Since I’ve been doing art and craft projects since I was a kid with my art teacher Mom, there aren’t that many areas I’ve never dabbled in at all, but this project was a totally new challenge for me. Emma mentioned that she had learned about this clay that you shape and dry, and once it’s fired, it turns into pure silver! It sounded crazy, but the more we looked into it, we realized it was true. The clay is made of silver particles, organic binders, and water, so when you fire the piece, the organic binders and the water burn off, and you are left with a piece that is 99.9% pure silver. Awesome!
The other great thing about this clay is that if you’ve heard anything about metal clay before, you may have thought that you had to have a kiln to work with the material, but you actually don’t need one. They make metal clay that has a low enough firing point that you can actually just use a butane torch (the same thing you would make creme brûlée with) to fire the piece instead. As long as the piece is smaller than a silver dollar in size, you can use the torch and that change makes the project much more accessible.
I love the idea of making jewelry with a fingerprint of someone you love, and having a husband that travels a lot makes the idea extra special to me. I thought I could make two fingerprint necklaces (one with his print and one with mine) so it’s like having a piece of each other near our hearts on a daily basis. Love it!
–Art Clay Silver 650 (low fire)
-small piece of plexiglass (check your local home improvement store)
-card stock paper or playing cards
-small circle cookie cutter slightly bigger than the size pendant you want (I used the smallest circle in this pack. It’s a little less than 1″ wide)*
-small butane torch
-fine grade sandpaper
-small spray bottle for water
-plastic clay knives
–agate burnisher (optional)
They also make these Art Clay starter kits that come with a bunch of the above items, so it may be a better deal to get a kit depending on what you need.
*The clay will shrink 8-10% once it’s fired, so pick a circle that’s a bit bigger than the size you’re going for.
First you’ll want to set up your station to roll out the clay. Metal clay starts to dry as soon as you expose it to air, so get everything ready to go before you take it out of the package. You can use pieces of card stock or playing cards stacked next to each other with about 1 1/2″ in between them to keep the thickness of your piece consistent. I used 4 pieces of card stock on each side, and I would suggest a thickness of 4-5 cards for this project. Secure your cards to the plexiglass with a few pieces of tape and unwrap your metal clay. You can coat your fingers in a very thin layer of olive oil so the clay doesn’t stick to your fingers, but the clay does wash off hands easily. Place your clay on the plexiglass between the card stacks and use your acrylic roller to roll out the clay the thickness of the cards.
Once rolled out, take your thumb and press it into the clay starting on the left side of your thumb and roll your thumb to the right (like if you were making a fingerprint with ink). You want to press hard enough to get a good impression of your thumb, but not so hard that you smooch all the clay to one side or the other. If you think you pressed too hard or too light, simply scrape up the clay with a clay knife, knead it gently, roll it out, and try it again. If the clay starts to dry before you get a good print, lightly mist the clay with water from a spray bottle and it should knead back into a soft state. I did notice that no matter how hard I pressed, I could never get quite the definition of Todd’s fingerprint, so maybe he’s just way stronger than I am (totally true) or he has more defined fingerprint lines.
Once you have a good thumbprint, place your circle cookie cutter over the part of the print you want to become your pendant and press down. Keeping the cutter in place, use a clay knife to scoop up the rest of the clay around the cutter and place that clay immediately into plastic wrap and then into a plastic bag with a damp paper towel at the bottom for storage. Keep the bag in a dry, dark place, and it should stay good until you want to use it again.
Once the clay is completely dry, you should be able to pick up your piece and sand down any edges that are uneven or sticking up with a fine grit sandpaper (like a 220 grit) or the fine side of an emery board.
In a dimly lit room, place your piece on the firing block and use your butane torch to fire your clay (obviously this photo above is not a dimly lit room, but I wanted to show you the angle and proximity of the torch to the clay). You’ll want to hold your torch about 2″ away from the clay at a 45° angle and move the torch around the clay in a constant motion to heat the piece evenly (don’t settle the heat on any one spot for too long). At first, you may not see anything happen, but keep going and the piece should begin to smoke a bit or even catch on fire. Don’t worry, that just means the organic binders are beginning to burn off. Keep moving the flame around the piece until you see the piece begin to glow a peach color. This is why you want to fire the piece in a dim room if possible as it’s easier to see the peach glow in a dim space.
Once you see the peach color, you’ll want to keep time of how long you continue to fire while you adjust the proximity of the flame to maintain the peach glow. A weight of 5 grams only requires 1-1.5 minutes and 6-15 grams needs 1.5-2 minutes, but since I didn’t know the exact weight of my piece (and you can’t really fire it too long), I kept the peach glow for at least 2 minutes just to be safe. Once time is up, turn the torch off and allow the piece to completely cool. The piece should be coated in a white layer at this point.
(If you’re like me and you want to have a visual walkthrough of the firing process, this is a great video to see what it should look like as it’s happening.)
Drop the cooled piece in water and use the wire brush to brush off the white outer layer. Dry with a cloth. Then use the polishing cloths to polish your piece (starting with the coarsest and working down to the finest). Dip the polishing cloth in water and polish in one direction only (like only in strokes from left to right). To get a mirror shine, rub an agate burnisher all over the piece for an extra professional look. If you want to add a dark patina to your piece to highlight the sunken lines of the fingerprint, you can use a bath of liver of sulfur before you polish the piece.
At first I was skeptical about this process because it seemed so technical, but now that I’ve done it a few times, I’m totally obsessed! Also, the process is a lot more forgiving than I thought it would be, so I was happy that I didn’t have to feel stressed to do everything totally perfect.
It’s so special to have matching necklaces with each other’s prints, and I know for sure that I will be wearing this necklace a ton when he’s gone. You can do this process on a bigger or smaller scale and make charms or key chain pendant gifts with meaningful fingerprints. Of course, I love making jewelry and learning new crafting skills regardless of the sentimental level, but when it’s a project that also pulls a bit at your heartstrings, well, that makes it extra special if you ask me…xo. Laura
Credits // Author: Laura Gummerman, Photography: Laura Gummerman, Todd Gummerman, and Elsie Larson. Photos edited with Stella from The Signature Collection.