06 July 2007

The funnest craft ever

I am still loving my new craft.

The recipe is so simple:

  • Clear floral pebbles (the kind they sometimes use to keep stems in place in jars and vases) - They're always going on sale for half off at the local craft stores. I went to a fancy glass suppliers' shop, for contractors, but their pebbles were really cloudy and at least as expensive.
  • Pictures or papers to glue to the pebbles.
  • Magnets - Small, strong, neodymium magnets are the best! They are what brought this whole idea together at last. I found them at good prices here.
  • Glues - The best one is E-6000, for attaching the paper to the magnets, and Gorilla Glue is good for attaching the pebbles to the magnets.
  • Optionally, a hole punch that makes circles the same size as your pebbles (3/4 inch, usually). You'll want this if you're going to make a lot of them, as I am. Make sure you find one that has guides on the outside. (On the one I bought, I had to mark my own. The guides help you line up your hole punch and see exactly which part of your image you are punching out. I was amazed this one didn't have any marks on it at all to indicate where the hole was being punched.)
I did a Cook's Illustrated (or if you remember the lovely Handcrafts Illustrated, a magazine far ahead of its time) breakdown of this project, trying a variety of techniques and materials to arrive at my final recipe.

A sticky problem

The basic ingredients were the pebbles, the images, the glue, and the magnets. The glue was by far the most challenging ingredient, with problems I'm still not convinced I've solved.

The problem lies in affixing a porous thing (paper) to a nearly nonporous one (the glass pebble, or the magnet). A lot of glues dry opaque, and I needed a clear glue. But once I started working with glues, I quickly noticed how toxic they are.

So I wrote a brief note to a green contractor friend who probably has an encyclopedic knowledge of building materials by now, especially safer alternatives to traditional materials, after his twenty years in the business. But he didn't really know -- Gorilla Glue was his best idea.

He sent me to Planetary Solutions, a clearinghouse of sustainable materials for building needs here in town. But they didn't really know, either; I bought an ecologically safe (no toxic fumes, etc.) glaze I thought might work. Once dry, however, the glaze allowed the paper to peel right off the pebbles, even if I roughed-up the pebbles with some fine-grit sandpaper before applying the glaze and paper and glaze again. Even if I did multiple layers of glaze over the paper and pebble, letting it dry between coats, the paper just peeled off.

At the glass supplier with the cloudy pebbles where my contractor friend took me, the woman at the front desk suggested another glue, E-6000, which has turned out to be the best glue yet. It dries firm and clear, allowing the image you're using to be clear and bright under the pebble. It adheres even the strongest magnets to the pebbles.

It's toxic as hell, though; I never glue unless I have a cross-breeze going through the house or set up a fan to pull the fumes out the window. Or I do my gluing outside. We had a lot of snow this winter and I was frustrated because so many days were too cold to experiment on this project with the windows open.

So I'm still not perfectly satisfied on the ecologically sound front, which means I have to do another round of research on glues -- or I have to go invent that now.

Subjects and objects

The most fun part of this craft has been finding papers and cards for the pebbles. I was first inspired to do this ten years ago, when I discovered some exquisite metallic-and-color origami paper in gorgeous, pure colors, each color with a different repeating pattern. By hand I cut out circles and glued them onto the back of some floral pebbles I had lying around. My friends and I were making lightswitch and outlet cover plates, and I attached some of the beautiful pebbles to one of the plastic plates with mastic and grouted over it. I still use it in my home office.

I had always envisioned the colorful origami dots as magnets, though, and when my husband received a container of very strong magnets for Christmas, that problem was solved. I quickly borrowed a couple and glued them onto my origami pebbles (I had glued a bunch of the origami circles to pebbles when I first was inspired but hadn't done anything with them since).

I also tried out another idea about the pebbles and put faces behind them. I found one of my daughter's pictures from a summer camp and made a color photocopy of it on our computer printer/copier, reducing it a little so that the faces would be smaller than the pebbles. I cut out the pictures of her and her friends from my copy. The results were charming, each sweet little expression magnified by the clear pebble.

When good-looking people look bad

One time when I tried this with my daughter's class photo, I let the glue sit on the images for several seconds before I went around and then smooshed pebbles onto the dots of glue. I'd waited too long, however, and the ink ran. Under every pebble was a face that looked like the child was in the midst of a tantrum or about to burst into tears or twice his or her true weight. It was a bizarre and unexpected result, but it taught me to work faster with the glue: I could avoid these twisted effects if I put a dot of glue on the center of the flat side of the pebble, pressed the image down onto the dot of glue, and quickly checked to make sure I'd pressed out any air bubbles. If I left the pebbles undisturbed until the glue had dried and cured, the images were fine. If I kept trying to press out air bubbles or centering the picture on the pebble a little more, I got smudgy, sour expressions and blurring chins.

Although my favorite thing so far is making pebbles of people's faces, I have also enjoyed working with other materials as well. I made a set of them for my mother's birthday from some maps to highlight all the places in London we'd stayed and seen, plus a few we still want to see on our next trip. Cards are nice if the stock isn't too heavy. Wrapping paper and scrapbooking papers are excellent, especially ones like the origami paper I described earlier that have bright, small, repeating patterns. Newspaper and magazines are fun -- it's easy to make words or phrases you like, for your own home-grown magnetic poetry set. Fabric can work, but it is time-consuming to cut out the tiny circles.

And because I'm using super-strong rare-earth magnets, little tiny ones work very well. One of the little magnets I settled on is about 4 mm across and holds about three 8-1/2 x 11" sheets of paper to our fridge without sliding. I am wondering whether they don't weaken over time, though. I'll get back to you on that. Gorilla Glue is excellent for attaching the tiny magnets to whatever you like; just use a very small quantity because it can foams unpredictably as it dries.

Since the magnets are so small, you can attach them to small things. I have some buttons and some single earrings that have become lovely little fridge magnets.

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