Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Metal Clay Safety

Kate McKinnon has posted an update (I find I cannot link directly to the post for some reason - it's one of the July 22, 2009 entries) concerning her metal clay safety project, and I thought I would let you know that it's there (if you are not already following her blog, of course) and briefly weigh in on the issue.

Kate's position on safety - which requires no kiln-firing in classrooms, less (no) sanding, no burnout of styrofoam cores, among other things - has generated certain controversy from the outset. Now, I have never taken a class on metal clay - I have no practical idea how the classes are generally run or what the physical conditions are actually like from best to worst. Also, because I started working with the material at a time when I was otherwise pretty busy raising my infant son, I worked and continue to work in isolation from the metal clay community near where I live - which I think is both a blessing and a curse (but is a topic for another day). However, the bottom line for me is that Kate's information made a practical difference to someone like me, who is completely self-taught from books, at a time when I really needed the information.

As far as I know, I started working with metal clay a few months before Kate first widely starting posting about safety issues, around mid-2007. At the time, I had not yet bought my kiln, was still learning how to control the clay (whom am I kidding - I am still working on this) and was, as a result, sanding excessively and working without any sort of respirator. I didn't have any severe symptoms, but I was experiencing some respiratory irritation (which I did not immediately connect to the clay). After reading Kate's informational posts and the ensuing dialogue with other metal clay artists, I adopted certain changes in the way I work. I bought my kiln, which I store in our detached garage and fire outside, I work with sponges to "finish" bone-dry clay as much as possible and when I do sand (which I still do more than I would like), I work in a well-ventilated area away from the house, wear a mask rated for metalwork and make every attempt to "contain" the resulting dust. The respiratory irritation disappeared, and I feel more confident that my work is not having an adverse impact on my or my family's health (I always worry about the Short One, in this regard).

Now, I have to confess - I have not adopted all of Kate's recommendations wholesale. I definitely still do a few things (like the sanding I do - some of which I'm sure could be eliminated if I could just put my brain to it) of which I'm sure Kate wouldn't approve. Also, from a practical perspective, there's pretty much no way I would have spent the money for a kiln from the outset without experimenting for a while with the significantly less expensive torch (she does not recommend torch-firing). However, I don't believe it's possible to have too much information when it comes to this topic. The important thing for me is that Kate's forthright stance on this issue and insistence on holding a dialogue on the topic with artists who disagree with her findings helped me make a more informed decision on how to continue working with this wonderful material.

Frankly, whether you agree with Kate's findings or not - the fact that she continues to raise the issue is extremely important, especially for people like me who are relatively new to the field and who would otherwise not be focusing on this type of information or not know where to find it. So, if you are also relatively new to metal clay or thinking of working with it or are just looking for more information on the topic, I highly recommend checking out Kate's website or reading the safety section in her excellent book, Structural Metal Clay. What you decide to do, of course, is ultimately up to you, but educating yourself on potential safety issues is well-worth your time. As for me, Kate's recommendations had a very practical effect on the way I work, and I'm definitely happier for the changes I adopted as a result.


Cynthia Thornton said...

I love those koi fish! So sweet.

I come from a fine arts background (painting, ceramics,sculpture) where these issues are addressed early on as common sense rules. It seems odd that anyone would argue with ventilation! its common practice in art schools to fire outside, wear respirators and never sanding our bone dry ceramics. Of course, there are some who will be protective of a way of working, regardless of the results. Like the painters who lick their brushes, or the resin workers that enjoy working hands on, w/o gloves or respirators in a closed room. This will shorten your life, but its still the choice of the artist. I guess its the responsibility of the artist to research products thoroughly before using and its good to have a resource of info. Personally, I don't think its a subject to debate, one should always consider saftey while working, but I have to admit that I'm not always strict. I've been known to eat while working on a painting!

kate mckinnon said...

Melissa, thanks so much for weighing in on this issue.

Just to be clear, it's not that I object to torch firing or sanding in principle; there are certainly times to do this. I am just disgusted when people aren't given the full information.

For example, not only does torch firing release the entire products of combustion directly in the face of the user, it produces a markedly inferior metal product. Students should be taught to use ventilation, or torch fire outdoors, and they should be taught WHY full firing is better than torch firing, or short firing.

If people have all of the information, then they are free to make choices that work for them. If little to no real information is given, people default to what the senior people in the field tell them, and end up thinking that it's perfectly fine to fire a dozen giant beads stuffed with phenolic resin and styrofoam, nestled in a lot of talc-fine alumina hydrate. You know, if a person did that, and they were in early pregnancy.... it isn't pretty.

I am often asked why I am the only one who makes noise about this. It's a simple answer; because I can. I'm not on anyone's payroll. Happily, a small contingent of instructors are starting to include material like this in their classes, and I think that's great.

Melissa J. Lee said...

Hi Cynthia,

I can't imagine using resin like that, ugh.

I guess that's what I'm trying to get at here - it's up to the individual to make their own choices, but first it's better to have more information than less on the possible consequences!

It was sheer coincidence that I started working with metal clay around the time Kate first started publishing her metal clay safety posts, but I am grateful - they certainly helped me.

Melissa J. Lee said...

Hi Kate,

I realized after I published this post that I had assumed a familiarity with your position on these issues - and then my son woke up from his nap, and I didn't have time to go back and expand on it. Thanks for taking the time to clarify it here.

As far as torch-firing is concerned, I take your point.

What you say is really what I'm trying to get at in the post - ultimately, the individual is responsible for making his or her own choices on how to work, but it's important to get enough information to make an informed decision.

For someone like me, the information you provided has been invaluable - as I mentioned, I am certainly glad you are continuing to raise awareness of these issues.

Anonymous said...

I'm so glad I came across your post and Kate's. My instructor has never discussed these safety precautions with his students. I did get one of those masks from home depot to wear when I sand my pieces. I just didn't want to breath in those fine particles. But I did this on my own, he never mentioned that we should protect ourselves. I am definitely going to get Kate's book and read up on this.

Melissa J. Lee said...

Thanks for your comment, Sandra. Kate's book is really good, and not just for the metal clay safety section. She teaches (and advocates) a method for clean construction when working with metal clay that I find really appealing. She will also have an instructional DVD coming out shortly (I am really looking forward to this one - I have already pre-ordered my copy), and I gather that two other books are in the works as well.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I have a pre-ordered copy of her dvd too, I can't wait to get it. Thanks again.

Jennifer Chartier said...

Two or three years ago, I took a class with Kate at Bead & Button. I had been working with metal clay for several years and the information provided concerning safety and proper firing, dramatically changed how I work with the product. I had subjected myself to numerous certification classes and never ONCE had studio safety EVER been discussed let alone practiced! By the way, I think all these certification classes are a waste of time and I have no idea what exactly they are "certifying".

At first, I was suspicious of what Kate was preaching because she was the ONLY ONE discussing safety related to inhalation of metal dust, toxic fumes, etc. I think Kate is a real leader and trendsetter. Her unwillingness to compromise in this area has served students and colleagues (that listen) well.

I also appreciate the respect Kate has inspired for silver metal clay as a workable METAL versus decorative craft stuff. Proper firing has opened up so many creative possiblities! I love hammering and shaping after firing :)

We are overdue for a grassroots effort to make these issues a priority. Perhaps letters to Bead & Button, Art Jewelry, and other magazines by those working with the product would be a good place to start? I know that I don't quietly sit by anymore and let these shoddy and unsafe situations occur without discussion.

kate mckinnon said...

Thank you, Jennifer! I think that writing letter is a great thing to do, especially to the shows that are the worst offenders- Bead and Button is a good place to start. Write to Marlene Vail, show director, and ask them to provide a separate kiln room. I priced a portable Haz-Mat ventilator for them, and it was very affordable.

The show not only has metal clay kilns firing in classrooms, but also polymer (yum, hot plastic) and they do fuming in the lampworking area. It's a mess.

Cyndi L said...

Even though we sometimes are tempted to scoff at the lone voice in the wilderness, when it comes to long-term safety, I'm so glad the message is getting out. I bought my daughter (recent art school graduate) a good respirator for her 19th birthday ;-)