Project: Grand Inspiration by Helen Wyland-Malchow

MCAM 3.2_Page_47_Image_0001Most metal clay artists have a quite a few pieces that didn’t work out as planned. My metal clay leftovers live in a box on my workbench. I leave them there as a visual reminder, hoping that some grand inspiration will point me in the right direction. I also collect vintage cabs, brass stampings and beads dating from 1910 to 1970, and containers of them litter the shelves on my wall! As fate would have it, I knocked over the box of metal clay odds and ends onto a design board where I had been playing with some vintage cabs and stones. They landed in just the right spot and— voilà!—an inspiration was born. It was the perfect marriage of my collections of vintage stones, polymer clay and metal clay. I have found some of my most interesting stones at tag sales and thrift shops, set in unwanted bracelets, necklaces or pins. Release these stones from their old designs and mix them with your metal clay leftovers and polymer clay to give them an entirely new look! Your local craft store also carries lots of interesting things that can be set into a bezel.

Wishing you grand inspirations with your own leftovers!

Project Design and Photos:
Helen Wyland-Malchow
Margaret Schindel and Jeannette Froese LeBlanc

Editor’s note: This project can serve as a springboard for multiple variations. For example, use three stone or glass cabochons rather than filling two of the bezels with polymer clay cane slices, or join the metal components with metal clay oil paste instead of solder.

Project Materials and Supplies


Polymer clay in 4–5 colors, approximately 2 of each color (I used Premo! Sculpey®)
3–4” (7.5–10 cm) length of 16-gauge (1.3 mm) round sterling silver wire
4” (10 cm) length of 10-gauge
(2.5 mm) square sterling silver wire
Fired and finished piece of textured silver clay, any shape (recycle a leftover piece or make one specifically for this project)
Recycled or new stone or glass cabochons, one 18 mm x 13 mm and one 12 mm x 10 mm
Easy sheet solder
One 12 mm x 10 mm and two 18 mm x 13 mm purchased sterling silver bezel cups
3” x 3” (7.5 cm x 7.5 cm) square of 22-gauge (.6 mm) sterling silver sheet
10” (25 cm) length of fine silver bezel wire
Hard and medium sheet solder

Basic Polymer Clay Set-Up
Clay extruder with assorted extruder discs (AKA dies) with large holes
Wood dowel or rod, 1/4” (6 mm) in diameter (or wider for a wider bail)
Flush cutters
Soldering pad
Third hand (optional)
Jeweler’s torch (a large-capacity, high-temperature butane torch might work, too)
Solder-cutting pliers, metal snips or heavy-duty scissors (e.g., Joyce Chen scissors)
Dedicated flux brush
Liquid soldering flux for silver (such as Batterns® Self-Pickling Flux)
Citric acid pickle
Flat jewelry files in coarse and fine cuts
Wet/dry sandpaper, 400–1200 grits
Dental floss
E-6000® self-leveling adhesive
Curved burnisher

Project Step-By-Step

Step 1

Extrude a simple polymer clay cane. Condition each color of polymer clay and roll it out to a thickness of 3 cards (.75 mm) with a clay roller or a pasta machine. Turn the extruder handle three or four turns counterclockwise to increase the length of the open cavity inside the barrel. Unscrew and remove the cap that holds the shape discs (AKA dies) in place. Using the open end of the barrel as a cutter, cut a disc from one of the polymer clay sheets, leaving the clay disc inside the end of the extruder barrel. Turn the handle counterclockwise a few turns again, creating a bit of suction to pull the clay a little further into the barrel. Repeat this process, cutting alternating color discs until no more clay will fit inside the cavity and the barrel is about half full [1]. Then place a round or square die in the extruder cap, screw it onto the barrel and extrude the entire amount of clay as a single, long rod of cane.

Step 2

Stack sections into a “retro”- patterned complex cane. Cut the cane with a tissue blade into 8 equal lengths. Stack them in a rectangular block 4 rows wide by 2 rows tall. The cross sections exposed at the ends of each piece will have concentric rings of different colors and each pattern will be slightly different. Press the stacked canes together and cut the block in half crosswise [2]. Stack the two halves and press them together firmly, keeping the edges square and creating a 4 x 4 block. You have just created a complex cane (a cane made by stacking and pressing together several simple canes to create a more complex pattern). Slice a thin piece off one end of the cane to see the pat- tern size/scale. If you want a smaller pattern, reduce the cane by applying even pressure along one side and then pulling on the ends to stretch the cane a bit. Rotate the cane 1/4 turn and repeat the pressing and stretching. Continue rotating, compressing and stretch- ing the cane until you are pleased with the size of the pattern. The photo [3] shows three dramatically different looks I got from the same cane – the original large pattern, a medium-size pattern after the cane was reduced somewhat and a small-scale pattern after I reduced it even more. The cane for the 18 mm x 13 mm bezel inlay needs to be at least 1” x 1.5” (25 mm x 38 mm). If the cane isn’t wide or tall enough after you’ve reduced it to the desired pattern size, cut it crosswise into either two or four sections, stack them and press them together firmly into a rectangular or square cane. If necessary, repeat until you reach the width and length needed. Hold a tissue blade perfectly perpendicular to the cane and cut a thin slice from each end to square it off. (Save the trimmed ends for scrap clay.) Cut several 1/4” (6 mm) slices from each end. The pattern will vary slightly throughout the entire length of the cane, so each slice will look slightly different. Choose your two favorite slices and set them aside.

Step 3

Make the wire bail and spine. Wrap the 16-gauge (1.3 mm) round wire snugly around the dowel or rod a few times to make a narrow coil. Slide the coil off the dowel and use flush cutters to cut off half of a wire loop. File the ends of this half loop flat. This will be the bail. To make the spine, trim the 10-gauge (2.5 mm) square wire with flush cutters to a length of 1.75” (4.5 cm). File one end square and file the other end to a rounded taper on one side (to make it more comfortable against the wearer’s skin). Finish with a fine-cut file.

Step 4

Assemble the pendant frame. If you are making your own bezel cups, do so now (see p. 52). Sand the ends of the wire and the backs of the bezels and the metal clay component with 1000-grit sandpaper. Place the bezels and silver clay component face down on a soldering pad. Arrange them as desired so that they are well-spaced and well-balanced. Put the square wire on top of the bezels with the tapered end curv- ing down toward the back of the silver clay shape. There should be enough space above the wire on the back of the top bezel to accommodate the bail. If not, trim the top of the wire with flush cutters and finish with a fine- cut file. The wire needs to be flush against the backs of the components wherever they will be soldered together. If necessary, use a heatproof object (I used a brass keum-boo insert from my trinket kiln) to raise the height of your metal clay component until the back is flush with the wire, and then center the half-round bail in the space above the wire on the back of the top bezel [4]. Check the assembly from the sides at eye level to make sure that the ends of the bail and the backs of the bezels and the metal clay component all are touching the wire without any gaps. No light should be visible between the wire and the components where they will be joined! If there is even a tiny gap, file the components until they are perfectly flush with the spine.

Step 5

Solder the pendant frame. Cut 10–15 paillons (tiny squares or rectangles) 1/8” (3 mm) square from a sheet of easy sol- der. Disassemble the components and use a flux brush to coat all sides of each component (including the spine and the bail) with a thin, even layer of flux. Reassemble the pieces on a solder pad as they were in Step 4. For each bezel and for the metal clay component, use tweezers to place a paillon of solder on each side of the spine wire so that the paillon touches both the spine and the component [5]. Add paillons to both ends of the bail, making sure they touch both the bail and the back of the bezel cup. (You may need to hold the bail in place with a third hand during the soldering operation so it doesn’t tip over.) Light your torch and adjust it to a soft, bushy flame. Move it over the entire assembly in a circular pattern from the outside to the inside, keeping the flame’s blue cone about 1” (25 mm) away from the metal. This will evap- orate any extra moisture left in the flux. The flux will start to bubble and then form a thin, white layer, which indicates that the solder is very close to its melting point. As soon as the flux becomes glossy, concentrate the flame on each solder joint briefly, just until the silver reaches the proper temperature and solder melts. When all the joints have been soldered, quench the frame in water. Pickle it in a prepared citric acid pickle solution to remove the flux and any oxidation, then rinse and dry it thoroughly.

Tip: If you use too much flux it will bubble and expand enough to carry your paillons away! And at this stage the flux acts like a glue, so wherever the solder lands is where it will stay. If it ends up in the wrong place you will need to clean off the metal and start over again. So remember to keep your flux application light!

The Three Golden Rules for Soldering Success

  1.  The surfaces to be soldered must be Solder will not flow on dirty metal. Before I apply the flux, I sand all the areas to be soldered with 1000-grit sandpaper to make sure they are completely free of dirt and grease. After cleaning the metal avoid touching the surfaces to be joined with your fingers, since even the oil from your skin can hinder the flow of the solder.
  2. The surfaces to be soldered must be Solder will not fill gaps or holes in the seam! No light should be visible between the areas being joined.
  3. The surfaces to be soldered must be at the same Solder will always flow toward the heat. That means if the metal on one side of the seam is hotter than the metal on the other side, the solder will flow toward the hotter side rather than flowing along the seam. So both surfaces need to be the same temperature to attract the solder equally. Also, it’s important to aim the flame at the metal only, not at the solder directly, allow the hot metal to heat the solder.

Step 6

Fill two bezels with the polymer clay cane slices. Take one of the polymer clay cane slices you selected in Step 2 and decide on the area you want to use. Turn over the clay slice. With the pendant frame face down, center one of the 18 mm x 13 mm bezels over the back of the desired section of the pattern [6]. Press the bezel into the clay, pushing down around the outside edges of the bezel so they cut all the way through the clay. Trim off any excess clay. Repeat the process with the other cane slice you selected and the 12 mm x 10 mm bezel. Make sure the 18 mm x 13 mm bezel you just filled does not overlap the second clay slice. (If it does, the slices will stick together and both patterns will be ruined.) Turn the pendant frame so it faces up and place it on a smooth ceramic tile dedicated to polymer clay use, allowing the half of the top bezel where the bail is to extend past the edge of the tile so that the pendant sits flat. Bake the pendant according to the polymer clay manufacturer’s curing instructions. When it is cool, tap the pendant gently on the edge of a counter to loosen the polymer inlays and remove them from the two bezel cups. Put a dot of E-6000® self- leveling adhesive in each of those bezel cups, replace the clay inlays and press them down so the adhesive spreads out a bit underneath them. Let the adhesive set for a full 24 hours. Then wet-sand the tops of the polymer in- lays with successively finer grits of wet/dry sandpaper to make them flush with the top edges of their bezels, ending with 1000-grit sandpaper to smooth the polymer and the top edge of the bezel.

Step 7

Set the stone/glass cabochon. Lay a strand of dental floss across the center of the top bezel cup (so you can pull the stone out) and place the cab on top to check the height of the bezel wire. Your bezel wire should be about 1/4 the height of your cab, or just above where the cab starts to curve  inward. This ensures that the bezel cup will hold the cab securely. If the wire is too tall, take the stone out and sand the top of the bezel wire to achieve the proper height. Finish the edge with 1000-grit sandpaper.

Place the stone back in the bezel. Use the convex side of a burnisher to set the stone. Start at the twelve o’clock position and press the bezel against the stone gently. Move to the six o’clock position and press, then to three o’clock and then to nine o’clock [7]. Work your way around the bezel, always going to opposite sides, until the bezel lays flat against the stone. Rub the top edge of the bezel wire against the cab with the burnisher. This smooths out any bumps and finishes the edge.

Step 8

Finish the pendant. Burnish the frame in a tumbler, if desired, and then polish it by hand or with a buffing wheel. (If you use a buffing wheel, protect the surface of the polymer inlays with masking tape.) Wet- sand the polymer cabs with 1000-grit wet/dry sandpaper again to remove any residue from polishing and create a soft, matte finish. If you prefer a glossy finish, apply a layer of any polymer clay-compatible glaze, resin or wax (I used Renaissance micro-crystalline wax).

About the Author

My work is a reflection of my experiences. I believe that every opportunity to learn leads to a new experience that, in turn, creates another learning opportunity. For the past 26 years I have taught Sculpture, Jewelry and Ceramics at a local high school. I am an active member of several metal and polymer clay guilds and have had exhibits at fine art shows and open studios in New England.

One Response to “Project: Grand Inspiration by Helen Wyland-Malchow”

  1. Debbie Goodrow

    Beautiful, Helen. It’s great that you can see beyond the separate pieces that landed on your bench, and see the beauty that can come from them. Love your creativity!

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