Step-by-Step Project: Sterling Wedding Band by Jeannette Froese LeBlanc

Commissions–to take them or not is a question many artists have to figure out for themselves.  About ten years ago the parents of a friend of mine were celebrating a big anniversary and they wanted new wedding bands.  They came to me to make them. I was flattered and scared. The rings turned out well and they have been worn everyday for the past decade.  My friends’ father is a woodworker, gardener, golfer and has worked hard while wearing a fine silver ring…so you can guess that it has been pretty beaten up.  It was flattened and reshaped at one point which work-hardened a few spots.  Over time these spots weakened.  He asked if I could solder the opening.  I figured it would be much better to remake the ring in a stronger sterling silver metal clay.  So here I am with a ring I made over a decade ago–and I need to remake it– “Exactly the same. The fit and shape are perfect.” (Pictured is the old ring and the old texture plate.)

1The first thing I had to do was find the texture sheet I used over a decade ago….in another studio!  My studio moved from a shop I had downtown to my garage–then was cleaned out last summer.  Oy!  I remember finding the old texture sheets and tossing them.  But did I toss them in a “maybe I’ll teach metal clay again someday bin” or in the garbage?  It took me a few hours to find them…but I had them.  Whew!  “Exactly the same” rang in my head!  So here we go…I documented remaking this simple ring band so that you can follow along.

Project Materials and Supplies

Materials:
PMC Sterling metal clay 25 grams (The ring won’t use the whole amount but you need it all while working.)
olive oil
pickle
liver of sulpher
metal polish
fiber paper (Optional)
investment ring plug (Optional)
sandpaper in various grits

Tools:
texture sheet
non-stick sheets
spacer slats
roller
tape
paper, pencil, ruler
ring Mandrel
rubber or silicon tipped sculpting tools (Mine are from PMC Connection.)
water dropper (pipette)
kitchen knife or palette knife
paint brush
clean files
steel mesh box (I used was 6″ square piece of mesh to make my firing box)
utility Scissors
tweezers
gloves
polish cloth

Equipment:
programmable Kiln
kiln shelf
steel container for firing (Not the mesh box, but a steel container such as those used in restaurant buffets.)
activated carbon
rotary tool with sanding attachments (Optional)
tumbler
small torch
fire brick

Project Step-By-Step

Step 1

Making the pattern:  The first thing I had to do was to make a pattern of the old ring and an enlarged pattern to allow for shrinkage.  I estimated a 12% shrinkage on the width of the band.  The finished ring size is 10.5.  Using shrinkage information I found on Celie Fago’s blog I went up to a size 13.5 for the wet clay.

Step 2

Prepare your work-space:  Before opening your clay prepare all the things that will be used with the wet metal clay.
1) I added a strip of a non-stick sheet to my ring mandrel and taped it onto itself and not to the mandrel.  (I use dowels of various sizes rather than a tapered mandrel as most rings I made are large and the tapering interferes with the size.)
2) The area where I will roll the wet clay has a non-stick sheet and my roller and texture sheet are oiled with olive oil.  The spacing slats that I use are one that will be the thickness of the rolled clay and I add one on top that is the thickness of the texture sheet.  For the first pass of the roller both spacing slats are in place.  Then I take off the extra stats and replace them with the texture sheet.  This way when I roll the texture on the clay it doesn’t get rolled too thin.
3) Place the paper pattern under the non-stick sheet.

Step 3

Rolling the Clay:
1)The first thing I do before opening a package of clay is to add some olive oil to my hands so that I don’t dry out the clay.  I worked the clay in my hands making it into a ball and then a “snake”.  As you can see in the photo the snake is almost as long as my pattern.
2) I rolled the clay using both spacer slats, and then removed the blue one (this is the one that is the thickness of my texture sheet) and re-rolled the clay with the texture sheet.
3) Using my paper pattern I cut out the wet ring band and wrapped it around the mandrel.  I join ring bands with an angled cut rather than butting two ends flat.  I learned this when I was a potter, it is supposed to make a stronger join.  Using a rubber tipped tool I pushed the two clay ends together. Leave the ring band to dry for a while…then take it and the non-stick sheet off the ring mandrel.  (If you didn’t tape your non-stick sheet to the mandrel it will slide off.) Leave the ring to completely dry.  (I waited until the next day.)
4) Take some of the left over sterling clay and pinch off a little bit and cut it up into tiny pieces.  Leave this to dry too.  This is what you will make paste with the next day.

Step 4

Making Metal Clay Paste: Add only a few drops of water to the dried bits of clay and work them into a paste with a knife.  I like the paste I use for rings to be the consistency of room temperature butter.

Step 5

Filling the Join:  I add a very thick amount of paste on top of the join on the inside.  It looks hideous, but it will be filed down later. The paste needs to dry, so leave the ring over night or dry in a food dehydrator. This is a very important addition to the ring and it needs to be a solid join between the new clay and the dry clay.  A paintbrush with a more fluid metal clay paste can be added on top to smooth out the layer of clay added. But don’t thin the added clay!  Leave it as a thick “patch”.

Step 6

Sanding the Dry Ring:
1) Sanding finally!  Make sure you have clean tools that are used for silver metal clay.  The files I like are pictured: mini files and a small bastard file.
2) Sand the edges of the ring flat by *gently* hold the ring and moving it over some 600 grit sandpaper.
3) I like rings to have a beveled edge and use the mini files to shape the edge and to clean up the metal clay “patch” on the inside.  Most of the “patch” will be filed off, but the reason I put so much clay inside at the join was to be sure that any indents were totally filled and the join disappears. *Do not sand and file too much on the inside or you can change the ring size!*

Step 7

1st Phase Firing: When you are happy with your ring and it is totally dry it will be fired on an “open shelf” firing.  Because I am cautious and I wanted to ensure my thick ring band completely burns off the binder I ramped my kiln slower and longer than the instructions.  Most projects do not need this and you can follow the printed firing instructions that come with the clay.  I ramped at 500F to 1000F and held for 50 minutes. I always leave rings in the kiln to cool and not quench them.

Step 8

Steel Mesh Cage: The second firing involves activated carbon. I am using an investment ring pellet (used to prevent the ring from shrinking beyond the size I want).  I don’t want the carbon to get in between the ring and the pellet so I will put the metal clay ring and the pellet in a steel mesh box to keep out the carbon.
1) I made two rectangles of steel mesh.  The length is the width of my steel firing box.  My box is 6″ wide so my steel mesh is 6″.
2) I cut out the corners of the steel mesh, about 1/2″ squares.
3) I lay a ruler on the mesh and folded up the sides.  There is nothing to hold the box together, the lid fits on top with some wiggling.
4)The top and bottom are the same.

Step 9

2nd Phase Firing: To prepare my ring for the second firing which is in a reduced atmosphere.  I put 3/4″ to an inch of activated carbon on the bottom of my firing pan.  Then the bottom of the steel mesh cage, the ring and a ring plug wrapped in fiber paper.   Once the top is on the steel mesh cage the rest of the carbon is added around and on top of the cage to a thickness of 1″ or a bit more.

*Note: If you use an investment ring plug, it must be wrapped in thick fiber paper so keep this in mind when choosing the ring plug size.* 

Fire according to the instructions.  I fired my ring at a full ramp to 1520F and for 2 hours.  It is slightly hotter as I followed the temperature Celie Fago posted and I doubled the time to be sure that the clay sintered.  Lorena Angulo had recommended extra time in her experiments.

Leave the ring to cool in the kiln.

Step 10

Finishing:
1) After firing the ring as some fire-scale on it.  (Notice in the first photo how the fiber paper is very black.  Sometimes I find the ring and the investment ring plug have a reaction, sometimes no reaction.)
2) To remove the fire-scale, heat with a torch until glowing hot and then place *with tweezers* into a “pickle solution”. Be sure not to use the metal tweezers to lift the ring out of the pickle.  I use a wooden chop stick.
3) If there is black still on the inside of your ring it is a reaction from the investment plug and the only way to remove it is to sand it off!  I have learned to make rings a 1/2 size smaller initially to allow for this sanding.
4) Once the ring is free of any fire-scale or investment reaction I put the ring in the tumbler for a few hours.  Afterwards I hand polish to a high shine.  To accent the low areas I use liver of sulpher to blacken the ring and polish off the high points.

Step 11

The finished ring!  Whew!  Commission complete.

About the Author

My "author" image is of me before digging into my studio last summer. I chucked so much stuff...it's a wonder I found the old texture plates needed to replicate this ring! I work from a small "carriage house" studio near Ottawa Ontario. My studio website is www.sassyandstella.com ~Jeannette Froese LeBlanc

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