How-To: My Enameling Process

This is a tutorial on how to enamel – at least, for the type of enameling that I do.

  First off, safety gear.  Enamel is finely powdered glass, people.  It is most unfriendly to lungs.  I wear a 3M S7501 respirator with P100 filters.  Lightweight and comfortable, it’s the best respirator (of 3) that I’ve tried.

 

  Next up:  You’ll need a kiln.  This is a small pottery kiln I had made at Seattle Pottery Supply.  I run it at 1500 degrees Fahrenheit.  That’s hot!  There’s a little peephole in the door that allows you to see what stage your enamel is in.  DO NOT LOOK INTO PEEPHOLE RIGHT AFTER CLOSING DOOR!  I did.  Once.  I was lucky to only singe off my eyelashes instead of dry-roasting my cornea.  

  I use powdered enamels.  There are also liquid varieties, but I find that powders work best for what I do.  I store them in the little plastic containers that you can buy in any arts-and-crafts supply.  Whenever I get a new color, I make a tiny color swatch and label the back with the name.  The enamels I use (Thompson Enamels) do not always fire the color that you might expect.  

  Regardless of the type of metal you’re enameling, it needs to be free of dirt or oil.  I use a fine metal-grade scotch-brite pad cut into small squares to scrub the surface of the metal.  Here’s a cleaned copper swallow, with the used scotch-brite above it.

  I place pieces I’m going to enamel onto a piece of paper.  I like Bon Apetit magazine pages – the paper is slick.  The New Yorker is good, too.  And label the sheets of paper with the color name!  otherwise you’re going to have nasty cross-contamination.  

  After sprinkling on the enamel, simply fold the paper in half and pour the excess back into its little container.  The red thing in the photo is a sifter, very similar to what cake decorators use for powdered sugar.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I use Klyr-Fire as my adhesive.  It’s non-toxic.  I dilute it 1:3 with water and store it in an old baby food jar.  Here’s the copper form, painted with a layer of Klyr-Fire.  It dries REALLY fast, so you have to be quick with the next step:  applying the powdered enamel.

 

 

 

   The enamel has been sprinkled on.  This is the front of the piece.  All of my jewelry is enameled on both sides, but you have to do them one at a time – otherwise the enamel (which is still powdery at this stage) will fall off when you flip the piece over.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  Into the kiln!  Small pieces like this take less than a minute to fire (i.e. go from powder to smooth, glassy surface).  The copper form is on a sheet of mica, which is relatively non-stick.  The mica is on a square of heavy woven steel wire with the corners bent down.  

 

 

 

 

 

Out of the kiln.  Copper oxidizes like mad, so the back side is all crusty and discolored.  This stuff needs to be scrubbed off – again, with scotch-brite.  When it’s been cleaned up, repeat the above process.

 

 

 

  Because the front has already been enameled, you’ll need to place the piece on a trivet (otherwise the glass will re-melt and glue itself to whatever its sitting on).  I buy the small tripod trivets from Thompson Enamels.  

 

 

 

  Now it’s back into the kiln to have the backside fired. Be sure to use a minimal amount of enamel.  If it’s really thick the front of the piece will melt onto the tripod trivet.  Ugly!  and indicative of poor craftsmanship.

 

  Here is what makes a relatively simple piece of jewelry go from “good” to “great”.  Again, the edges of the copper are oxidized.  It looks good on some pieces.  However, with a bit of wear, the black comes off.  Now it’s going to look blotchy and carelessly crafted.  To avoid this I use a Dremel masonry grinding bit in my Flexshaft to grind the edges clean.  USE WATER.  Dip the piece AND the grinding bit into a small bowl of water often.  This will keep ground up enamel from flying everywhere and making a mess of both your workbench and your respiratory system.

***Note:  this is the only time I’m handling the piece with my hands.  The rest of the steps are done by manipulating the form with surgical tweezers.  Seriously.  It was hard to capture that with my camera, as I’ve only got two hands.  Tweezers help you avoid (a.) getting enamel all over yourself and (b.) smudging the powder and having unevenly enameled pieces.

  Edges are ground nice and clean.  Shiny!  Now it’s time for the OTHER thing that will demonstrate your impressive jewelry-making skills and attention to detail:  SOLDERING THE GODDAM JUMP RING SHUT.  Like this -

  Here’s the deal.  Nobody thinks you can solder enameled pieces.  BULLSHIT.  Being ignorant of this incorrect yet widely believed notion, I soldered everything when I first learned to enamel.  *gasp!*  And it works.  All you have to do is use a very, very, very cool and tiny flame.  And “easy” solder.  And go slowly.  I use a straight acetylene torch (no oxy, thanks!) and a size 00 Smith torch tip.  LOVE IT.  I seriously heart my Smith torch.

  Pet peeve:  unsoldered jump rings.  If you catch your jewelry on something (hair, clothes, excited boyfriend, etc…) the jump ring pulls apart and you lose the jewelry.  Lame.  Hence the soldering.

 

 

    The problem with soldering is this:  the jump ring oxidizes.  And another thing you’re not supposed to be able to do with enamel is pickle it.  Again:  Bullshit.  You CAN pickle enamel, but you CANNOT forget about it.  You have to use cold pickle. And don’t leave the piece in there for more than 5 minutes.  I’ve found that the dark greens, reds, vibrant yellows and oranges all tend to etch faster than other colors.  I pull those out after 3 minutes and if the silver isn’t clean, buff the black off with White Diamond on a soft linen buffing wheel.  Here’s our little birdy friend in the pickle pot.  With a failed piece that I’m slowly etching all of the enamel off of…that’s what those blackish slivers of crap are in the bottom of the pot.

  Last step:  the vibratory tumbler.  20 minutes does it.  I use ceramic media with 920 compound from Rio Grande.  Et voila!!  C’est simple.

~ by angelarenae on August 14, 2008.

27 Responses to “How-To: My Enameling Process”

  1. Thanks so much for sharing. I have ordered my supplies to enamel and i appricate you taking the time to do this. I am a visual person and do better by seeing then reading, so again i do appreicate you do this!

  2. Thanks so much for this living example its so useful, I’m wondering if you can help me to know how to enamel aluminuim and low carbon steel,

  3. Hmmm,

    Decent tutorial… Freakin’ things take forever to write though, don’t they ? Man, I do the same thing for my computer clients….

    Anyhow, I switched to Propylene ‘zl5′ and OXY mix instead of acetylene. Wow, my stuff comes out Waaaaaay cleaner. You should look into it if you haven’t already. It’s a great replacement for MAPP and is “MUCH” more stable than Acetylene yet just as hot. I find the flame is easier to control too…

    BTW, I couldn’t find a link to your site or anything in regards to your work. Do you have one for your jewelry ? I’d love to have a look !

    Cheers,

    /Joe…

  4. Your instructions are great! Thanks so much for sharing. I took an enameling class several years ago at John Campbell folk School. I was really fired up and bought kiln etc. I later moved on to pottery and forgot all about enameling. I am planning a “play date” with some fellow artists and we want to do something totally different. We are going to enamel!! I could not remember the exact process, after reading your instructions it all came back. Wish us luck.

  5. Thanks for posting this tutorial. I’m abotu to try enamel again and really appreciated the step by step and the clean up tips. Especially the parts where you call BS. Thank you for taking the time.

  6. What can I expect to be different when enameling on silver, brass?

    • Silver is the same, but you must use fine silver. Brass cannot be enameled, unfortunately.

  7. Is there a way to enamel without a kiln? Can I just use a flame to bake the enamel?

    • Yes, you can definitely enamel without a kiln. The process is called “torch firing”, if you want to google it. I don’t have any experience doing it, but I know a handful of people who create enameled jewelry using only this process. :)

  8. Hello , I like your style and courage ( soldering on enamel or pickling . I do the same , for a long time ;-) ) But, tumbling the enamel pieces I think it is a little dangerous , when it comes about intricate pieces , which needs more colour layers and are made by precious metals , like 18k white and yellow gold . anyhow, your tutorials are the best and a very familiar aproaching . I hope I will be understood, I am not so good with english language …My best regards ( I already put your website in “favorites” ) .Giacomo ( or skilman , on Ganoksin old videos)
    http://media.goettgen.de/users/Giacomo

    http://www.ganoksin.com/benchtube/users/Giacomo

  9. What I wonder about is if you grind the edges off, or if you don’t, and leave it black, wont the copper eventually begin to turn colors, like green? I have been doing some torch firing, but have not had the pieces around long enough to see what happens over time, and with getting them wet if one were to wear it showering or swimming.
    Do you seal the edges?
    Thanks!

    • I grind the edges off (and do not seal them), as the oxides are so thick when the pieces come out of the kiln that they would sort of rub off anyway. What happens over time is the cleaned edges acquire a dark grey/brown patina that does not transfer onto your skin or clothing. I believe that the oils from our skin sort of naturally provide a slow, even patina by slowing the overall process. Hope this helps! :)

  10. Great info.
    Can you enamel fabricated soldered pieces?
    Love you writing style — it’s a hoot!

    • You can enamel fabricated soldered pieces as long as you have used IT solder – its melting point is lower than the melting/fusing point of enamel. :)

  11. Thanks!!! I’ve not used that before, so I looked it up online and it’s extra hard solder. During my research, I also found eutectic solder, and they say if the enamel gets on the soldered area, it won’t bubble. Have you tried this kind of solder, and can a regular acetylene torch be used and then enameled? (I really should take a class on this!) Thanks!

  12. Uh, no, patience is not my thing. Will stick with IT! Thanks so much for your help!!!

  13. great tutorial-thanks so much-I’m curious about the tumbling0is it to shine or ?? (I tumble my pieces of glass sometimes but haven’t tumbled finished enamels. Also- what about enameling on steel-different lower temp I assume. ANyway, thank you so very much!

    • The tumbling is to polish the sterling components (jump rings, ear wires, etc…) – it doesn’t affect the enamel at all, since I use ceramic pellets instead of steel shot.

      Enameling on steel is roughly the same process. You need to buy specific enamel (available through Thompson Enamel) because steel has a different expansion coefficient, but it looks great!

  14. thanx for the live example,i just need help…i need to how to enamel cookware?is it the same proces o can i spray ane then heat it?i would like to know about it as soon as posible..waiting for the best respond

  15. Awesome post!! I’ve been told that you can’t solder enameled pieces, but I tried it anyway…hence the reason I was searching online to see if I could pickle the pieces. I’m so happy I found your post! Thanks so much!!

  16. Excellent article but I am not sure that I agree. However, people consider me challenging at the best of times!
    Thanks a lot.

  17. Thank you so much. I have been enamelling for a while and was given the same bullshit about you cannot solder enamelled pieces. So just use easy silver solder ?

    • we used to have what we called enamelling solder- it is harder than hard solder so it doesn’t melt when the rest of the item is soldered- I’d love to try to work with stainless steel though as it sounds interesting

  18. Where would you get IT solder from ? Is that the correct name for it I have tried some metal supplier and jewellery suppliers to no avail.

  19. For brooches I fire the back first, at the same time laying on a piece of copper foil, onto which I shall solder the brooch finding when finishing the piece.

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