Torch Fired Enamel

The following post is aimed at other metal clay and enameling artisans. It outlines my process for enameling on hollow forms and assumes that you know the basics of enameling, such as preparing enamels, safety measures etc. .  Customers might find it interesting, although possibly a bit long winded.  :)
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Some folks showed some interest in my torch firing enamel process, so I thought I’d document it as much as I could on my own.  When I do some on a weekend next, I’ll have my husband take some shots so you can get an even better idea of how I do it.

My inspiration for these earrings was a dress worn by Natalie Dormer in the BBC TV series “The Tudors”.  I love the richness of the chocolate brown, and I think the pearl detailing really sets it all off.  This dress is very true to the style of the day.  (Not all of them in the series are, unfortunately.)

I guess you could call this a combination of champleve and basse taille enameling.  I make a greenware hollow form with an impression/pattern in it, then I build up a “dam” around the edge with slip to hold the enamel.  The dam isn’t very deep, just enough to bring the top up to just over the pattern height in the clay.  Maybe as thick as one or two sheets of paper at most.

Here’s an exceptionally bad cross section diagram (totally not to scale) to try to illustrate what I mean..

Here is a photo of my greenware earrings on my firing station.  My firing equipment consists of a butane torch, an old cracked upturned casserole dish, and two fibre boards.  Pretty basic.. but it works!

Torch firing is a pretty simple process – burn off the binder and then hold the piece at “salmon” for a couple of minutes.  The only real trick is making sure you don’t melt your piece.  For enameling, I let the piece air cool and don’t quench it.  (Can’t remember why.. I read it in a book somewhere!)  You can see my greenware hollow earrings in this shot, with the stamp pattern in the middle and the dam around the outside.

After firing, the earrings are burnished – I start off with a steel brush to get into all the nooks and crannies.

Then I progress to my “rock on a stick” AKA agate burnisher.  I like the agate best of all the different burnishers around.  It gets things nice and shiny without feeling like you are losing the detail of the piece.  Obviously you could just throw your pieces in a tumbler at this point if you have one.  You want to get the design where the enamel is to be as shiny as you can at this stage.

Tip: try to avoid touching the detail where the enamel is to go, if at all possible.  This reduces the need for cleaning later.

Once you have your piece really sparkly and shiny.. it’s time to clean it.  I use a combination of water, dishwashing liquid and cloudy ammonia.  I keep this in a jar and dunk my pieces in it a few times, before running a scourer over them under clean water. (Who wants to mix this nasty stuff up new every time!?)

Then I blot them dryish with a paper towel.  They don’t have to be supersonic dry.  After all, you are WET packing enamel on to them, and that is, y’know.. wet.  Obviously you don’t want them saturated either because you don’t want your enamel escaping and running off to places it shouldn’t be.

Convention would have it that at this point, you should clean your piece with a fiberglass brush.  Although I love my fiberglass brush, if you have kept your handling down to a minimum, then it shouldn’t be necessary.  The fiberglass brush has a tendency to scratch up your lovely burnished surface, so you don’t want to use it if you can get away with it.

Next step is to wet pack your enamels in to the clean recess in your piece.  Just prep the enamel as you usually would for kiln firing (wash it, add klyr-fire etc).

I wet pack my enamels on a piece of teflon, on a kiln shelf with “legs”.  I will often overfill and sometimes enamel even goes over the dams.  This is OK, because the enamel will be stoned  back to the dam level once it is fired.  The enamel also settles down when it is fired, and pulls back into the piece.

Then if I’m feeling way out of control and in a desperate hurry, I move the whole thing on to my most complicated of all enameling tools: my toaster.  You can see that the dried enamel is a much lighter colour than the wet enamel.

Tip: Make very sure that your enamel is 100% dry before firing.  If it isn’t, it will bubble and lose it’s transparency.. and worse.. it seems to affect the silver, so even after removing it and trying again, you will still get the bubbling and opacity.

Three “toasts” worth in a row, and we are all dried out and ready to fire.

Usually, you fire on a tripod with trivets to hold the piece up.  I’ve found this pretty clunky.. it’s hard to get the flame close to the silver to be hot enough through the heat-sinks of the wire shelf and trivets.  These days I hold the piece in some big tweezers and fire from underneath only.  This avoids some of the fuming from the torch.  Butane doesn’t always burn clean (although I admit I need a new torch) and can sometimes leave a sheen on the glass if you put the flame directly on it.  Also, some of the wire mesh that comes with the tripods has a coating of some kind and this can also interfere with the glass.

I get consistently better results from my butane torch by applying the heat directly underneath.  Obviously, only use LEAD FREE enamels for torch firing!

I angle the tweezers so that the enamel is flat when I fire it.

Once the piece is fired, I put it down on the firing station to cool.  Alternatively, if I’ve enameled both sides, I’ll rest it on the trivet to cool.  My hollow forms don’t seem to require counter enameling.. my understanding is that they are rigid enough on their own to counterbalance the stresses in the metal that is applied to the glass.  I’ve also read that having a border or dam around the enamel can reduce the need for counter-enamel.

Once the pieces are fired, they can be stoned or ground back under running water.  Take the enamel back to the level of the dam.  You may find that the enamel layer may be, in spots, below the level of the dam.  If this happens, you will need to clean the piece (this time using a fibreglass brush to removed the stoned off fragments, in addition to the other cleaning tools), refill the hollows and fire again.

In the following photo, you can see my earrings after firing and before stoning.  I’m using a very dark brown (thomson enamel chestnut brown).  The pattern isn’t really discernible because the glass is so thick and dark.  You can also see where the enamel has spilled onto the dams.  You will also notice that the glass is at the “orange peel” stage, instead of the glossy stage that you would aim for if you were firing in a kiln.  Due to the torch issues, I always try to apply as little heat as necessary to my forms, and only reserve the “glossy” stage for the final flash firing.

Photo below is of the earrings after stoning and before the flash fire.  You can see that the reduction in depth of the glass has allowed the pattern in the clay to show through, and that I’ve taken the glass back to the level of the dam.  This is also the “true” colour of the glass.  We have removed any glass that colour shifted because of the firing (fuming, over-heating, act of the gods etc.)

Now just a flash fire followed by earwires to finish them off…  you can see the slight colour shift in the finished product after the flash fire.

Here you can see the sun reflecting off the burnished and enameled surface.

I played about with pearls, but in the end I decided to just hang them straight.  I’m going to keep these ones, I wear a lot of neutrals and these will work with my every-day wardrobe.  The pearls were lovely, but a little much for me for everyday wear.   Maybe I’ll make another pair with pearls for night-time use.

To sum it up – torch firing enamel won’t give you the clarity and depth of results that you would get if you used a kiln.   Conventionally, you should build the glass up in many thin layers to preserve the clarity of it and to reduce air bubbles.  With torch firing and the possibility of fuming from the butane, over firing etc. I found that doing this led to some colour change in the enamel (towards orange.)  To maintain the colour, I only do three layers at most.  The layers are reasonably thick, in comparison to the depth I would lay if I was kiln firing.   Although I am working on ways to reduce the colour shift,  I find that the slightly rougher results I get from torch firing more closely approximate the enameling of old.  It’s Relicuus, after all.

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5 Responses to Torch Fired Enamel

  1. Thanks so much for sharing this Julia. I’m not ready to try just yet but when I am I know this will be invaluable

    cheers Sheila

  2. Julie Black says:

    Thanks for the info. I didn’t even know you could torch fire enamel. Very interesting and your earrings are lovely.

  3. shannon says:

    The changes in these from step to step is awe-inspiring. Makes me want to try it! Thanks so much for sharing.

  4. kim says:

    what a great tutorial Julia, thank you! i’ve only torch-fired enamel on copper so i just used a trivet and big old torch flame (acetylene), but i love how you torch-fire the pmc, and i love love love those beautiful neutral brown earrings!

  5. Adrienne says:

    Great tutorial! I also fire some items by holding them in the cross-locking tweezers. The only thing I would add is that I place the whole thing on a larger fire-proof surface, just in case the tweezers or item is knocked and falls onto your bench (or worse, something flammable, or you!).

    Keep up the good work! Maybe a video tutorial next time?

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