Lessons Learned in Torch Enameling: You can do it!

4 Feb 2013

When I wrote about my newfound love of brass a couple of weeks ago, I was surprised at how many people commented, "I didn't know you could enamel on brass!" Well, I didn't know you couldn't enamel on brass, so I did . . . and it worked just fine. For me, enameling on brass was no different than enameling on copper. (I torch-fire my enamel jewelry, though. Maybe that makes a difference? I don't think it would, but not having tried it in a kiln, I can't say for sure.)

I was also surprised and ever-so-happy to see how many of you were prompted to try torch enameling after that. I can't tell you how happy that makes me, because I love love LOVE torch enameling now and I want everyone to hop on that happy train with me.

If you haven't tried torch enameling yet, don't be intimidated. For me, it seems the hardest part is getting comfortable with working so closely with a flame--intimately, even, since it's right in front of your face (and let's be honest, faces are pretty dang important parts). It's a pretty big flame, too, not a small flame like that of a micro torch, though if you solder, you're already comfortable around the flame. I made friends with the flame pretty fast and learned a few other lessons along the way. I hope they'll be helpful to you.

1. Speaking of the torch and flame, I've used both MAPP gas and propane, in the short-and-wide wide "fat boy" canisters that are shaped so that they can stand up on their own. (You'll see that I keep mine on a big metal tray. Much like for soldering, you want to have a fireproof workspace for torch enameling. If molten glass or metal drops out of the flame, or if I drop a piece I'm enameling off my mandrel, it will land on this metal tray and not burn the house down.) You could use brackets and such to attach canisters to your work table. I heard that propane isn't hot enough for enameling and can cause "muddy" or dull enamel colors, but I didn't experience that. I haven't been too picky though--for example, I haven't tried to enamel anything solid white or solid yellow, which are the colors I think would be most susceptible to getting "muddy." Honestly, even during my earliest experiments with enamels, I didn't see anything I thought was muddy or ugly. It's like when a little kid makes you art--it's all gorgeous!

 
2. Mandrels are important. You'll want them in a variety of sizes, because undoubtedly your beads will have a variety of holes. I ordered some small mandrels from Barbara Lewis's Painting with Fire Studio, and I bought some larger-diameter rods at a hardware store and cut them to manageable lengths. You'll want steel, because it doesn't conduct heat and won't get hot in your hands. My steel rods are both threaded (like a screw) and unthreaded; the threads are helpful in keeping things from sliding off, but of course they can also hold enamel in them and make it harder to remove the beads. Kind of like metalsmiths always on the lookout for more hammers, I'm still trying to find more mandrels, ones that are shaped just right with tapered ends that aren't slick. I have an old awl that's my favorite so far--it's roughed up and tapered on the end, which helps it fit snugly into the holes of whatever I'm enameling. Somewhere I got a really long nail (we're talking about 8 inches long--where on earth did it come from?) that also makes a good mandrel.

 
3. When you buy enamels, make color test chips on scraps of metal. I glued my tiny test chips right onto the tops of the enamel jars. Make yours in your studio, using your torch, under your lighting and working conditions. That's the only way to know what color each one will truly be to your eyes, and even then there's a little difference depending on the enamel layers, the metal you're enameling on, and the position of the moon when you're enameling. (Of course that last one isn't true, or is it? Sometimes that's the only answer!) Use the kind of metal you'll most often be enameling (copper, silver, brass, iron, etc.) for your test chips. If you put enough layers on an enameled piece, the kind and color of metal underneath ultimately won't make much difference (silver vs. copper, etc.) unless you're using transparent enamels. Then the metal color does show through some, of course--it can also be a wonderful design element, as I mentioned before with the transparent red I enameled onto brass, creating a look of rose gold.

4. If you're using transparent enamels, it's also a good idea to make a test chip on a scrap of whatever metal you're enameling on when you begin a project. You don't always know how the metal will change in the heat during the enameling process (turn dark with firescale, form colorful flame patinas, etc.). It might turn icky, or it might be lovely . . . either way, it will be visible through your transparent glass.

5. Make every effort to find out what metal your beads or other components are made of when you intend to enamel on them. Most of those purchased in bead and craft stores are something-plated pewter or aluminum, both of which will melt faster than snow in Louisiana when you put it in the flame. Then you'll end up with a splat, like the one on the left, which used to be a pretty cool charm. Solid copper, brass, iron, and silver will hold up to the heat and enamel nicely.

6. Wear safety glasses. For real, wear them. I am bad and usually never wear them, but in this case, I wear them. When you're working with an unknown metal, it can spark and pop and shoot out little flaming bits in every direction. You're also working with molten glass. Right in front of your face. Wear the safety glasses. Do it. For real. Please?

7. Gloves aren't a bad idea. Speaking of safety, it's good to remember that you're working with powdered glass that, when torched, becomes real glass that, if it gets pulled during the torching process, can become long glass needles. In my early experimentations (but not now, because I know better now . . . ahem . . . ), if I got too much enamel inside a bead hole, trying to get that bead off the mandrel while it was still molten would pull a long glass needle, much like what lampworkers call stringers. You can burn, break, and/or sand them off; either way, you'll probably end up with tiny shards of glass. So when it comes time to clean up your enameling workstation, gloves aren't a bad idea. I don't think I'd recommend them during enameling, unless you get snug-fitting fireproof ones.

8. Keep a metal bowl of water nearby. Use metal, or even glass, but not plastic. Don't ask me how I know that. (But I bet you can guess!) Note that you do not quench enameled pieces after enameling--definitely don't, because that rapid cooling will shock them and make the just-turned-glass crack and probably fall off. But the water is important for other reasons--to quench heated metal if you see it's going to melt before you enamel it, to quench your fire tools if you're holding a metal component in the flame with them, to quench your fingers if you touch something that's a little too hot. (A fire extinguisher is wise to have on hand, too, but that goes without saying.)

These are some of the trial-and-error lessons I've learned while I've been exploring the fabulous world of torch enameling. Seriously, I can't say enough about how much I enjoy it, and I encourage everyone with even a little bit of interest to try it. Besides making beautiful jewelry, you get to watch the magic happen right before your eyes. (Your safety-glass-covered eyes, right? See #6 above.) Torch-fired enameling is very hands-on, allowing you to feel like you're not just making jewelry but you're creating art.

You probably already have the torch, so you just need enamels and a few small tools, like mandrels or a mesh screen and stand. You'll also want to get Barbara Lewis's torch-fired enameling tutorials--one of her two new video workshops, Torch-Fired Enamel Basics and Creative Torch-Fired Enamel Techniques, or her book Torch-Fired Enamel Jewelry: A Workshop in Painting with Fire--or all three!


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Comments

LSMM wrote
on 4 Feb 2013 10:39 AM

I absolutely LOVE torch firing enamel - which surprised me because I didn't see the need to add color to copper or silver.  It really is fun and magical.  That said, there needs to be a dialog on how dangerous using powdered glass is without a proper ventilation system which many home studios don't have.  It's hard to even find where to get one.  It would be really great if there was a single resource out there that addressed ventilation, powder boxes, and other safety issues for beginners.

Bonstitches wrote
on 4 Feb 2013 12:32 PM

I was surprised that you use so many mandrels. I make a coil with a handle from baling wire (like a wire spatula) and lay the coil (with my piece on it) on a stand high enough to get my torch under. If the handle of the coil is hot, you can use gloves or a potholder to lift it off the stand without burning your fingers.

on 5 Feb 2013 8:07 AM

Great article! I've had everything I need for months... Except the daring to try it.  This week in the studio!

Chilly_lulu wrote
on 13 May 2013 11:21 AM

Stainless steel is preferred to steel for mandrels as it is a poor conductor of heat. It also doesn't expand and contract as much as regular steel.

I buy stainless steel welding rods from welding supply houses. Each rod cuts down into 2 or 3 mandrels, depending on the length you like.

on 14 Jun 2014 9:46 PM

Any suggestions for wholesale suppliers of raw brass and copper stampings (shapes, filigree, bead caps, etc)?

TammyJones wrote
on 16 Jun 2014 1:16 PM

Kathy, I highly recommend Nunn Design. They can tell you which of their stampings and shapes are real/raw/solid brass (some are, some aren't, but they have a large selection that are solid brass). I've done business with them for years and they are a great friend to JMD, supplying us with free projects and frequent giveaways. Barbara has even started carrying some of Nunn's pieces in her retail shop.

I also buy a lot of brass stuff from Filigree & Me each year in Tucson. I'm not sure if they are wholesale or not; they sell at a show open to the public.

I hope you find great brass products from those two! Unfortunately I can't think of any wholesale companies for copper; most of the copper I use is wire or sheet. Beaducation does have a large selection of copper, perhaps they'll have some you like.

Good luck! Thanks for being part of JMD.

Tammy