Lessons Learned in Torch Enameling: You can do it!
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. We worked with Barbara to create a wonderful collection of enameling tools and supplies, which we've paired with her expert resources for two fantastic enameling kits. In the basic enameling kit, you'll receive Barbara's books, Torch-Fired Enamel Jewelry and Mastering Torch-Fired Enamel Jewelry, both packed with detailed instruction as well as so many beautiful enamel jewelry project tutorials (like the ones shown here), as well as essential torch-fired enamel tools and supplies hand-picked by Barbara, including enamel powders, brass stampings, iron filigree beads, an enamel basket, and some mandrels. It includes everything you need to get started torch enameling, except for your torch! And if you're a true enameling fan like I am, you can get the deluxe kit, which includes everything above as well as two torch-fired enameling DVDs and Barbara's patented bead-pulling station. Get the kit that's right for you and then join me in having so much fun with torch-fired enameling!