Since I rediscovered polymer clay this year, my mind has been spinning with ideas about how it could be used with metal clay. Add in glass clay to the mix, and my creative juices have been really flowing! Well-known glass artist Paula Radke made the glass cabs out of her glass clay.
I am the first to admit that I’m learning polymer clay and while my finished bracelet is not perfect…there are several ideas to take away and try in your own work:
a) Polymer clay is fun! I love that I can work with both fired and unfired clay.
b) Carving polymer clay is addictive! I took a class with Celie Fago and she showed us how to carve polymer clay and the importance of creating test pieces of polymer clay so that you can test that the clay cured after baking it.
c) Glass clay is divine! Oh the colours! Paula’s cabochons remind me of something I’d find at a European flea-market.
Project Materials and Supplies
Two 2-oz. packs of polymer clay (I used Premo! Sculpey® in Copper and Burnt Umber)
5 glass cabochons*
4 brass jewellery box hinges with screws no longer than ½” (1.25 cm)
Liquid polymer clay
14” (36.6 cm) length of 18-gauge brass wire
Two 6 mm OD brass jump rings 22-gauge
5” (12 cm) length of 26-gauge brass wire (optional)
Black acrylic paint (optional)
Mica powder (optional)
*My glass cabochons were 1.25” (3.2 cm) and were made with Paula Radke’s glass clay; some of them had small pieces of fused dichroic glass in the centers. See p. X of our fall issue to learn how to make cabochons from glass clay. You also could make this project with stone cabochons; just don’t tell Paula!
Tools, Supplies and Equipment:
Polymer Clay Set-Up
Drill bit slightly smaller in diameter than the hinge screws
Screwdriver that will fit the hinge screws
Wire cutters (a toenail cutter with straight blades makes a good, cheap wire cutter!)
Old towel (or several thicknesses of paper towel)
Small U-shaped and/or V-shaped carving gouges or micro carving gouges (e.g., Dockyard brand)
Steel bench block
Determine the size of the bracelet segments. Measure your wrist with a tape measure, then add 2” (5 cm) to that measurement to determine the total length of your bracelet. To figure out what size to make the bracelet segments, which will be hinged together and topped with the cabochons, line up the cabs side by side and space them apart the way you want them to be on the finished bracelet, allowing enough space between them to add the carved bezel border around each one. Allow approximately 1” (2.5 cm) for the clasp and measure to see how many cabochons you can fit on your bracelet.
My cabochons were 1.25” (3 cm) in diameter, and to get to my desired finished length I decided to space five of them ½” (1.3 cm) apart, which would leave 1” (2.5 cm) for the clasp. This meant my bracelet segments would be 1.5” (3.8 cm) in diameter with a 1/8” (3.2 cm) border all the way around each cab for the carved, decorative polymer clay bezel setting. Depending on the size of your wrist and/or the diameter of your cabs, you may need to make your polymer clay bezels wider or narrower or use more or fewer segments on your bracelet. If the way you want to arrange your bracelet would make it a little too short or too long, no problem! Just make the clasp slightly longer or shorter.
Condition and texture the polymer clay. Polymer clay needs to be conditioned before it is used. With a clay blade, slice the blocks of polymer clay into 6 or 8 even slices. Overlap and press the edges of the pieces together into a rectangle that will fit through the rollers of your pasta machine leaving a generous margin on both edges. Roll across the rectangle with a clay roller to make sure all the pieces are stuck together firmly, then feed the clay sheet through the pasta machine several times at the thickest setting. Repeat this through successively thinner settings until you have passed the clay through the fourth-thickest setting. Pasta machine settings and roller widths vary by brand and model; you want your sheet to be approximately 1.6-1.8 mm thick. By using two blocks of polymer clay of different colours, initially you will get a marbleized sheet of clay . Additional passes through the pasta machine will blend the colours completely.
If you don’t have a pasta machine, first condition each slice of clay individually by kneading it with your fingers, rolling it between your palms into a ball and then a snake, twisting the snake as much as possible, and repeating until it is soft, smooth and pliable. Then knead two conditioned pieces together and gradually knead in the remaining conditioned pieces, one at a time, until you have a single, large piece of conditioned clay. Roll it out on a teflon sheet with a clay roller into an even sheet approximately 7 cards thick (1.75 mm).
Be mindful of air bubbles! Trapped air will cause the polymer clay to puff up as it cures and ruin your piece, especially since these hollow bumps become craters when they are sanded smooth. To minimize air bubbles, pass the polymer sheets through the pasta machine rollers folded end first.
Examine your clay sheet for tiny air bubbles after every pass. If you find a bubble, make a small slit on one edge with the super-sharp corner of a tissue blade. Press across the bubble with a fingertip, using a rolling motion and starting at the edge opposite the slit so that you flatten the bubble and expel the air out of the slit.
Texture, cut out and cure the bases for the bracelet segments. Texture one side of the polymer clay sheet using a texture plate of your choice. (The textured side of the clay will be on the backs of the bracelet segments.) Apply a release agent (a light spray of water or a light dusting of cornstarch) to the clay sheet before you impress it with the texture. Place the textured polymer on a piece of oven-safe, non-stick sheet. Cut 5 clay circles of the bracelet segment diameter you determined in Step 1, using a circle template and a needle tool . Lift off the excess clay and wrap it up for later use, but do not move the clay discs you just cut or lift them off the non-stick sheet! (Lifting or moving the discs will distort the round shapes.) Cure and cool the textured clay discs, still on the non-stick sheet, in a preheated oven according to the manufacturer’s directions. (See the sidebar, “Tips for Curing Polymer Clay.”)
Placing the clay-topped non-stick sheet on a ceramic tile before putting it in the oven will help maintain an even heat during curing.
Drill the holes and attach the hinges. Place the cooled bracelet segments face-up (i.e., textured side down) and side by side. Arrange the hinges in place on top of them and use a pencil to trace around the hinges and inside the holes for the screws. To ensure that the clay does not crack when the holes are drilled for the screws or the hinges are screwed in, drill the holes with a drill bit that is slightly smaller than the screws, and stop drilling before the screw pierces the back of the clay. You can hold the drill bit in your fingers to drill the hole (wrap the shank with masking tape to make it easier to hold), or you can put the bit in a pin vise before drilling. After all the holes have been drilled, put a tiny drop of liquid polymer clay in each hole and then screw in all the hinges , again being mindful of the thickness of your polymer components and stopping before the tips of the screws can pierce the textured backs. Don’t worry if your screws are a bit too long; the excess length behind the screw heads will be filled in by the polymer bezel in Step 6.
Note: My screws were too long for the thickness of my polymer components and I accidentally screwed too far into the polymer clay and pierced the screw through the textured back of the component . If that happens to you, back out the screw until the tip is recessed just inside the edge of the hole, caulk around it with a little polymer clay and recreate the texture as well as you can so the patch isn’t noticeable.
Add loops for attaching the wire clasp. Cut two 5” (12.7 cm) lengths of 18-gauge brass wire. Hold the center of the wire with round-nose pliers and bend both ends around to form a loop. Hold just the loop with flat-nose pliers and twist the ends of the wire a few times just below the loop. Coil the ends of the wire into spirals and place the formed wire on top of one of the end segments so that the loop extends past the edge . Repeat with the other 5” (12.7 cm) piece of wire and place it in mirror image on the segment on the other end of the bracelet. Note: It’s okay if the coiled spiral ends don’t lie perfectly flat against the polymer components, since any gaps will be filled with fresh clay in the next step.
Cover the hinges with clay. Roll out a Brush liquid polymer clay onto the fronts of the components, making sure to get some around the screws and under the hinges and the coiled ends of the wires. Put one fresh clay circle on each component and press the uncured clay onto the liquid clay layer, covering the brass hardware . Be sure to start pressing each clay circle from the center and work your way out to the edges all the way around the component to force out any air. Trim and neaten the new clay additions.
Add the polymer clay bezels. Place a glass cabs on the front of each bracelet segment to check its placement and see whether the hinge screws will prevent it from sitting flat and level against the clay base component. If any of the cabs is too large to sit flat and any of the edges is sitting on top of some of the screws rather than between them, make little divots in the edges of the glass with a large round file  to accommodate the screw heads. Center each cab on the fresh clay on the front of each segment. With your hands or an acrylic snake roller, roll a coil of polymer clay approximately 1/3” (0.8 cm) in diameter (depending on the height of your cabs). Wrap the clay coil around a glass cabochon . Trim the ends and join them together, smoothing the seam to make it invisible. If the coil covers up too much of the front of the cabochon, push it back a bit (I used clay modeling tools for this), being careful to leave enough clay overlapping the edges of the cab to hold it in place securely. Repeat with the remaining cabochons and bracelet segments . Don’t fret too much if little bits of polymer clay get stuck in the glass or on the hinges; they can be removed easily with a needle tool after the polymer clay has been cured and cooled.
Cure and cool the bracelet and some carving practice pieces. Place the bracelet on whatever surface you plan to cure it on (such as a ceramic tile covered with a sprinkling of cornstarch or a piece of non-stick sheet, baking parchment or deli wrap paper.) Roll some of the remaining conditioned clay through the thickest setting of your pasta machine, or roll it out with a clay roller to a thickness of approximately 0.12” (3 mm). Cut it into rectangles that will fit into the curing oven along with the bracelet. Place the clay rectangles (which you will use for carving practice) next to the bracelet and put them into a preheated oven to cure and cool together.
Practice carving the cured clay rectangles. Make sure your carving practice pieces have cooled completely in the oven before you try to carve them. Making practice pieces and curing them along with your bracelet has two benefits. First, it allows you to practice carving polymer clay (if you are new to it) or, if you are an experienced polymer clay carver, to “warm up” before you start carving the bracelet. (Carving mistakes are difficult and often impossible to correct.) Second, renowned Vermont-based polymer and metal clay artist Celie Fago taught me that these practice pieces also can be used to determine whether the polymer clay has cured properly. (It’s similar to tossing in a couple of test strips along with your base metal clay pieces so you can test whether the clay has sintered fully.) Properly cured polymer clay can be flexed without cracking or breaking.
For helpful tips on carving cured polymer clay, see Celie’s blog post at http://celiefagojewelry.blogspot.com/2010/02/carving.html.
Carve the bezels. To make carving easier, place the cooled bracelet on an old, folded towel (or on several thicknesses of paper towel folded to make a thick pad). If necessary, raise the work surface so you aren’t hunched over while you carve. (I did this by placing a stack of books under the towel.) Use small U- and/or V-shaped carving gouges or micro carving gouges to carve each bracelet segment , making patterns and/or designs on the tops, sides and backs.
Step 11: Create and attach the clasp. Using round-nose pliers, hold a 3-4” (8-10 cm) length of 18-gauge brass wire about 1/3 the way down the wire in the widest part of the round-nose plier jaws. Bend the wire into a U-shape with one long and one short “leg.” Form the short leg into a small, tight, decorative spiral coil, making sure it is small enough to fit through the loop on one end of the bracelet. Form the long leg into a larger, looser, decorative spiral coil. Pinch the legs together just above the coiled ends, leaving just enough room to allow the smaller coil end to hook through the wire loop on one end of the bracelet. Harden and texture the clasp by placing it on a steel bench block and striking it gently all over with a ball-peen hammer . Turn the clasp over and hammer the other side of the wire. To make your clasp look like mine, wrap the 26-gauge wire snugly around the center section of the clasp for decoration. Trim any excess wire and tuck in both ends of the wire with the tips of your pliers so they won’t scratch the wearer or catch on clothing. Attach the large, decorative spiral coil to one of the bracelet loops with two heavy jump rings, and hook the smaller decorative coil through the other bracelet loop .
OPTIONAL: Add paint or mica powder accents. To add another dimension to the carved or textured areas, you can apply acrylic paint and wipe it off, leaving paint in the recesses only. Alternatively (or in addition), you can rub mica powder on the high points or into the recesses to add a shimmering accent.
Tips for Curing Polymer Clay
- It’s very important to use the curing temperature and time recommended by the clay manufacturer. If the temperature is too high, polymer clay will burn and release noxious fumes. If the temperature is too low, the clay won’t cure properly.
- Always use an accurate oven thermometer to calibrate/check your oven’s temperature before using it to cure polymer clay. Monitor the temperature on the oven thermometer for 20-30 minutes after it reaches the target curing temperature to make sure the oven holds steadily at that temperature without significant dips or spikes.
- Always preheat the oven to the recommended curing temperature before putting in the clay.
- The plasticizers in polymer clay give off fumes that will coat the walls and elements of the oven during curing unless the clay is sealed tightly in aluminum foil. If you plan to work with polymer clay on a regular basis, I recommend getting a dedicated convection toaster oven with a vent fan on top and either curing outside (e.g., on a deck or in a garage with the door open) or, if you need to cure the clay indoors, leaving the windows open during curing and for a while afterward. Active ventilation (such as putting fans in your kitchen windows and facing them outside to draw the indoor air out of the house) is best. If you work with polymer clay only occasionally and want to use your home oven to cure it, seal your polymer components tightly inside aluminum foil (or use an aluminum roasting pan with a crimp-on lid) and arrange for active ventilation.