Spit and Polish

Spit and Polish
Tory Hughes, Berber Chic Necklace, 2005-2010

Today, the option to sand and polish cured polymer is taken for granted, but how did this actually happen?

In a mid-1990’s class hand out, Nan Roche directly attributes sanding and buffing to Tory Hughes.   According to Tory, it was the development of her imitative techniques that necessitated her interest.  She writes:

“….the whole reason for sanding and buffing: it comes directly from the imitatives.
Many natural materials either are polished themselves, or develop a smooth, shiny surface from handling. One of the primary indicators for a seductively old piece of anything is the combination of smooth sheen or patina on the surface, and dry, perhaps dusty interior areas:  cracks, details of relief, undercuts, indentations next to inlays, indentations due to natural folds or seams in the materials, etc. I had to have some way to polish the polymer imitative pieces that would give a sheen to the surface that blended gently into an absence-of- sheen in the deeper areas. Any kind of applied lacquer would immediately negate the effect of an old piece because the entire surface would be evenly shiny. And look like it had a coating on it, all applied at the same time. What sanding and buffing do quickly, (power tools!) the natural effects of handling over years and centuries would do more slowly. I can mimic and speed up time and get a very similar effect by sanding and buffing.
This has nothing to do with polymer per se, but all to do with my artistic intention and my choice to seek out the tools that will accomplish that, and use them for that intention. And also not use them for other artistic intentions that are not aimed at recreating antiquity.”

Tory began by sanding everything by hand.  She used wet/ dry sandpaper so as to control the dust and grit.  While many items required careful manual sanding, it became clear that power tools might assist the process.

“Perhaps because I grew up with a father who was always in the basement building stuff with power tools and rigid dry material, and for personal reasons never got involved in cooking much as a kid, I was already aware that any rigid material can be cut, filed, sanded, carved, polished, drilled, and all the rest of it.“

An artist friend, who had a welding shop, introduced Tory to the belt sander, which became helpful for certain items, although ultimately it needed a gentler kind of sanding belt.

As for the polishing, Tory initially tried a high speed bench grinder with a muslin disk, but it was too “aggressive and uncontrollable.”  A tip from Kathleen Amt helped her resolve the problem.

“Kathleen showed me her jewelers’ polishing lathe: my memory is that when she saw me buffing the polymer with the bench grinder, she liked the concept but not the tool and sought out a more polymer-friendly polishing lathe. We were both in DC at that time. You know in the way of these things, I am sure that many people all showed me things from their backgrounds that my mind synthesized: not polymer artists but different people who used tools. The world of makers and tool-users is very helpful: ‘try this instead’ or ‘ I just got a new type grinder/drill press/band saw etc, see what happens’ is a common phrase.”

Once Tory began to teach the imitative techniques in the early 1990’s, the idea of sanding and buffing began to spread throughout the polymer community.  This information also was available in print, as Ornament published the first of two Master Class articles on Tory’s imitative techniques in the Winter 1993 issue.  The 1994 release of four instructional videos provided further opportunities for students to learn via Tory’s demonstrations how to accomplish these techniques.*

One problem with sanding and polishing is that it is very hard to handle small beads.  In an effort to explore this problem, Elise Winters did a series of experiments and devised an effective means of tumble polishing smaller beads by adapting the rotary tumbler used by jewelers and lapidary artists with fine grit polishing papers and terry cloth in lieu of metal shot.  This process has migrated into the mainstream of polymer finishing techniques as well.**

*Cynthia Cuadra, “Master Class with Tory Hughes: Polymer Clay Simulations,” Ornament, 1993, Vol. 17, no.2, pp 84-91.   A second article appeared the next year, Cynthia Cuadra, “Master Class with Tory Hughes:  Polymer Clay Simulations,”   Ornament, 1994, Vol. 17 no.3, pp 84-89.    Gameplan Video, Mastering the New Clay series, featuring Tory Hughes, 1994:  Recreating Turquoise and Lapis, Recreating Bone and Ivory, Recreating Jade, and Recreating Amber and Coral.

**Elise Winters, “Tumble Polishing Polymer Clay Beads,” Lapidary Journal, April 1996, pp 89-90.

I cannot remember a time in my life that I wasn't interested in looking at art, talking about art and the making of art. In 1990 I earned a Phd in art history at the University of Maryland. My first experiences with polymer clay were in 1992, but I consider my real work with the medium to date from 1999.