Learning by Experimentation


I do a lot of crazy things in my studio. I experiment all the time. Sometimes it feels as if I’m wasting time. If I consider what I learn in the process though, there is nothing wasteful about it.

Here is one experiment from finish to end. I describe each step, including what worked, what didn’t, and what I learned.

I wanted to make investment plugs for small stones and use these to hold places on larger pieces. I wanted to paint PMC3 paste on the plugs and use only the paste for the bezel. I had had luck with painting PMC3 paste on CZs and wanted to know where else I could use it.

I chose abalone shell cabochons.

The experiment was a total disaster in terms of making earrings. It was a total success in terms of learning exactly what I can and cannot do with investment and PMC3 paste.

Step:  Investment plugs. Investment is purchased dry. You add water to a thick consistency. After making impressions in Mega Mold of some small gems, I filled some impressions with investment and stuck toothpick pieces in for handles.

Worked:  Investment lollypops worked. They are very fragile.

Didn’t Work:  Some crumbled, especially the 2-toothpick ones (duh).

Learned:  I had to sand the edges of the dried investment pieces, as my Mega Mold could have been deeper. I would learn this too when I went to set the cabochon.

Step:  I made the simple earrings back. I placed these on a PVC pipe section that was stabilized with clothespins. I planned on letting this sit overnight. I did not want the earrings to warp and didn’t want to sit there and babysit them. So, I saturated their backs with water. This way the top would dry first, hardening the shape and disallowing warpage.

Worked:  The shaping PVC and the watering-underneath worked.

Didn’t Work:  Yea, nothing did not work.

Learned:  This is a good way to keep small pieces, texture-free pieces from warping. Slow drying helps, too.

Just a close up of the amount of water saturation between the PVC and PMC3.

Step:  I needed to seal the investment popsicles. I tried two ways: 1 with primer paint and 2 with nailpolish. I ended up using the painted ones. To hold the very fragile investment popsicle, I set it into a pre-stabbed hole in a jewelry box lid. Another holder was the aligator clamp on my third hand.

Worked:  I feared the fingernail polish was adding too much volume and thickness, so I used the painted ones.

Didn’t Work:  You’ll see.  Didn’t work at all.

Learned:  Investment is fragile and not fun to work with.

Step:  Here are the painted investment popsicles on the earrings. I added a ton of syringe and pressed them on, using my usual technique.

Worked:  So far so good.

Didn’t Work:  I had a feeling the investment popsicles were going to need a lot of cleaning up.

Learned:  Clay on investment gives the investment strength.

Step:  I fired the earrings at 1650 degrees Fahrenheit for 2 hours. I tested the handheld brass brush on one end of an earring.

Worked:  The earrings fired well.

Didn’t Work:  Nothing at this step.

Learned:  Nothing at this step.

Step:  Fearing a handheld brass brush would destroy the silver bezels, I opted to use a soft brass brush on a flexible shaft.

Worked:  Everything came out intact.

Didn’t Work:  Nothing at this point.

Learned:  Nothing at this point.

Step: This inside of the silver bezel had lumps and bumps because the cabochons I used to make them had holes and divets. So I took a very course polishing cone with a flat end and sides and removed the bumps.

Worked:  The earrings are getting rougher at this point and I’m thinking my idea is not going to work.

Didn’t Work: The silve bezels made from investment plugs are very rough, too rough for my liking.

Learned: You gotta use good stones to get good investment plugs.

Step:  I tried to clean up the silver bezel from the top and on the edges.

Worked:  We will see.

Didn’t Work:  Pretty rough with parts that are caddywhompus.

Learned:  What I learned here was to keep going, even though I knew my experiment was telling me my idea was not going to work. I kept going.

More cleanup.

Here is the initial finish on the silver with polishing discs and cleaned up earrings.

Step:  Guess what? The stones did not fit. This will be the second investment experiment in which the clay still shrank, despite the investment. My theory is one needs a significant sized stone for a significant investment plug. Also, I do not think investment results in an accurate enough plug to use as a bezel. I believe investment plugs work well if you are setting the stone with prongs or some sort of non-wrapping holder. 

The result in this experiment was I decided to see if I could reshape my abalone cabs. Yes, they are soft. I tried to maintain well the finished top. Furthermore, the silver bezel did not had a 90 degree bottom. So I put a bevel on the bottom of the cabs.

Worked:  I was able to shape the stone and bezel the bottom.

Didn’t Work:  Not accurate or consistent at all.

Learned:  I've learned this over and over — I sometimes don’t like setting stones.

Step:  I superglued the cabochons in place, because there was not going to be enough bezel to hold them in place, no matter how I tried to shape them. After the glue dried, I held the cab in place and used a bent-nosed pliers to squeeze the bezel flat to the cab.

Worked:  I wish I could use the bent nose pliers like this on bigger stones.

Didn’t Work: One cab was ridiculously uneven. One end had lots of bezel, the other hardly any.

Learned:  Tiny stones. Yup, I dislike working with bezels on tiny stones more than large ones.

Step:  I burnished the bezel to the cab with an agate burnisher.

Worked:  Yes. This step worked.

Didn’t Work:  Again, one cab was uneven.

Learned:  You can burnish really tiny bezels. In fact, they burnish quite well.

Step:  I painted Black Max at the junction between the silver bezel and earring back.

Worked:  As always.

Didn’t Work:  Nothing did not work at this step.

Learned:  Nothing new.

Step:  I finished each earring with a variety of polising discs, and in the process nicked one of the abalone cabs with a rough disc. I carried on, thinking I would do nothing about it for a couple more steps. Then I added a couple O rings and ear wires.

Worked:  Per usual.

Didn’t Work:  Using polishing discs close to a natural gemstone.

Learned:  Just a reminder to play it safe and cover stones and cabochons. If you really don’t want to ruin a stone or cab while you are putting a final finish on the surrounding silver, cover the stone with masking tape.

Step:  I tried a variety of polishing discs to see if I could remove the scratch in the abalone cab. I experimented first on a loose abalone cab, then worked on the one in the earrings. I could remove the diviet but not put the shine back on. Nothing worked. I decided I would paint clear nail polish on it. This is an act of desperation. This was the final blow that meant these were going to be earrings in my “personal collection.” Or I would offer them to my daughter, telling her of course they were rejects. But first, I’m going to wear them when I go paddle boarding in a little while.

Worked:  Nothing. I could not put a high polish on the abalone.

Didn’t Work:  Everything, as I tried to repolish the cab.

Learned:  Don’t try to repolish cabs.

The dull, repolished cab is on the left, no duh.

Step:  Painted with clear nail polish; although, I didn’t have any clear. I found gold glitter nail polish in my medicine closet, probably left over from days when my daughter was younger. So I used it and picked off the gold glitter. It would have looked better (if that is an option at this point) with plain clear polish.

Worked:  Clear nail polish works but is likely a temporay fix. It doesn’t stay on nails forever, does it.

Didn’t Work:  Well, ….

Learned:  I put in a lot of work on learning mostly what I cannot do with regards to PMC3 paste for bezels.

Yes, I do alot of crazy things in my studio.

There is no such thing as failure; there is only feedback.

For online courses in metal clay, go to I Love Silver, where you learn how to design and create your own silver creations.

© Kris A Kramer 2019