Sunday, August 27, 2017

Polymer Clay Skull Cane

This isn't so much a tutorial as an opportunity to learn from my mistakes and references that I found  helpful in my endeavors.  If I were a smart person, I would have started with simple cane designs and eventually work my way up to more complex designs.  I am not that person.  I jumped right into trying a skull cane, and big surprise it wasn't the most brilliant skull cane ever created, but it was a learning experience.  The beads above are from my second attempt, so let us travel back to my first round of mistakes and see how I ended with these.  For anyone else out there trying to short cut straight to skull canes, may the wind be ever at your back and your canes come out less deformed than mine. 

This is the base of my first cane.  I think it looks like an x-ray of Wallace saying, "Cheeeese."

Let's just go down the list of mistakes:

1) Thinking that reducing the cane was somehow magically going to make things look better. 
  • I believe the opposite is true, the more flaws, the more distortion you are going to have in the final product.
2) Having big gaps in the design. 
  • Again distortion as the clay pushes into those empty pockets.
3) Not filling out the negative space around the design enough.
  • I originally intended for this to be a round design, but failed to flesh out a full circle. As if the first two mistakes didn't distort things enough, this only made it worse.

I wish I would've watched this video before I did any of this.  She fills in all the tiny gaps and you'll notice she works the center components further reducing gaps, before moving out to the next layer. 

Not a skull, but I think this hummingbird is a prime example of starting off with a really good foundation. The design doesn't change much from the beginning to the finished cane.

And this is what my skull ended up looking like. After seeing how the skull was morphing I went with a rectangular shape.  Not anything close to my original idea, but alright in freakish octopus ghost-like skull kind of way.

I tried a completely different approach for round 2.  I was inspired by this Hello Kitty cane video, I liked the way she started with a solid form and cut into it to add components.  I started with a thick disk of marbled white and pearl clay.  Then I printed out my skull image approximately the same size and laid it on top of the clay.  Then just like carving a pumpkin, I made pin pricks along the lines of the image and used those as a guide for trimming the clay.  I forgot to take pictures, but the photoshopped image below should give you an idea.  The dotted lines are supposed to be the pin pricks and the black line represents where I cut straight across the clay.  That made it easier to cut out the eye sockets and also to insert the black clay. 

Once the white clay was the proper shape, I made black cylinders for the eyes, those I sized up by laying them on top of the image.  Those were trimmed to the same thickness as the white clay.  Then I fit thin wedges of black in between the teeth. Here I should have used the red mix between the teeth or stayed with the black, but added a thin line of black all the way around the skull.  For the red I marble together a bunch of colors; red, orange, gold and a little purple and black.  I rolled it out into a long strip, cut it the same thickness of the skull and trimmed around the edge of the skull, plus some added bits to make it a full circle.

For the outer edge I made a separate cane and reduced it down until it was long enough to fit around the skull. The cane was then cut into chunks the thickness of the skull and place along the edge. Here's what it looked like before I reduced it. You can't see from this view but it was only a half inch thick, by the time it was reduced to the proper length the red details were pretty skinny and all those little colorful swirls were almost completely lost.  Just something to keep in mind when you're planning things out. 

I added a thin strip of black clay around the whole thing.  It wasn't until I had squeezed everything together that I noticed I had two pieces of the outer cane backwards.  I made an attempt at fixing, but it was already fused together and I felt I'd do more damage trying to fix it then just leaving it.  I know its a sign that I'm mental that it still irritates me.

Then I reduced the cane, cutting it at various sizes. I found this video to be very helpful for reducing canes. I've seen quite a few videos where after reducing by squeezing, they reduce further by rolling.  I have no idea how they can do that without any twisting.  I tried that for a little bit and immediately started twisting the cane.  Also the ends of the cane start to look a little alarming.  I was nervous that things had gone terribly wrong until I cut into the cane.  I think it turned pretty well. 

So cutting the cane is a whole other thing that I don't have a good answer for.  I read a lot of different methods, so many in fact that I ended up ignoring most of them.

The few things I did do was to chill the cane to firm it up.  I used a fresh cutting blade.  I stood up to slice the cane.  I guess you are more apt to cut at an angle toward you while sitting. And I rotated the cane after each slice, so I wasn't always mushing it down on the same side. 

I did make even slices, but I still distorted them a bit when cutting.  I also made a few  thin slices and used them to cover balls of of scrap clay.  After I had all my slices, I put on latex gloves to prevent fingerprints and reshaped the slices a little to fix any squished or flat spots. To use these for beads I poked a straight pin about halfway through one side and then poked it halfway through the other side.  Once it was all the way through I replaced it with a slightly thicker head pin.  With the head pin in place I gave the bead a few light pats to make sure it was level and smooth. Then I flipped it over and did the same thing on the other side. Sometimes it took a few more flips, sometimes I had to adjust the shape of the bead after removing the head pin.  I'll be the first to admit it wasn't the most expedient process. It's possible to avoid all this by baking the canes whole and then slicing and drilling holes afterwards, but I like how working each slice rounded the edges and I don't trust myself to drill straight. I thought ahead enough to give some of the beads vertical holes and the other half horizontal.  I wish I had done a few of the square beads with parallel horizontal holes near the top and bottom. 

Then I baked at 275, using the tile and aluminum pan set up described at 

So that brings us to sanding. I found this video to be helpful.  I used 3M sandpaper in 400, 600, 800, 1000, 1200, and 2000 grit from the paint department at Home Depot. They came in packs of ten sheets and I've only used a half sheet of each so far.  So I have enough sandpaper to last a lifetime, but I wasn't impressed with what I read about other papers sold in smaller quantities.

I spent the most time with the 400 grit, sanding until both sides of the beads felt completely smooth.  I liked that part because there was a notable stopping point, it's easy to tell when you don't feel anymore rough spots.  After that I sanded both sides for 20-30 seconds with each grit of paper.  Was that enough? I don't know. Did I really need to do all six grits? Don't know, but I'm happy with the results and I'd do it that way again. This was a bit time consuming, I'm thankful for kids in sports. To sand on the go I would bring an air tight container with a screw on lid filled with ice water and a squirt of dish soap to dip the sandpaper and beads in.  My work surface was a piece of soft foam on a waterproof tray. If I were going to get fanatical about making beads, I'd probably invest in a tumbler, as it is I still haven't sanded the round beads. 

After sanding, is buffing and I used a scrap piece of denim leftover from my binder. The more you buff, the shiner it gets. Sanding gives the surface a dull look and I found that a vigerous 30 seconds on each side was enough to bring the color back, with more of a matte finish. The more you buff the shinier it gets.  In the first picture you can see that the largest bead has been buffed the most.

And what I said earlier about a smart person starting off with a easier cane? Now that I've started to think about what I'm going to do with all these beads, it would be nice to have some accent beads with a simple pattern using the same colors.  Just saying...

...but I'll leave that for another time.