Artist Project Series: The Tree of Tolerance by Trish Jeffers-Zeh

Cool Tools and Creative Fire are pleased to present a new tutorial by Master Artist Trish Jeffers-Zeh.  This in-depth project is both an artistic and creative soul journey.

“Resolve to be tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving, and tolerant of the weak and the wrong. Sometime in life you will have been all of these.” ― George Washington Carver

My work and designs are highly influenced by my need to find peace in an often hectic and uncompromising world.  Hence, I headed into the studio, followed my intuition and “The Tree of Tolerance” was born.

At first, I had a totally different design in mind. However, once I sat at my bench gazing outside, the stately Elm tree in my front yard drew my attention.  After all, it would be her leaves, skeletonized and carefully collected by me for their lacey, intricate beauty of imperfection.  They were to be central as my bail, texture, and theme for the ceramic pendant.  When I am creating to release my worries, it becomes a meditation or prayer.  It is at these times I let go and trust my intuition.  The works that manifest while under this influence are most often admired by others and are prime examples of my yearning to grow past the techniques I have learned.

The elm is often associated with Mother and Earth Goddess, strength, communication, relationships and its essence energizes the mind and balances the heart.  It attracts love, protects and aids in sharpening intuitive instincts.  Elm is the arbitrator that listens without judgement.  Most mature elms of European and American origin have died from Dutch elm disease, even though they had a long history for their tolerance to thrive wherever they were planted.  Thankfully disease resistant cultivars have been developed that are as tolerant to various growing conditions as their forbearers were before the dreaded disease.  The Tree of Tolerance represents the seed that I hope is cultivated in all of us so that we may lead with compassion.

Coming from a hand building and sculptural background in ceramics, I was delighted when I found metal clay.  The marriage of these two mediums was my dream and I’ve been working with this process since 2000 when metal clay seduced my creative mind.  At first, I used the metal clay on my own sculpted forms that had either broken or were jewelry.  Then I moved on to bisque ware I purchased from a distributor.  This all worked fine until the distributors started to acquire their bisque from China.  That’s when I began to see more issues with the metal clay adhering to the ceramic.  This had not been a problem before.  I realized that the imports had more talc in their clay bodies and this acted as a repellant.  I needed to come up with new approaches in order to deal with what I call “Separation Anxiety” that I now faced with the fine silver not adhering to the ceramic body.  Another issue that can cause this separation anxiety is when there has not been a quality surface to surface connection between fine silver clay and the ceramics.  Now I want to share with you some of the techniques I developed in order to create stunning wearable art using a ceramic base.
For this project I wanted the leaves to speak for themselves, raise awareness of the versatility of syringe work as a sculptural tool, the wonders of ACW Overlay Paste and the versatility of FS999.  I believe metal clay syringes are under appreciated!!!

Intermediate to advanced skill level

General Materials:

  • Ceramic Bisque Bead
  • Your choice of fire in place stones. I choose a CZ
    Cool Tools Gemstone Firing Guide
  • FS999 fine silver clay 25gram
  • FS999Fine Silver Clay paste 20gram{I made mine from the lump above}
  • FS999 Fine Silver Syringes 2-3 depending on design
    This comes with three tips gauges, 14/, olive green 18/ light green{also a pink tip from my stash}, and 22/blue{I did not use this thinnest gauge tip}
  • ACW Overlay silver paste
  • Sheet protector with graph paper insert or Graph Mat
  • Non-stick Work surface such as Teflon sheets. You will want several for convenience.
  • General metal clay tools, spatula {an optional must have!} roller, Plexiglas for rolling coils, X-acto knife or tissue blade, needle tools, #4 paint brush flat tip, #1 paint brush fine point, shaper, Cool Tools thickness rolling frames or playing cards for clay thickness, .75 mm Slats {or 3 playing cards thickness for slab rolling}, release agent/olive oil, toothpicks, isopropyl alcohol {to clean stones before firing}
  • Spritzer bottle {small} of water with 3-4 drops of Lavender essential oil
  • Pin vise drill, 1mm and 2mm drill bits, mini files and sanding sticks to refine clay after drying, Dockyards Micro Carving tools 1.5{V cut and Skew Chisel}, Kemper Lady Finger Tool Set {fine and medium tips}available through ceramic supply stores.
  • Programmable Kiln for firing completed ceramic bead.
  • For the patina: Liver of Sulfur or my preference Cool Tools Patina Gel {2drops, 1 TBL sea salt, and 1 TBL spoon of ammonia}, old coffee cup, hot plate or coffee warmer, old paint brush to apply patina solution, bowl for 1 cup of water and approximately 1Tbl of baking soda to neutralize the patina’s reaction or it will continue to darken.  For a comprehensive guide on the patina process I really like the information presented by Cool Tools in their learning Center under Getting Started in Metal Clay; Metal Clay Guides and Articles to Jewelry Artists Guide to Liver of Sulfur; A Guide to Creating Patina’s & Finishes using Liver of Sulfur.
    Patina Gel Instructions.pdf
  • Optional finishing for polishing: Flex shaft or Dremel if you own one.  Resource RioGrande:  AdvantEdge silicone polishing tips in wheel or points, 3M Radial Bristle Discs, Mounted mini fiber wheel.  Be gentle with the flex.  I have seen attached silver embellishment detach from the bisque beads when too much force has been applied.   This can also happen when construction techniques have not been done properly.  3M Imperial polishing paper assortment 400-1,000 grit sandpaper is my recommendation for those doing this project.  It’s your safest bet if you are seeing significant flaking when starting the polishing process with warm soapy water and a brass brush.  After applying a patina you can use the polishing papers to remove it from raised areas for contrast.  I used Ultra Polishing Pads {Cool Tools} to remove patina from the high areas.
  • Optional finishing 2: Burnishing tools


Always clean your bisque ware vigorously.  I started with a scotch bright with hot soapy/Dawn dish soap; move up to a 400 grit dry/wet sand paper from the hardware store.  If you want to remove imperfections or blemishes continue the sanding process graduating to finer grits 600-800-1200-4000-6000-8000.  I’m never this picky about the sanding because I know that I’ll probably cover up any flaws from the ceramics pour with metal clay.  The point is to remove as much talc or powder residue as possible so the two different types of clay bodies will bond.  Handmade ceramics of earthenware don’t have the same issues as the bisque that is purchased in China.  So you might want to consider taking a ceramic class at your local art centers, colleges or make your own if you have a kiln.  I use clays that fire up to cone 6.  Just make sure you do your homework on how to fire the clay body of your choice.  Another solution is to purchase ceramic bisque ware that is made in the United States.


[NOTE: *Click on photos with the black frame for a detailed slideshow of steps*
All images enlarge when clicked on.]

Step 1: Gather everything together that you need.

The leaves need to be completely dry.  If you can’t find skeletonized leaves in your own back yard or on walkabouts you can try the commercially available ones from the hobby stores.  Cotton gauze used for first aide can be an interesting base as well.




Step 2: Making the Bail.
I made my own paste from 20grams of lump. I made more of a buttermilk consistency slip with assistance from my favorite spatula. Applying the slip thinly I began the process of coating the dried leaf I had chosen for the bail.  Using the leaf stem as a handle for maneuvering as I painted on each coat of paste was handy.  The first coat is the most important and for this I added water to make the paste more like a slip which makes it easier to coat the leaf surface and keep as much of the open areas as possible.  As you are painting on the slip remember to carefully pick it up from the Teflon sheet from time to time to make sure it doesn’t stick as you apply each coat.

Complete the first coat on one side of the leaf and allow it to dry before applying paste to the other side. Four coats of paste on each side of the leaf allowed me to bend the metal after firing to form the bail.  You will lose some of the skeletonized openings in order to make the bail thick enough for strength, but not too thick so that after firing in the kiln at 1650 degrees for two hours it is pliable enough to bend.  *Click on photos with the black frame for a detailed slideshow of steps*

Once completely coated with paste I used the 18 gauge/light green syringe tip to line the veins of the leaf. This will add structure and strength; do this to only one side of the leaf.  I used a dehydrator for all drying needs or allowed them to dry naturally.  You can see that kiln posts come in handy to keep Teflon sheets in place when the fan blows and as a stand or a brace for items drying.


Once the leaf was completely dry I fired it in a paper clay sag pot I had made years ago that was filled with vermiculite {my preference, you can also simply fire it on the kiln shelf}.

Step 3: Making setting for stone:
Since I knew I wanted to set a 10mm CZ in the center of the doughnut shaped bisque bead I found a marble to act as a slump form to make a dome. Roll the clay out to a three card thickness. Using a circle template as a guide I cut out my clay. Oil the marble before placing your clay on it so that it will not stick.

Since the dome that is being made is so small it will take a little bit of extra patience to make sure that it is completely flush with the marble.Metal has a memory just as the metal clay does and it will want to spring away from the slump form and I wanted a uniform dome. While on the marble I did a little edge clean up with my paint brush. Dry and put this component aside, we’ll get to that step soon enough.

Step 4: Covering Ceramic Bisque Bead
While my bail was in the kiln I begin the process of covering the ceramic bisque bead with leaves, layering one at a time with consideration of how they would work as a design element. First I generously dabbed a thicker coat of paste on to approximately a quarter of the doughnut bisque bead and began to tamp the leaf down with the side of the #4 paint brush until it was adequately adhering.

This step will require paste to also be applied to the top of the leaf to insure full surface to surface connection with the bisque. I laid the leaves on to create a texture that was pleasing to me and trimmed it to size once it was secured to the bisque bead.  It will require several coats of a thinner consistency slip in order to preserve the skeletonized leaf structure while insuring a firm attachment of the leaf to the bead.  Once the front is covered I let it dry completely.  Next I moved to the back of the bisque bead.  I decided not to fully cover the ceramic bead back.  This will leave some of the ceramic base exposed, which I thought would be a nice juxtaposition to the sculpted tree that was on the front.

Step 5: Shaping Bail
Once the bail has been fired it’s time to do some bending. The side that the syringe had been added needs to be the top of the bail due to it adding strength.  This must be done with a gentle yet firm hand and slowly in order to keep the bail intact.  It is fragile so I started with the tip of the leaf over a mandrel  until I achieved the bend that I needed to fit upon the bisque bead.  While there was a little breakage I wasn’t worried about it.   I knew I would be beefing up the bail by using lump, paste and adding more syringe work on the leaf veins.

Step 6: Adding the bail.
Now it was time to attach the bail to the bead. First I made sure the bail fit well to the surface and kept a mandrel in place at the inside top of the bail in order to align it to hang properly when worn.  Using ACW Overlay Paste in a generous fashion I applied it to the areas on the bisque bead that the bail would attach to on front and back as well as the bail.  Next step was to use the 14 gauge/olive green tip and apply it to the underside of the bail and the ceramic surface, front and back.  Once the proverbial glue was all applied it was time to slide the bail onto the bisque bead, which I had tension set. (Meaning I had pressed the open part of the bail together for it to be smaller than the width of the bisque bead.  A little metal spring action was in order for it to fit snugly on to the bead.) Once the bail was in place, paying close attention so that it would hang properly when worn, it needed to be pressed firmly for 10-20 seconds assuring a quality surface to surface connection. Using a #4 paintbrush I cleaned up the areas around the bail front, back, inside and let it completely dry.  Here’s a little video to give you a visual of this step by step process.

Step 7: Sanding and Setting dome for stone. *Video click image to open
Remember that dome I said I would get back to; well it’s time to set that in the center of the doughnut bisque bead.  Pre-attachment take a 3X3 {approximate size} square of 400 grit sanding paper available at hardware stores.  Turn the dome so the edges are face down on the sanding paper, gently use your thumb and index finger on the dome (be careful I found that this silver clay is a bit fragile in the pre-firing state when domed) and begin to go in a figure eight motion. <click image for video>.  In the video I start the sanding process doing a large figure eight in order to give you a good view on how to do it, but generally once you get used to the technique you can move in a smaller and faster motion.  The component is now in need of fitting.

Since I still wanted the bail to be a major focal point I placed the dome upside down in the doughnut hole to mark where I needed to cut a V shape so it would lay nicely.  The dome is still very fragile, so handle it gently trying not to apply too much pressure to it.  Using my index finger as reinforcement on the concave surface I took an x-acto knife and gently scored the pencil lines multiple times until the clay was completely cut through.  Slow and steady is the trick along with not putting very much pressure on the dome by either your fingers or the x-acto.  Scoring is a technique used to cut, pierce and incise designs in clay.  I kept trimming the v cut out on the dome till it fit nicely in the doughnut hole.  At this point I took the opportunity to start the center hole in the dome for setting the stone.  I started the hole with a 1mm drill bit, moving up to a 2mm to enlarge it.  If I waited till the dome was set in place this task would have been a tad bit more difficult considering the backside of the bisque was partially covered by the leaf bail.  Once in place I used water around the forms concave edges letting it be absorbed before applying syringe around the perimeter.  This will firmly secure it to the bisque bead.  Using the #1 fine tip paint brush I blended the syringe clay so that it was homogeneous with the bead.  Another surface to surface connection.

Step 7: Syringe work and tips.
This is probably my favorite step of the project which is laying the bones of the tree out on the bisque bead. In general I’m following the lines of the leaves I covered the base with.  You can see how I loosely penciled on the bisque to give myself a general guide or idea on how I wanted to lay my syringe work.  I started the bones with only two syringe laid lines on opposing sides of the bisque. I do a little bit at a time in order to judge where I want to add to the design next.  In general I’m following the lines of the leaves I covered the base with.
To lay the bones I used the olive green or 14 gauge syringe tip and began with the first outline.  Using the #1 paint brush and a lot of water I manipulated the syringe that has been laid so it is more undulating in shape and form.  I’m also a HUGE syringe fan and always have three at a time going.  I prefer to store my syringes in a shot glass; I’ve tried commercially made storage systems and found the silver leaked from my syringes with that method.

The shot glasses are cheap and easy to find and often inspirational or funny ones can be found like the one I have.  It keeps the syringes moist, while contact with the bottom of the glass acts as a plug so clay doesn’t leak out.




My tools are in a coffee cup and keep a 26 gauge piece of wire wrapped around the handle which comes in very handy when the syringe tips are clogged. Oops, a syringe from my stash snuck into my FS999 work area and there is a sneak peak of the future of this pendant.





Another great syringe tip, sometimes when extruding the silver it will want to coil up on you which can be a real pain.  If you place the tip in water and extrude a little silver it will solve that issue.  You can see the pendant is coming to life as I lay more syringe lines down.  I’ve accomplished my first layer of the tree; it’s really starting to come together.




You might ask, why did I apply the leaves to the front when I knew I would be syringe sculpting on that surface?  Well because dear friends I purchased my bisque from Bead Imports and they acquire their stock from China where they put more talc in the clay body.  Talc acts as a repellent to the clay.  It’s important how you make attachments to this type of bisque because I’ve seen so much separation anxiety between the bead and silver since the source is no longer hand poured ceramics from sweet mom’s garage studio {Thank you Tonya from Whole Lotta Whimsy}.  In the good old days I could paint paste on a ceramic bead, fire and even tumble without this much separation anxiety.  I’ve had to come up with new ways to use the metal clay economically and keep it strongly secured to the ceramic base {Overlay Paste is helpful}.  Using the leaves to cover the bisque was a fun find for me as it acts as a base for the added metal clay to attach to, much like a painter would prepare or prime their canvas.  I believe this technique also gives my work a unique look and texture.  I love experimenting!

Step 8:Making Opening for Stone.

I like all my stones to be open back. I just have this thing that the more light that can come through the better the stone will look, and I’m a process-aholic. Using an x-acto knife I expanded the original opening. Of course I had to see how the stone would look in place.  I was starting to see the character in this piece, which is a beautiful moment.  




Step 9: Bail *VIDEO click image to open
Beefing up the bail is very important since it will be the part that so to speak carries the load of the pendant weight. The leaf had incurred some breaking during the bending and it needed remedied.  Using the 18 gauge/light green tip I first went over the veins of the leaf.  I normally always begin extruding the silver before I begin laying it down to the surface.  Starting at the front leaf tip I lay a line of syringe over the center vein front to back.

You’ll notice in the video as I start to move the line I’m using an extremely gentle touch which I often call petting.  It can disturb all your well laid lines if you use a heavier hand.  I’m using the #4 brush as my sculpting tool because I want to cover more territory and do it faster since I laid such a long syringe line.  You will also notice that when my brush becomes too loaded down with clay that instead of cleaning it out in my water I simply paint it onto an area that could use more paste.  Why waste clay!  Another important element of adding the syringe is that I am putting it on top of already fired clay and this is where you need to tamp the line down gently while also blending it with the fired silver.  You want this line to blend, not just lay on top of the fired parts.

The edges of the bail are next, while I want to keep the elm leaves toothy edge there is no compromising on the bails strength in particular the areas that the chain or cord will be in contact with, rough edges will chew them up! The other factor that needs to be taken into consideration is making sure the bail is plum so that when you’re wearing it won’t tilt sideways.  That’s an awful look!  Since I pretty much did lose the toothed edge of the elm leaf the 18 gauge syringe along with the #1 fine tip paint brush came to my rescue again. For a better vantage point to add the syringe I laid the bead sideways on my work surface.I didn’t pre extrude and did more of a cake decorating technique placing the tip on my piece and going back and forth created my own version of the tooth.  Once I had the syringe work done it was time for the paint brush to refine it and achieve the look I desired.  Here is a closer look at the steps I took.  






There is still some work to insure the bails strength. This time lump clay is the best option.  Roll a coil about 4-5” long and about 4-5mm in diameter, cut that into four sections, spritz with water, and tent with saran wrap.   I used these for the inside of the bail where it made contact with the pendant.

At the top where it would be in contact with the necklace it will hang from.  This is important because you will need to make sure that your pendant hangs properly.  Using the #4 paint brushes as a spatula place the coils first where the bail meets the pendant.  Use lots of water and pressure to make sure that when you press the coil down it will fill in any open spaces {this is an area many people see separation when not done properly}.  I’m aggressive here because although I can fix after firing, I’d rather not.  Blend it well in all directions even using your brush in a sweeping motion from right to left.  When both sides are completed move to the top of the bail doing the same process.  Make sure that they are blended well to their bases.  When you’re finished it needs to look nice and neat. To verify how it will hang after the added clay has dried and refined use a mandrel or bamboo skewer and hang it inside a bowl or glass.  This will help you make adjustments if needed by sanding or using an x-acto knife to carve the inside top of the bail.

Click to continue to part 2