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!