Artist Project Series: Liz Sabol Part 1

“Swanlake Pendant” by Liz Sabol is the ninth project in our series and it is proudly presented by Cool Tools using EZ960™ Sterling Silver Clay.  Once again we are blown away by the level of work by this master artist.  In this step-by-step, Liz shares how she creates her Saul Bell Design Award winning work. Liz’s project is so detailed, we had to break her project in two parts.  Click the link at the end of part 1 to go to part 2.

  • The basic idea of Champlevé is a design that utilizes colored depressions in a solid piece.  There are many different methods available to achieve a Champlevé look.  The tools and supplies needed vary vastly for each technique.  You can customize the tools and supplies to suit the equipment you have available, or to the technique you are most comfortable with.  I use oil paint and epoxy resin, but there are many other methods:  vitreous enamel, alcohol inks, colored pencils, gilders paste, acrylic paint, colored resins, and even nail polish!  This is a general overview for the tools and supplies.
  • EZ960™ Sterling Silver Clay
  • Standard clay tools: Release agent, Rolling mat/rolling pin, Rolling thickness guides, Files, sanding materials, various paint brushes, Cool Tools Clay Pick.
  • Flex Shaft & Accessories
  • Basic metal smithing tools – hammer, files, sand paper, etc.
  • Color – Tools and pigments needed per colorant choice.

Design
When designing, focus on contrasting areas of black and white – One color will be the raised areas, and the other for the recesses.  The walls should be at least half a millimeter wide.  If the raised area walls are too narrow, it will be very difficult to mold and release the clay.  Optionally, texture or other designs can be planned for the bottom of the recesses.
I usually sketch out designs with paper and pencil, and then finalize the mold art on the computer.  My daughter has a Samsung tablet that has a pressure-sensitive stylus, and I decided try it out to draw this design.  I started by free-form doodling, and choosing a section of art that I liked to use in the pendant.  I planned on incorporating some gemstones, and designing a matching bail.  In the end, it was fun drawing on the tablet, but didn’t save as much time vs pencil as I hoped.  The resulting art needed more clean-up work on the computer than I would normally need to do.

Mold

The goal of the mold is to have channels between 0.5-1mm deep for creating the raised areas.  There are so many great options to available today make molds:  Sandblasting, 3D printing, CNC milling, Photopolymer plates, Hand carving (wax/erasers/foam/clay), and some commercially available texture plates can work.  For Silhouette Cameo users, it might be possible to carve recesses directly into the dry clay, though I have not tried this.  Remember to scale up your design to adjust for the shrinkage of your particular clay.  If you are making a negative mold, also mirror the art so it won’t end up backwards.
My first molds were hand carved in wax, but now I use an etching laser to burn Plexiglas.  The art must be setup a very specific way to prepare it for the etching laser.  I use black to represent the raised metal areas, white is the recessed areas, and blue for the little details that will be in the bottom of the recessed areas.  The laser is programmed to use a different power setting for each color, so that the details are cut shallower than the main walls.  While convenient and accurate, this does not produce the best mold – the sides are really rough and it is hard to get the clay to release reliably.  So I decided this was the perfect project to experiment with CNC milling and wax.  It turned out to be a much more complicated and time-consuming task than I thought it would be, and after several hours and ruined wax slabs, I did not get the result I wanted.  I ended up back at the laser so I could get on to the clay!  

Forming
Prepare the mold with a release agent.  Roll clay 4-8 cards thick, depending on how deep the mold is.  Press well into the mold.  Remove gently, so that the clay won’t split at the right-angle junctures between recess walls and base. Trim excess from the edges and dry.  Sand edges and back side smooth, and level any irregularities from the top of walls.
I found that the EZ960 rolled out very nicely, and was not sticky at all.  In general, it released well from the mold channels and captured even the tiniest details.  However, I had a bit more difficulty getting it to release from smooth top of my mold (what forms the bottom of the recesses) than other clays, which left an unpleasant rough texture in a few places that I had to smooth out after drying.  This clay is a bit coarser than the PMC Onefire in grain, but that made filing a dream, and didn’t clog up the sanding boards.  I make most of my pendants double-sided, so I repeated the process above for the back and then joined the two sides together.  Joining was a breeze, and didn’t need any slip, just water.
When I work with bronze (Metal Adventures FastFire Bronz), I fire bails flat, and bend them after firing.  I was worried about the silver breaking after my experiences bending PMC Onefire, so I assembled the bottom of this bail in a U shape, so minimal bending would be needed.  I used setting bits in my Fordom flex-shaft to create the seats for the gemstones.  I like to set stones after firing for several reasons, and use investment to keep the seats from shrinking. 

Since the dangling settings were so tiny, I decided to experiment with pouring the investment directly in to the clay settings.  I coated the inside of the settings with release first, to prevent the clay from wicking away the investment liquid.

Firing

Follow the manufacturer instructions.
To save time, I skipped firing test strips.  I know my kiln well, and usually don’t have any problems firing a new clay without testing.  So I put the pendant and bail on the ceramic shelf, with a layer of
Alumina Hydrate.  I was not sure what the instructions meant by a “low-temperature kiln” since my kiln could handle any of the listed temperatures, so I ended up choosing to fire at 1675 for 2 hours.  Both the pendant and bail shrunk a consistent 12.7%, which pointed to a good sinter.  However, when I bent the back of the bail VERY slightly it snapped immediately!   I went on to CoolTools’ website and found some additional instructions that addressed firing for bending post-firing.  

After repairing the break with slip and a thin layer of new clay, I re-fired at 1675 for 4 hours, along with a couple test strips this time!  There was no change at all in shrinkage from the first firing, but I could bend both test strips (4 and 8 cards) nicely with no breaking.  The fired metal was a bit grainy in texture, but that is a plus as it gives the color something to hang onto.

 

 

 

 

Click here to continue article part 2