Rolling silver

First forays into working with PMC, part I

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Every so often you need a game-changer, a slight step out of the ordinary to freshen your thinking, anneal-soak the stresses out of your brain and slowly cool out some of the thermal shock of life.

A breather, I guess you’d call it. That’s what I’m doing this weekend, in Eugene: I’m taking a PMC class, and having a ball.

For the unfamiliar, PMC stands for “precious metal clay,” invented by Mitsubishi a decade or two ago. It’s essentially powdered metal in an organic binder. You sculpt it, embed glass and precious stones in it, dry it out on a hot plate, clean and carve and sand it into some final form.

Then you fire it in fine-mesh alumina hydrate until the organics burn out, leaving you with a little metal sculpture.

The stuff comes in bronze and copper, sterling silver, fine silver and–at a holy mackerel! price–gold. One of the major suppliers also happens to be one of my favorite jewelry making supply shops, Rio Grande.

My friend Susan gave me some PMC years ago that I never could figure out, and I always meant to take a course in it. Carolyn Scott Kent, our teacher, is a long-time goldsmith and jeweler who’s been doing PMC work for years. She’s also a PMC-certified instructor, so her course in Eugene this weekend seemed a good bet.

She gave each of us a little patty of fine silver PMC about an inch and a half across, maybe an eighth of an inch thick, along with a toolkit of things that make PMC work easier (yay–I’m always up for MORE tools). The patty’s enough to make a couple of pendants, maybe a pair of earrings.

And we spent the afternoon getting to know the clay. I gotta say, PMC and I didn’t exactly become the best of friends. So far, we’re more like possibly-I’d-recognize-you-in-a-lineup acquaintances.

Sculpting PMC, I’m finding, is about like sculpting silly putty. It even picks up ink marks like silly putty (remember using it to pull cartoons off the Sunday newspaper? kinda like that).

It makes surprisingly heavy, perfectly smooth, floppy sheets, and isn’t all that interested in being sculpted. It also goes from clay to goo with a drop too much water and sticks to EVERYTHING. Carolyn offered up a silicone release spray; others use olive or canola oil.

You easily wipe earthen clay off your fingers with a wet paper towel. With PMC, a paper towel won’t cut it. Anyway, that’s SILVER you’re wiping off; what you’re supposed to do is let the PMC dry on your fingers, carefully flake it off onto wax paper and put it in your slip jar with a little distilled water, to make the “glue” that attaches one piece to another.

pmc-facependantWhich brings up some interesting recycling possibilities. The people who work professionally in this stuff apparently gather up their aprons, gloves, paper towels and what-have-yous, and send them to the refinery to reclaim the silver and recoup some of their costs.

I started the class with ideas of sculpting a small silver face pendant, my signature jewelry piece. I was thinking of maybe a smaller version of this (right). But after an hour of mighty effort, my PMC pendant closely resembled The Incredible Hulk, or possibly a squashed banana.

I balled it up and started over. Apparently there’s a reason people do so much stamping and texturing of this stuff. I’d been faintly contemptuous of all the stamped-looking PMC jewelry out there, but I accepted Carolyn’s offer of texture mats and took the easy way out…

OK, so stamping’s not all THAT easy, either. Turns out PMC tends to resist the stamp until it’s fairly thick. It also sticks to the stamps if you forget to rub a little silicone on them, and you’ll pull out the texture trying to get it off the mat. I left about five bucks of silver stuck in little crevices.

Wishing mightily for the soft, buttery familiarity of my beloved Hanjiki porcelain, I balled up my remaining clay and tried again.

This time, I rolled out snakes of PMC and braided them together. (PMC makes quite nice snakes) I’d had thoughts of making a chain–and probably will do that when PMC and I are better friends–but for now I simply made braids, dried and trimmed them, readying them for the kiln.

With the leftover PMC I rolled flat sheets, and used my aspic cutters to make stars that I textured and stamped. I stacked them up and embedded a small cubic zirconia in one side, making a slightly forlorn little pendant.

You must be careful of the stones you use because some will fire like champs and others will turn to little crunchy lumps. Even different colors of CZ can give different results. Glass does well, but by the time I got around to the teacher-supplied glass cabochon, I was out of clay.

Day 2 will have us removing our fired PMC from the kiln and applying various finishes.

I can’t honestly say that I did much more than waste 40 bucks worth of silver today…but I learned a lot. I definitely want to get the measure of this stuff.

Stay tuned for Day 2.

2017-02-02T14:40:56+00:00

8 Comments

  1. kerinrose August 22, 2014 at 10:57 am - Reply

    Cynthia, check out the blog and work of Wanaree Tanner ( sorry, dont know the url of her site) she does all this work w/ PMC and the Silhouette cutter in particular///

  2. Sylvia Chesson August 22, 2014 at 8:39 am - Reply

    Thanks for your Day 2 review 🙂 Guess I got too fiddley trying NOT to scratch my glass cabochons with the brush . . . but perhaps not a problem?! Am so used to ‘protecting’ glass during cold working. Maybe I just need to lighten up!

    An idea for your chains . . . use them together for one piece: jump rings in finished holes to attach a presentation pendant piece at center and use opening in links (?) at chain end to attach to extensions (tightly woven leather?) to make complete necklace or bracelet . . .

    BTW love reading through your old blogs and looking forward to more new ones! Thank you! Sylvia

  3. […] As I mentioned in an earlier post, I headed down to Eugene–my first trip to Eugene, by the way–for a PMC class from goldsmith-and-PMC-expert Carolyn Scott Kent. […]

  4. iksherman August 20, 2014 at 8:27 am - Reply

    just starting a project today — working on cutting with my silhoette machine

    • cynthia August 20, 2014 at 9:34 am - Reply

      Cutting the clay with a silhouette? that’s something I’d like to see! I’ve been thinking about getting some kind of stencil cutter or something, just haven’t taken the plunge (and, frankly, running out of room for small power tool stuff).

  5. Sylvia Chesson August 20, 2014 at 8:26 am - Reply

    Hi and THANK YOU for my second email . . . have just recently joined your convos!
    PMC . . . yes, I too decided to take a ‘diversion’ and dive into the costly clay. And yes, I too am a ‘tool collector’ so have at home all sorts of supplies (maybe even enough to make more expensive PMC somethings?!) BUT! The cost (or fear of!) prohibits my creativity so much that all sits quietly on my work bench glaring at me YIKES! So I look forward to your Day 2 . . . you may just help me get outta my rut?!?!?! 🙂 We made clay bales for fused glass cabochons . . . tricky thing getting it just right so it ‘holds’ the glass. Would like to hear about your polishing experiences (once outta the kiln). It is a JOB!!! BUT . . . I COULD buy ANOTHER tool :- ) and get a tumbler!!!!! Sylvia

    • cynthia August 20, 2014 at 9:33 am - Reply

      Well, part two publishes on Friday. But as a preview, I found that finishing was actually the easiest part of working with this stuff. I ran through a whole package of PMC3 figuring it out…but now I have a better idea of how to work with it, and the fastest way to get it to do stuff, I’m getting ideas… 😉

Comments welcome! (thanks)

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