© 2016

Copper clay is not silver clay

I’ve had my copper clay since Christmas but hadn’t come up with a good idea of what to make with it. I also couldn’t get over the fear that I wouldn’t fire it for long enough and would ruin the bead. But, the A to Z challenge made me realize that I needed to let go of my idea of making the perfect bead and just make something! It also helped that, when I looked at the package again, I realized that I had 50g of clay to play with. So, even if I didn’t love the design or if I didn’t fire it properly the first time, there was enough for a few attempts!

I decided to do a simple shape and, after going through a few ideas, I settled on a bicone. I opened my package and learned the first way that copper clay is different than silver clay …

Lesson 1: It’s more granular than silver clay

Silver clay feels similar to modeling clay. Copper clay feels sort of like compacted sand. It’s really hard to describe the exact feeling of it, but it doesn’t stick or mold the way that silver clay does, and it doesn’t blend as easily either. It just kind of slides and when you try to squish it, rather than moving under your fingers it just forms a harder lump. If you’ve ever felt Kinetic sand, it’s just slightly more solid than that but has similar properties.

Because it doesn’t mold the same way as the silver clay, I had trouble getting it into the bicone shape that I wanted. I’d pinch the middle and it would just compact rather than form a ridge. I managed somewhat of a donut shape and figured that if I waited until it dried, I could sand it down to a bicone shape. That’s when I found out …

Lesson 2: After it’s dry, it’s harder than silver clay

After the donut shape dried, I pulled out my usual sanding tools and started sanding. And sanding. And sanding. I could see the copper shine coming up a bit, but the shape wasn’t really changing. I switched to actual sandpaper and started to see more dust on the paper I was sanding over. But, when I took a closer look at the bead, there still wasn’t much of a difference. I’m pretty sure that the dust that I collected was mostly the rough surface of the sand paper coming off and not clay dust!

I finally gave up getting it into a bicone shape and decided to try to turn my donut into a ‘dillo! I used a pin to trace four very fine curves and then grabbed my nail files to try and follow along my lines and etch them more deeply. No go. I grabbed a nail to see if that could produce better results and, while I could etch deeper lines, I had little control and the lines were jagged.

So I gave up.

I was about to torch the bead as-is, just to see what the firing process would be like, when I remembered that we had grinding stones for the Dremel. I figured that the bead was pretty rough anyway and was now just a practice bead so I dug out the grinding stones, found one that hadn’t been used much and had a relatively narrow edge, and went to town on the bead.

It turns out that the Dremel is actually a pretty good tool on the copper clay. The clay is hard enough that I didn’t have to worry about breaking it and the grinding stones made it much easier to make accurate lines. I smoothed out the lines that I had already made, added a few extras to try and make a pattern, then moved onto firing the bead.

Lesson 3: Firing is actually pretty much the same

Before I opened the copper clay package, I actually had no idea what the firing process was like. It turns out that the process is very similar to silver clay: light it on fire, let the flames die out, get it hot, keep it hot for a while. The difference is that you have to get copper clay really hot (what one site called tomato red, but what I would call the angry red that with silver clay would indicate that you are about to melt the bead) and you have to keep it hot for longer. The exact length of time wasn’t clear, though, the instructions just said five to ten minutes, depending on the size. That’s kind of a bit of a range! And, since I was particularly concerned about underfiring, it wasn’t really helpful! After digging around some more, I found instructions for a different brand that said for 10g fire for at least five minutes, up to 35 grams fire for five to seven minutes, and above that fire for seven to ten minutes.

Although I’m pretty sure the bead falls well under 10g, I fired it for seven minutes.

The instructions indicated that you can let it cool on the firing brick or quench it with water or the pickling solution. I chose to let it cool on my firing brick, but I later read that quenching helps remove some of the fire scale. Of course, I really had no idea how bad the fire scale would be.

As you can see, fire scale was definitely a problem. When the bead cooled, it looked burnt to a crisp.

Outside of quenching, the recommended way to remove the scale is with a steel brush, similar to what you’d use to burnish silver clay, then to use a pickling solution to get the last remnants off. I don’t have a steel brush but I assumed that, like silver clay, I could substitute steel wool. However, unlike silver clay, steel wool does very little for copper clay. So, by the time I put it into the pickling solution, it was still blacker that I would have liked. I don’t know if my pickling solution wasn’t hot enough, but I was still left with quite a bit of fire scale after I pulled the bead out. So, I went back to my steel wool and this time it worked to get most of the scale off. I guess the pickling solution really just loosens the scale rather than dissolves it.

When I started working with the copper clay, I wasn’t too impressed. It wasn’t very malleable and it was difficult to get the pieces to stick together. After letting it dry and realizing how hard it was to sand, I seriously began to wonder what else I could make with it besides beads! Now that I know that it holds up well under the Dremel, I think that I would also try using the Dremel to form it more. I probably could have gotten the bicone shape that I was going for and probably even the dillo.

There is still the issue of the fire scale. I definitely want to get a steel brush to see if that will take off more scale before the pickling and since it would also help me with burnishing the silver clay. And, I might try quenching the copper bead next time to see if that helps more of the scale fall off.

The final bead might not be perfect, but it’s a solid copper bead so I’d consider it a win!

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  • 14 Comments

    1. Cheryl
      May 16, 2016 | #

      It looks perfect to me Tracy! It’s delightful and looks amazing on your copper bangle and with the green beads! I am in awe of your creativity and artistry!!

      • Tracy
        May 16, 2016 | #

        Thanks Cheryl :) I admit, I picked the best side to face the camera ;D

        But, I am happy with how it turned out and particularly what I learned making it. About halfway through I definitely wouldn’t have said that!

    2. Sarah Rigler
      May 16, 2016 | #

      It’s fascinating to read about your whole process with your first copper bead! I’ve worked with polymer clay for 30 years and have shied away from metal clays. Copper is not for the novice, that’s for sure. Thanks for sharing your method in such detail and your final result is well worth all your effort,even more so for knowing how much care went into its creation. It looks great with your Trollbeads copper and lovely green glass!

      • Tracy
        May 16, 2016 | #

        It was a bit lengthy, but since it was different from the silver clay (and I had just finished detailing my process for silver clay in the A to Z challenge) I figured that I wouldn’t leave any details out. :) It’s hard to say if the copper clay was harder to work with than silver clay, or if it just seemed harder because it’s different than the silver clay and I’ve worked more with silver clay. I think that my experience with the silver clay did help in that it taught me to always try other things if the first method didn’t work :D I definitely want to try a few more copper clay pieces before I try a mixed metal piece. I forgot that you don’t get as much detail with the copper since it doesn’t oxidize the same, so I’m glad in the end that I went with a simple piece. In a way, it was slightly more satisfying than the silver clay because it was faster.

        I have never tried polymer clay but have always been interested in it. :)

    3. Debbie
      May 16, 2016 | #

      Great post Tracy, so interesting to read about your learning curve with the copper clay. The end result is a lovely looking bead that looks right at home on your copper bangle.

      • Tracy
        May 17, 2016 | #

        Thank you Debbie – I actually wish that I had spent a bit more time cleaning it up before firing it. By that point, I had it in my head that this was just a practice bead, but it turned out better than I had expected :D I’m eager to try more now!

    4. May 16, 2016 | #

      Excellent! So happy to hear you decided to try it out and see what happened… And yes, you do need to be proud of this first bead… It’s proof of your unquenchable-adventurer spirit :)

      • Tracy
        May 17, 2016 | #

        Yes, it seems that writing about it in the challenge pushed me to finally try it :) It will definitely fill a different niche in my beadmaking since I think the copper will work best with simpler shapes and designs. But it has piqued my interest to see what else I can make with it. The hardest thing is really keeping it at a nice temperature. It seemed to cool down much more quickly than the silver clay when you take the flame off of it (perhaps you because you have to heat it up much higher?) Anyway, it will be a fun adventure!

    5. May 17, 2016 | #

      I like that colour. Hope you’ll post more attempts!

      Susan A Eames at
      Travel, Fiction and Photos

      • Tracy
        May 17, 2016 | #

        Thanks Susan :)

        Yes, I started a new one this afternoon. I usually post my beads, I think there’s just one that I haven’t because I gave it as a gift.

    6. Jahndra
      May 19, 2016 | #

      This is pretty cool! I never even knew copper and silver clay existed!!

      • Tracy
        May 20, 2016 | #

        It is lots of fun Jahndra! Although it is a bit of a love/hate relationship :D I can’t remember where I first heard about it, but you can also get bronze clay and gold clay – the last is a bit out of my range, though! :D

    7. May 21, 2016 | #

      Really interesting post, it certainly looks a lot harder than silver clay.

      I like all the extra details it really gives a flavour for what you’re up against, and great final result… mmm mixed metals ;)

      Must blog my “rice Crispy” beads some time :)

      Mars xx

      • Tracy
        May 22, 2016 | #

        Yes, please do blog your rice crispy beads! :D

        After playing more with the copper clay I’m still undecided about it. It’s definitely different to work with when wet, but kind of nice to carve when dry. It’s “hardier” than the silver clay when dry. I’m waiting for my steel brush to arrive and then I’ll torch the new beads that I’ve done and see whether quenching and the steel brush work to get rid of the fire scale!

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