Jewelry Enameling Tips: Counter Enamel Alternative, Liquid Enamels, Mixing Colors, Easy Sifting & More
I just received my order of liquid enamels, and I can’t wait to get started mixing colors! I got hooked on liquid enamels in a “beyond basics” enameling class with Susan Lenart Kazmer at Bead Fest last month, during which we tried techniques like sgraffito, crackle enamel, and creating kiln-fired enameled designs with multiple layers of liquid enamel–even as much as a dozen or more layers and firings.
I like that I can mix custom colors of liquid enamel by mixing the liquids and use multiple layers to create shading and dimension in my designs. I’ve chosen to start with red, yellow, and blue liquid enamel powders, because all colors can be created from these three primary colors, as well as black and white. I got a bag of small, clear plastic containers with lids (similar to what condiments come in at restaurants) for just a few dollars and a pack of 48 children’s paint brushes for even less, both at Wal-Mart. I can mix up as many colors as I want using some combination of those three colors (and purified water), and store them away in their lidded containers for use later. If they dry up, I learned in Susan’s class, I can just add more water to reconstitute them. Liquid enamels feel like watercolor paints to me, and I’m so excited about their possibilities!
Liquid enamels are also ideal for sgraffito, in which you fire a layer of enamel, paint on a layer of a different color of liquid enamel, allow it to dry, and scratch words or designs into the dry liquid enamel. After firing, the color of the first layer underneath comes through the scratched design for a very artistic effect. I carved some swirls and “love” into dried white liquid enamel on a layer of fired red enamel in this piece, obviously inspired by Susan’s sgraffito “love” ring.
It’s important to let the liquid layer(s) dry thoroughly before scratching in them. We sat our pieces on and around the hot kiln during class to help the liquid enamels dry more thoroughly and quickly. Then the liquids become a solid, firm layer that’s easy to scratch in. We used those little rubbery old-school nasal aspirators to blow away the excess dry liquid enamel as we scratched and carved our designs in it.
I really enjoyed trying out crackle enamels during Susan’s class as well. If you read my Bead Fest recap, you’ve already seen this cool piece that I really love. It’s just two layers of crackle clear on bare copper followed by a layer of black, all kiln fired. Such a happy accident to get that webby pattern–I wonder if I’ll ever be able to re-create this look?
We tried wet packing enamel, etching creams, and using enamel crayons in Susan’s class as well. I was inspired to try rubber stamping a design on fired enamel and sprinkling enamel powders onto it, with the dye ink acting like a glue to hold the powder in place for firing. It works like a dream.
Here’s another fun tip I learned from Susan at Bead Fest: You can use Ice Resin on the back of enameled pieces in lieu of counter enamel. This is super handy for several reasons. I find it difficult to get the counter-enameled back looking decent and free of marks from the trivet while the front of my piece also looks like I want it to–you too? Also, the back of my enameled pieces often develop really beautiful heat patinas, especially in the kiln. Covering that patina with a layer of resin will allow those gorgeous colors to show and be preserved while also providing support to the enameled piece. And finally, because I rarely remember to counter enamel the back of my metal before I begin designing on the front, I am faced with doing it after I’ve got the front the way I want it to be. But then, because I fear ruining it during the counter enameling process, I skip it, set the piece aside because of its fragile state without counter enamel, and it never gets sold or worn. Using strong, clear, torch-free resin as a counter enamel alternative solves all three of these issues.
Finally, a tip I didn’t even realize was a tip until so many people mentioned to me that it was new to them–so in case it’s new to you, too, here goes!
You know those little red enamel sifters that look like mesh-bottom red cups with a twisted wire handle? For better control when sifting, try holding the wire handle with your thumb and middle finger and scratch along the wire with your pointer finger nail, back and forth. Each little scratch causes the tiniest sifting of enamel powders to fall through the mesh, so it’s a gradual, even sifting process that works so well for me. When I hold the sifter this way, I feel I have more control over where the powders go, too, as opposed to tapping or shaking the sifter. You can also rub a pencil or something similar over the wire, but that takes two hands, so it’s not my favorite technique.
I was taught to use sifters that way during a one-day enameling class at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette, the first time I’d ever tried enameling of any sort, and I’ve always just assumed everyone used them that way. But now that so many people have asked me about that technique, I figured it was time to share! Try it out–hope it’s helpful to you!
If you’d like to try something new in jewelry enameling, check out our exclusive 10-color sampler packs of W.G. Ball enamels, available in a pastel color collection and a bright color collection. W. G. Ball enamels are small-batch enamels prized for their gorgeous colors and high quality, handcrafted by the Ball family in England since the late 1800s. Bonus: Each collection comes with Susan’s enameling video, Explorations in Jewelry Enameling, and the current issue of Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist magazine featuring a fun enamel domed ring project by Kirsten Denbow. Don’t miss your chance to try these fine imported enamels and learn fun jewelry enameling techniques from Susan and Kirsten!