one mould. Here is my Celtic batch. This one was from my third mix, and if I didn't know it had been made from caulk I wouldn't have been able to tell. It is detailed, smooth and flexible. Oh, when you're pushing in your objects to mould don't push them too hard. The triangle-shaped hole is a triquetra bead that I pushed in too deep, and it has almost come through the bottom of the silicone, making it weak.

That's enough for now. I'll post about my first go at making jewellery with them in part 2.

Well hello! Welcome to the Crow's Nest - my little corner of the web where I'll talk about anything creative I'm getting into and behind-the-scenes activity in my Etsy shop Blind Crow Creations. Why Blind Crow? I might tell you some day, but for now let's just say that I love crows. I love all corvids in fact. They're fantastically intelligent, quirky and beautiful creatures with an undeserved bad reputation.

Now, on with the show!