The real trick to making fingerprint jewelry in metal clay is getting a clean, detailed print impressed into the clay. In my experience, all metal clays types can take fingerprints beautifully. But there are a few different ways – both direct and indirect – to harvest the fingerprint and impress it into the clay, and each has advantages and drawbacks and produces a slightly different result.
The three most common approaches are:
1) Pressing the finger directly into metal clay.
2) Taking an impression of the fingerprint into a molding compound, and pressing the molded print into metal clay.
3) Taking an ink fingerprint on paper and then using the image to create a photopolymer plate (PPP) or to etch a copper texture plate.
In this article, I’ll describe the major pros, cons, and unique considerations for each approach.
1) Impressing a Fingerprint Directly Into Metal Clay
- Fast, no extra equipment needed.
- No incremental costs for additional equipment or supplies.
- Client’s sense of “ownership” of the fingerprint (i.e., the experience that his or her finger actually touched that piece of clay and that it really did change into pure, solid metal after firing).
- A much wider range of design possibilities, because the finger is not limited to being pressed against curved or flat surfaces (e.g. the metal clay can be sculpted around the finger, or the finger can be pressed into the metal clay at various different angles).
- Requires that you either:
- Meet with your client in person to harvest the fingerprint directly into the metal clay, or
- Devise a process for shipping an appropriate amount of metal clay to your client, teaching your client how to handle the clay properly so it doesn’t crack or dry out prematurely and the print is clean (e.g., it doesn’t become softened by the use of too much oil or balm), and protecting the clay against postal service delays, rough handling, hot or dry environments, etc. This can be a nerve-wracking experience for you (and potentially also for your client), and it carries a high risk of failure and wasted time, effort and materials.
- If you want (or need) the same fingerprint again, you’ll need to arrange for another direct imprint of the finger each time.
- Often, fingerprints of very young children do not imprint the metal clay clearly, because the fingerprint markings are very shallow and the skin is very soft. So it is best to use this method only for children ages two years and up, to be safe (although, depending on the individual child’s fingerprint, it might work for children as young as 18 months).
STEP 1: Roll out metal clay to a thickness of 5 cards.
STEP 2: Press the pad of the person’s fingertip straight down into clay [a]. Avoid wiggling or rolling the finger from side to side, which can soften or blur the lines of the print. If you are taking a client’s thumbprint, it can be difficult for that person to maneuver his or her thumb into the correct position, with the pad of the thumb parallel to the surface of the clay. If this happens, try pressing the clay against the person’s thumb, rather than the other way around [b]. To achieve a more sculptural, free-form look, roll the clay into a ball and press the finger deeper into the surface [c].
STEP 3: Release the pressure and lift the finger straight up.
STEP 4: Inspect the clay to ensure you have a clean, well-defined fingerprint impression.
- Experiment and practice ahead of time to get a feel for how much pressure is needed to achieve the best impression
- Use fresh clay straight from the package for the best results.
- Ask the person whose fingerprint you’re taking to let YOU be the one to guide his or her finger and press it into the clay. This lets you control the amount of pressure and increases the chances of getting a good print on the first try.) Have this person spread out his or her fingers and then relax them, still keeping them separated. Then slowly guide his or her hand to position the finger directly above the clay, gently press the finger straight down into the surface of the clay, and lift the finger straight up out of the clay to get a clean impression.
- If you’re trying to imprint a very thin finger, especially a child or an elderly man or woman, press gently on the soft tissue on the sides of the finger when you’re holding the person’s finger and pressing his or her fingertip into the surface of the clay. If you press dow
- On on the center of the finger, where the bone is, the impression may be uneven and unattractive. Pressing gently on the soft sides of the finger can ”plump” the pad of the finger temporarily, allowing you to get a smoother, more even fingerprint [d].
- When working with children, get agreement on the design before the appointment to take the fingerprint impression.
- If you are unable to meet with a client face-to-face to impress the print into the metal clay, the only alternative is to mail the clay to him or her with detailed instructions on 1) how to handle the clay, 2) how to take a clean impression, and 3) how to repackage the clay to ensure that the print is undisturbed when you receive it. In this situation, you will need to decide whether to send the client an unopened, low gram weight package of metal clay or to repackage some clay in such a way that it remains moist and pliable in transit.
- Children under the age of 4 are very curious about what they are touching, and often drag their fingers on the clay to get the feel of it rather than pressing down. Especially if they seem to be nervous or excited in anticipation of getting their fingerprints taken, try letting them touch the underside of the clay – gently! – so they can see what it feels like before you take the print. Explain that they have a very important job, which is to hold their finger absolutely still – no wiggling! – while you position and press it gently into the clay and then lift it up out of the clay. Emphasize how important it is for them to allow you to control the movement and the pressure of their finger, and explain that you will be pressing down and up, just as though you were pressing a button together. If the child insists on doing it “by myself,” ask him or her to make believe that just the top of the clay is a button, and to just “press the button” – gently – straight down and then straight up again. It’s very common for children to press straight through to the table the first time. If that happens, just praise their super strength, roll the clay back into a smooth ball again, and ask them to do it again and to try to be feather-light this time.Editor’s note: Consider bringing along some well-conditioned polymer clay (choose a formula that isn’t too stiff and is similar to the consistency of metal clay) or, better yet, porcelain clay, which has a consistency almost identical to that of silver metal clay. Letting the child practice on a smooth ball of one of these clays first. Don’t forget to wash and dry his or her fingers well before switching to the ball of metal clay! If practicing on polymer clay, also clean his or her fingers thoroughly with a wet wipe (or inexpensive hand lotion and a paper towel) before washing and drying them.
- [Editor’s note: It takes time and practice to learn to roll a fresh lump of clay into a smooth, compact, crack-free ball very quickly, so that the surface doesn’t begin to dry out. Your clients are unlikely to be able to do it themselves successfully just by following a set of instructions. Instead, when you’re ready to mail the clay, consider rolling fresh clay straight from the package into a smooth ball yourself and placing it inside a small, air-tight, plastic craft paint pot with an attached snap-on lid (such as the ¼ oz. Buddy Cups made by Mona Lisa, which come in packs of 12). Or place the clay into the bottom of a small plastic jar with a sifter insert and an air-tight lid (such as a powdered mineral makeup jar), add the sifter insert, and then top it with a slightly damp makeup sponge before screwing on the lid tightly.]
2) Making a Mold of the Fingerprint
- A less risky way to harvest a print from a long-distance client, if necessary.
- The mold of the print can be used repeatedly, if necessary (or desired).
- Molding material is inexpensive compared to the cost of supplies and equipment needed to make a texture plate of the print.
- The incremental cost of the molding materials, though not high, will come out of your profit (unless you increase the selling price).
- Making and curing a mold of the fingerprint adds an extra step, which lengthens your production time.
- The cured mold of the fingerprint will be relatively flat. Even if you press a round ball of metal clay into the mold, you won’t get quite the same effect as the rounded impression of a finger pressed directly into the metal clay.
- Impressing the metal clay with the molded fingerprint will produce an inverted fingerprint impression in the finished piece, i.e., the raised areas will be recessed and vice versa. In order to get an impression that is more like a direct impression, you will need to make a second mold (of the cured original mold) and use that to impress the metal clay. Of course, that also will add another step, further increasing the materials cost and the production time.
- I recommend using polymer clay for molding older children’s fingerprints, and two-part silicone molding compound for capturing younger children’s prints. Children as young as 18 months, and even younger, can be fingerprinted into the silicone molding putty, depending on the individual child’s temperament and motor skills as well as the brand of molding compound you use. (Some brands offer longer working times than others.
STEP 1: If you are using two-part silicone molding compound, measure out equal amounts of Part A and Part B and knead them together according to the package directions. If you are using polymer clay, condition it until it is very pliable by kneading it very well with your hands and/or running it through the rollers of a pasta machine dedicated to use with polymer clay.
STEP 2: Roll the prepared silicone compound or the conditioned polymer clay into a flat, smooth slab at least x thick, using a clay roller.
STEP 3: Take an impression of the finger directly into the silicone or polymer clay slab, following the same techniques as described above for fingerprinting directly into metal clay.
STEP 4: Cure the mold according to the manufacturer’s package directions. Photos [e] and [f] show examples of cured molds that are ready to use.
STEP 5: To transfer the molded impression to metal clay, you can either press the metal clay into the cured mold or place a slab of metal clay on top of the cured mold and roll firmly across the clay in a single pass with a clay roller.
Most of the tips for fingerprinting directly into metal clay apply equally to fingerprinting into a slab of molding compound. Here are some additional tips for making and using molded fingerprints.
- When using two-part silicone molding compound, press the finger lightly so that you create a shallow impression, which will give you a flatter surface that’s easier to work with when transferring the print onto the metal clay.Editor’s note: Although some liquid silicone two-part molding compounds can capture very fine details, for this purpose you’re better off with a moldable putty-type formula.
- Keep your uncured polymer clay away from your metal clay surfaces and tools to avoid contamination.
- A cured silicone mold should not require a release agent for use with metal clay. When using a cured polymer clay mold, apply only a tiny amount of olive oil to the surface of the metal clay (not to the polymer clay mold) as a release agent before pressing or rolling the metal clay into the mold. (The reason for applying the release agent to the clay rather than to the mold is that the oil can settle into the grooves of the fingerprint and soften the crisp lines of the fingerprint impression on the metal clay.).
3) Using an Ink Fingerprint
- Easier to harvest a clean fingerprint from a long-distance client
- The texture plate you create from the fingerprint can be reused many times without deterioration.
- This method is the easiest way to capture clean fingerprints from younger children. It is possible to capture clean prints from children as young as 6 months, if you are lucky.
- Making a texture plate of the fingerprint allows you to control the depth of the texture (and therefore the depth of the impression in the metal clay). By making a deeper texture, it is possible to enamel the fingerprint, if desired, using basse-taille and/or champlevé
- Not only taking the ink print but also using it to create a photo-polymer plate (PPP) or copper etching adds several extra steps and significantly more time to the production process (especially if you don’t already know how to make a PPP or etch copper).
- The incremental cost of the photo-polymer material, copper sheet, and other related tools, equipment and supplies can add up quickly, reducing your profit and/or increasing the purchase price of the finished piece.
- As with fingerprint molds, the texture plates will be flat and also rigid. This will limit the dimensionality of the metal clay in the area where you want to you transfer the fingerprint from the texture plate.
STEP 1: Have ready a black ink pad (any type of black ink will work), some plain white paper, and something to remove the type of ink you’re using quickly and easily. Depending on the ink you’ve chosen, this could mean, baby wipes, alcohol swabs, or fingernail polish remover.
STEP 2: Gently press the clean, dry, finger onto the ink pad, using a side-to-side rolling motion to help distribute the ink evenly across the entire fingertip.
STEP 3: Touch the inked finger to the white paper, lowering the pad of the fingertip straight down (to achieve a nice rounded fingerprint shape) and then lifting it straight up off the paper (to avoid blurring the print). Very little pressure – not much more than the weight of the finger itself – is needed to transfer the inked fingerprint onto the paper. The goal is to achieve a nice rounded fingerprint shape and a crisp, high-contrast, black and white image [g]. If you press down too lightly, not enough ink will transfer to the paper to leave a well-defined print; instead, the ink will look blotchy and/or gray rather than black [h]. Press too hard and you won’t get a crisp definition between the black and white areas of the fingerprint pattern.
STEP 4: When you have obtained a well-defined, high-contrast ink print, use a photocopier with toner-based ink to copy the fingerprint onto glossy photo paper for an inkjet printer (if you’re going to etch a copper texture plate) or onto a sheet of transparency film designed for laser printers (if you’re going to make a PPP). Important: Using toner based ink (which is used in laser printers and photocopiers) is essential to the success of both methods. Most copy centers have copiers that use toner-based ink; just be sure to specify that you need a laser or toner copy.
Editor’s note: You need a mirror image of the ink print on your texture plate so that the print will not be in mirror image when the texture is transferred to the metal clay. Scan the printed image into your computer, and then use the “flip horizontal” feature on an image editing program and then make a laser printout or copy.
Also, the black areas of the image (where this ink is) will serve as a resist to either the etching solution or the UV light. On the copper metal, these inked areas will remain raised even after the white areas are etched away, which is what you want. However, on the photo-polymer plates, the black areas that remain unexposed to the UV light will remain gel-like and will be scrubbed away, creating recessed areas, while the white areas will harden during the exposure and remain raised after the plate is washed/scrubbed out. So if you’re doing a PPP, scan the original fingerprint into your computer and then use the Invert feature on Photoshop or another image editing program, so that white areas become black and black areas become white. Then print out this image onto the transparency film.
STEP 5: Use the photocopied image of the fingerprint to etch a piece of copper sheet metal or to expose a photo-polymer plate. Information and tutorials about electrolytic etching and creating photo-polymer plates are available online.
Editor’s note: See our Resources list at the end of this article for links to tutorials on making etched copper or photo-polymer texture plates. If you plan to do a lot of metal etching, you may want to consider investing in Sherri Haab’s E3 Etching Kit (approximately $195 USD), which is available at www.sherrihaab.com as well as from several metal clay suppliers, including Cool Tools, Metal Clay Supply and Whole Lotta Whimsy. You also may want to use blue PnP paper (Press n Peel) to transfer the image to the copper and act as a resist.
We prefer copper sulfate over ferric chloride because it is less toxic and does not need to be disposed of as hazardous waste. However, both chemicals are inherently corrosive, and it’s important to take appropriate safety precautions, including wearing protective eye-wear (the chemical fumes can burn your eyes!), protective clothing (such as a plastic apron – the chemicals can stain) and nitrile gloves (to protect your skin), and working in a well-ventilated area. Avoid breathing the fumes from the etching chemicals, and wear a dust mask or particulate respirator when measuring out the dry chemicals. You can read about and compare the health effects of the etchants you are considering at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ National Institutes of Health/National Library of Medicine web site.
STEP 6: Impress your metal clay with the etched copper or photo-polymer texture plate to transfer the fingerprint.
- Make sure that the inked finger moves in a straight up-and-down line when it touches the paper and then is lifted up off the paper. If you roll the inked finger from side to side on the paper, as police do when fingerprinting criminals, you will end up with a wide, awkwardly shaped print that is reminiscent of CSI rather than an intimate, sentimental keepsake that captures a special person. This may not bother you if you want an even more abstract look, or if you don’t mind cropping the image and losing the typical oval shape of a fingerprint.
- The more relaxed the person and especially the finger are, the better the print will be. I’ve had good luck fingerprinting young children while they were sound asleep (in a car seat, for example), and taken good prints from very young children while they were nursing or having a bottle.
The most challenging aspect of making fingerprint jewelry is capturing good, usable prints from long distance clients. All three methods I’ve described have advantages and drawbacks. Sending metal clay to clients to imprint and send back can be challenging, but it also can yield the best results. Sending 2-part molding compound works well and is a bit less risky than having clients work directly with the metal clay, but some clients may consider mixing the compound, taking a clear fingerprint within the allowed “working time” to be too much effort. Most clients find it easiest to make and send you an ink fingerprint, but turning the print into a PPP or an etched copper texture plate involves significant time and effort on your part.
Whatever method you choose, it is important to make sure that clients who will be capturing the fingerprints themselves understand clearly the direct relationship between the quality of the fingerprints they send you and the quality of the finished piece of jewelry.
Information/tutorials about copper etching and PPPs:
Sherri Haab’s step-by-step etching instructions (using her own E3 Etching Kit, which includes copper sulfate)
Sherri Haab’s copper etching video demo (again, using products from here own E3 Etching Kit)
“Photocopy transfer etch” tutorial by Karen Christians (from Ganoksin/Orchid) (uses ferric chloride)
A downloadable reprint of Mona Clee’s article on etching metal (with ferric chloride) in the November 2006 Art Jewelry Magazine
Maggie Bergman’s excellent, detailed instructions for making photo-polymer plates on her site at, including step-by-step process photos
Sarah Parker Heermann: I have been working with metal clay since 2001 and have thirteen years experience creating fingerprint jewelry. Currently I have been shifting my focus towards other types of design inspired by the written or spoken word and by concepts that are connected to greater good. For me this means creating pieces inspired by quotes, song lyrics, poetry, proverbs, and charitable causes. I still love a good fingerprint though! My new studio, Mixed Inspiration, is in Cary, North Carolina.
Article and Images: Sarah Parker Heermann
Editing: Jeannette Froese LeBlanc and Margaret Schindel
Copyright: Cre8tiveFire.com and Sarah Parker Heermann. These instructions are generously given by the author for individual artist use. If used in a class credit to the author must be given. Always observe proper material safety guidelines as per each products instructions.