Confessions of a Torch Enameling Junkie: Experimenting and Exploring New Techniques

More than a year after I first tried it, torch enameling is still holding the top spot of my favorite jewelry-making techniques. But it’s a fickle love affair; I can’t seem to get consistent results, so for now I’m just going with the flow and enjoying the happy accidents–of which there are many!

Just this week I’ve experimented with overburning, layering transparent enamels on opaques and vice versa, metal stamping into hot enamel, applying copper designs on top of enamel, enameling in selective spots on a surface, and intentional quench crackling.

Overburning or Overfiring Enamels

For overburning or overfiring enamel, I simply torch-fired my samples as usual, but once the enamels reached the glassy state, I kept going a couple of minutes or even more and then allowed the piece to cool. Most often the results were very interesting spotty designs but, unfortunately, the colors are too dark for them to be very distinctive or attractive–in other words, kind of a muddy mess. The egg yellow turned out pretty well, though, and mixing a sprinkle of robin’s egg blue onto an overfired white surface created an interesting speckled pattern as well.

Mixing Opaque and Transparent Enamels

I didn’t actually mix the transparent and opaque enamels as much as I sprinkled one onto the contrasting molten surface of another. By contrasting I mean that it works much better if one enamel is dark and one is light. After experimenting awhile, I also recommend only applying one sprinkle of the contrasting enamel, firing it, and being done–don’t do it repeatedly or in many layers (see overburning, above). This technique can create pretty random textural-looking patches of color reminiscent of clouds in the sky or those images we see of what Earth looks like from space.

From left to right: transparent geranium on opaque clover pink and white; opaque white on transparent glass green and clover pink on transparent red.

Metal Stamping in Enamel

Metal stamping into hot enamel was inspired by a monogrammed torch-enameled components class being offered just this weekend at Bead Fest by Steven James. I’m not sure what Steven’s technique is (wish I could take the class!), but seeing a photo of it made me wonder if I could use my large metal stamps in hot enamel. I have a set of metal stamps from the hardware store that are really too large to use in most metal-stamping projects, but their size makes them perfect for this technique. I got the best results when I enameled a base in a couple of layers of opaque white, pressed the stamp into the hot enamel, allowed it to cool for just a moment, sprinkled a small amount of transparent enamel over the monogram, and heated a final time.

Two things happened. The force of the flame and the air around it blew away some of the enamel powder, but some stayed and melted into the stamped impression, serving to darken it and make it more visible. I tried to duplicate this technique during my next test by blowing away a bit of the excess enamel before applying the flame, but I didn’t get the same result.

I also used a swirl stamp in hot enamel and it worked well, but the amount of time it took to keep the piece hot enough to stamp a pattern over the entire surface made the enamels overfired and blah.

Applying Copper Patterns Over Enamel

This is my favorite. After enameling using rich, deep colors (transparent Howard purple and opaque cobalt blue, in this case), I simply removed the torch for a moment and placed a pre-cut piece of patterned copper on the still-molten enameled surface and immediately applied the flame again, just long enough to see the copper sink just a bit, securing it to the enamel.

This is kind of tricky; I recommend patting your head and rubbing your tummy at the same time before you try it! Seriously, it is tricky and you need to have the patterned copper positioned on the edge of something so you can easily put down the sifter and pick up the copper with tweezers or pliers and place it on the enamel, because you’ll be holding the torch in your other hand. I don’t recommend turning off the torch and taking time to place the copper and then going back to the piece with the flame later; the cooling that will happen during that time can cause the enamel to crack off when you reapply the flame.

After the enamel has cooled, you can give the copper a scrub with steel wool to clean off some of the firescale and bring back some of the bright copper, or you can pickle it. It doesn’t hurt the enamel.

Selective Enameling

My next experiments, selective enameling and intentional quench crackling, were definitely more miss than hit, but a few of the pieces did turn out interesting. For selective enameling, I used a binder like hairspray or Klyr-Fire to put enamel just where I wanted it on a piece of copper. I both sprayed on and dotted on the liquid using a chopstick, sifted enamel on the liquid, and then tapped off the excess. The enamel powders adhere to the liquid but not the dry metal. I allowed the binder to dry and then applied the flame, resulting in spots of enamel on the metal. This was more successful in some cases after pickling the enameled pieces to bring the bright coppery finish back to the metal. I love the colors in this piece, both the enamel and the heat patina, but I have no explanation for the line down the middle. Experimentation serendipity!

Quench Crackling Enamels

The process I’m calling “intentional quench crackling” can be dangerous, so be sure to wear eye protection when you’re doing it. This technique, which just involves water quenching hot enameled pieces to either crackle the enamel or cause parts of it to crack and pop off in the water, grew out of an attempt to recycle the enameled pieces that I didn’t like. I simply reheated them to glowing orange by holding them with pliers in the torch flame and then quickly dunked them in a metal container of water.

After repeating this process a couple of times, most of the enamel cracks and breaks off (in the water), but some remains and melts into smooth patches of color on the metal’s surface, which by then has likely taken on gorgeous heat patinas. You can use a bit of steel wool to bring back the copper color in the exposed areas, if you like, and when you get a piece that you’re especially fond of, you can preserve the whole mess-turned-art under a layer of clear enamel (or the safer option for preserving color and patina–resin). On the other hand, if the whole thing just gets uglier and uglier, keep going until the enamel is all removed from the metal, clean it, and start over!

I can’t stress enough how important I believe it is to experiment with enameling or any jewelry-making technique you’re interested in, after you’ve learned the basic methods. Next I have liquid enamels, sgraffito, and decals to play with. Once you’re comfortable with the torch and the supplies, you can be free to try new ideas–which is how all kinds of interesting designs appear! That’s how I made the discovery that you can in fact enamel on brass, though I later learned that many people say that you can’t. You just have to find brass that has less than 5% zinc content, which can involve some trial and error. (Barbara Lewis has a selection of brass that can be enameled in her Painting With Fire Studio shop.) Transparent enamels are especially gorgeous on brass.

If you too are in the experimental stage of torch enameling or if you’re just interested in learning this fun technique, we have an exclusive enameling kit offer for you for a limited time. Pauline Warg, a master at enameled jewelry making, has chosen a gorgeous color palette of enamels just for you, and we’ve bundled that sampler along with her scrolling tool, a sifter, a trivet, some copper blanks, silver foil, and three popular torch-enameling resources–Barbara Lewis’s Torch-Fired Enamel Jewelry book (the book that started it all for me!), her Creative Torch-Fired Enamel Techniques DVD, and Pauline’s Basic Jewelry Enameling: Torch Fired Techniques DVD–all at an incredible savings. Just add your own torch and you’ll be making gorgeous colorful enameled jewelry in minutes!

Learn more about kiln- and torch-fired enamel jewelry making with these books, courses, and videos!

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