Using Stencils with PMC
n a relatively short time, artists around
the world have pushed past the immediate
uses of Precious Metal Clay
to explore methods that reach beyond
not only the techniques, but the effects associated
with traditional metalworking. The
techniques described here take advantage
of the semi-liquid state of thick slip to develop
patterns through the use of stencils. As fascinating
as the technique is in its elemental
form, it is in the variations and potential uses
of the resulting metal forms that the mind is
truly carried away.
Stencils with PMC
When I was younger, my family lived for a
few years in Morocco. We would go on family
outings to see the Roman ruins in Volubius,
near Tangiers, and into the marketplaces
of Fez and Rabat. I was always amazed at
the textures and patterns on the buildings,
the arches, and in the gardens. The mosaics
at Volubius are something to see, and the
Botanical Gardens there are unbelievable.
I have always had a passion for antiqued
and weather-worn architecture, and I think it
traces back to that time of my life. I now try to
replicate these surfaces and textures on my
I remember experimenting at my workbench
one day in an effort to layer PMC in
such a way that it looked carved, like the
stonework I had seen in Morocco and Spain.
And more than just carved, I wanted a look
that appeared rough and rich in the same
way as the ancient walls that had been
abraded by wind and sand for centuries.
From the start, PMC appealed to me because
of the wealth of textures it invites. I am more
interested in achieving a sense of the passage
of time than in a highly refined finish. In
my quest to find a way to create that look on
a miniature scale, I came up with the techniques
Flame of Knowledge
Fine silver, sterling, pearl
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Many commercial stencils are made to add decorative
trim to walls, which makes them too large for jewelry
scale work. Also, the designs may not fit with your
When planning stencils, it
is important to plan ahead.
If you are not careful,
interior elements like the
center of this letter “O”
will disappear. Oops!
The building block of this process is a stencil—a
sheet of resilient material with a design
cut out in the form of separate holes. Stencils
come in two types of materials, and from two
very different sources.
The best stencils are made of thin brass.
They have the advantage of being somewhat
rigid, and being tough enough to stand up to
hundreds of uses. The alternative is plastic,
and while these can last a long time, they are
just not as strong. Also, metal stencils can accommodate
smaller openings, including thin
lines, so they open more design options.
The other big difference is between commercial
stencils and those you make yourself.
Commercial stencils can be lovely—laser-cut
brass or plastic sheets that are precise and
mechanically perfect. At the same time, because
they are manufactured, you will be using
stencils that are available to other artists
too. Efforts to be unique start with a built-in
challenge when you’re using the same tools
as others. Also, I find that commercial stencils
don’t always provide the motifs I want. For
those reasons, and also just for the pleasure
of the craft, it is great to be able to make your
The first step is to create a design or
locate a pattern you can use. There are books
with copyright-free patterns from almost
every era, from Anasazi to Art Deco. People
with computer skills might like to manipulate
photos, or develop patterns from geometric
sources. Whether you are using a computer,
a photocopier, or your own two hands, a stencil
has specific requirements. Think of the letter
“O” and what will happen when you cut it
out to make a stencil. That’s right—unless you
take special steps, the center of the “O” will
fall out and you’ll be left with a large dot. A
look at some letters rendered for stencils show
not only the challenge, but some possible
A stencil must avoid patterns that create
large flaps of stencil material that can
lift up, and designs that call for sharp points,
because they are also likely to lift up. It is not
that these patterns cannot be made as stencils,
but it is important to anticipate problems
and design around them. Draw connectors
where they are needed, rather than tell yourself
to build them in as you cut out the stencil.
Trust me on this; you’ll have other things on
your mind while you’re cutting.
Plastic stencils can be cut in almost any
plastic sheet, but 5 mil Mylar is probably the
best choice. Acetate is a similar plastic sheet,
but it is prone to tearing, and you’ll want
this stencil to be around for a while. Thinner
Mylar is easier to cut, but the relief created is
rather timid. I have also tried a much thicker
plastic sold expressly for this purpose, but it is
quite thick for work on a jewelry scale.
Set the plastic sheet over the drawing
and trace it with a fine permanent marker.
Some Mylar is made for this purpose, but for
other sheets, you might need to lightly sand
the sheet to create a tooth that will hold the
ink. I draw inside the line so that if I make
a mistake I can fix the edge and still retain
correct proportions. Besides just being necessary,
I find that this step is helpful because it
makes me think through just how the stencil
will work. When the drawing is transferred to
the sheet, set it onto a piece of mat board or
a self-healing cutting board and cut out the
openings. I use both a straight and a swiveling
X-Acto blade. The swivel takes some
practice to control, but it is great for tight
curves and small circles. Mylar is cheap, so
don’t be shy about using a sheet to practice
before you start on your design.
Avoid long, skinny pieces of stencil, like the area shown
by the arrow. This will lift up in use, ruining the design.
The figure on the right shows a variation that does not
have any flimsy points.
Fine silver, 24k gold, sterling, enamel, opals
1" by 11⁄2 "
Plan bridges into the design to hold center pieces in
place. This is illustrated in familiar stencil lettering.
a b c d e f
Trace the pattern onto the plastic with a permanent
marker. If using metal, transfer or print onto adhesive
(label) paper and apply it to a sheet of 24 gauge brass.
Cut through paper and metal together, then peel the
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