Metal clay is a fun and creative way to make jewellery, accessories and small art pieces. As with other craft materials it's important to consider safe handling to ensure a healthy and safe working experience.
When we first started exploring metal clay we didn't come across any tutorials which expressly looked at the safety aspect of working with metal clay. Some products had only minimal, safety instructions which didn't really explain what any effects could be. Then we discovered a great video by the talented artist Kate McKinnon, who talks about using silver metal clay safely in her video on Youtube . It was an eye opener and we were really glad to have found it at the beginning of our metal clay explorations. It's a very good video and we recommend it to anyone interested in using metal clays as a hobby or professionally.
When we developed our own brand of metal clay, Bonschelle Bronze Metal Clay, we were keen to ensure we included detail on the safety aspect of working with metal clay. In the process of sourcing our ingredients we discovered further information regarding the environmental impact of metal powders which we include in our clay product instructions.
The main issues to be aware of are dust and fume inhalation, and the potential environmental impact of waste clay.
All metal clays contain very fine metallic particles. Sanding or filing metal clay greenware (the dried metal clay pieces) releases these particles into the air, so it's important to wear a dust mask to limit the amount you may breath in. The particles can cause irritation to the throat and lungs. This is also true if mixing metal clay powder. Ideally a N95 rated dust mask is best as these are designed to filter out fine particulates. It's better to be safe every time you work so as to avoid exposure over time.
Where possible reduce the amount of sanding required by cutting pieces as neatly as possible and smoothing off edges with your fingers.
Fumes may be given off during the burnout period of the binder. The binder may not be toxic but it's best not breathe in fumes unnecessarily. If you are using materials as cores to support your work try and use organic materials. Non-organic ones may give of toxic fumes during firing. Either way, it's advisable to use your kiln in a well ventilated area, or refrain from being in the same room during firing as much as possible.
Metal clays are not toxic and on the whole don't cause any skin problems. But if you are unfortunately very sensitive you may wish to wear disposable gloves.
The metal particles in metal clay or metal clay powders are extremely toxic to aquatic organisms and should not be released into drains or rivers. Therefore it's not recommended that metal clay dust or powder is washed away through cleaning up with damp or wet cloths and then rinsing those out. If you need to clean your work area or tools of metal clay dust or bits and pieces you could for example use a damp piece of kitchen tissue and dispose of that with your regular waste.
The last thing to remember is to always wear safety glasses if using an electric tool to polish up your finished piece e.g. a Dremel. The drill parts such as polishing wheel spin extremely fast and this can mean that sometimes when polishing near edges the piece can be thrown off by the drill, even if you think you are holding it firmly. Experience and technique can help avoid this, but it can happen even if you are used to using electric tools when polishing, and the last thing you would want would be to have your piece hit your eye.
By taking a few simple precautions you can look after your own health and safety and ensure your enjoyment of metal clay has as little impact on the environment as possible.