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.