Enamels for Jewelry Making You Need to Know About
Enameling is an exacting but rewarding craft that can become a lifelong pursuit. Most of the tools are relatively tried, true, and unchanging, due to the exacting science of traditional glass-on-metal work. An ever-growing group of contemporary and experimental enamelists, though, have also encouraged enamel-focused manufacturers to innovate. Here we’ll take a quick look at newer firing options, and then focus on a few of the most interesting enamels on the market today.
Firing and Kilns
A full-sized kiln designed for enameling is your best option, but the downside is the investment of space and the cost of getting one. Not sure? No worries — you can experiment first. If you have a jewelry torch, you can try torch firing —my best success was when using a natural gas/oxygen torch. I’ve also experimented successfully with the Smith acetylene/ambient air torch and a small Mini Flamm micro torch.
You can also create small work with a small kiln using traditional techniques like cloisonné, champlevé, and basse-taille, and sifted or wet-packed pieces. There are moderately priced and very portable small beehive and Ultralite kilns that will do. For a little more, there’s the SpeedFire. This great little plug-and-play kiln has a small footprint, only uses 420 watts, is really easy to use, and is well designed. The firing chamber is about the size of a really thick club sandwich — so it can handle most jewelry-sized work easily. My favorite feature is the lid: the entire top part lifts off to expose the kiln brick below. And, you can ramp up, down, and hold easily using the simple digital control and readout.
Thompson’s is pretty much word one in the craft. Enamelists have used the well-known brand since its introduction in 1890. Among themselves, veterans even speak in a kind of strange, secret code based on Thompson’s color numbering system. Honestly, you’ll see them looking at a beige coffee cup and hear something like, “No! That’s a 2130 for sure; it’s so much juicier than the 2190!” The two familiar lines of basic transparents (2000s) and opaques (1000s) and much more can be ordered directly from Thompson’s and from many other places, too.
I discovered Thompson’s liquid enamels in a torch-firing workshop with the incredible and inspiring Anne Havel. Liquid enamels are just what I was searching for because they behave like paint. Intermix them with each other or other enamels, spray, drip or brush them on, and use them with crackle bases (1006, 1020, 1997, and 2008), too. They are available in premixed liquid form or as dry powder you mix with distilled water or enamel flux (Klyr-fire). Once you’ve applied them to your metal, let the liquid fully evaporate until you’ve got a smooth, soft surface. Then carefully scratch into or otherwise manipulate the enamel surface before torching or firing. I had great fun using roll-printed metal and selectively removing the dry enamel from the high points before firing.
Thompson’s entire line of lead-free enamels, available from Rio Grande, includes transparent, white/undercoat, and opaques for medium temperatures (1400°F to 1500°F). They can be fired in a torch, trinket, or full-size kiln on traditional fine silver, copper, and gold, as well as fine silver, copper, and gold metal clays.
Fire Mountain Gems also carries Thompson, and I snapped up a jar of Jungle green (6181BS) and Sea green (6182BS) because I am a green girl. You won’t need to know the Thompson’s color number if you order from Fire Mountain. Just peek on the website or look in the printed catalogue for a fairly accurate color swatch of each enamel. The Thompson’s color number is on the packaging, too, so once you fall in love with a particular hue, you can commit.
W.G. Ball Ltd. of Longton, Stoke-on-Trent, U.K., is a family-run manufacturer famous worldwide for their gorgeous colors and finely handcrafted, museum quality materials. They are now being distributed in the U.S. courtesy of a partnership of Sandy Kravitz and New York City’s 107 Allcraft Tools. Sandy is an experienced enamels instructor and former President of the Northeast chapter of the Enamels Guild. She has made arrangements to be sole U.S. distributor for W.G. Ball’s Unleaded Enamels.
Those are her test plates in the photo using Ball transparents over white, silver, and silver with flux. Sandy has hand selected a gorgeous range of colors and divided them into ten color groups. Oh blue, cobalt blue, how I love thee. And mauve and café au lait, and tobacco brown, too.
Milton Bridge Enamels
I love transparent enamels best. I’ve happily torch fired for hours using nothing but hard clear, and letting the metal oxides color the glass. Once in a while, I do like to intentionally go for some vibrant color. These lead-free 50 mesh transparents from Milton Bridge Ceramic Colours Limited offer a nice range of basic colors. There is also a line of 80 mesh opaque with some delicious colors, especially the greens. They also offer some pretty reds, including ruby (MB104) and paprika (MB134). Suggested firing temps are 1544°F for transparents and 1450°F for opaques.
One thing I have discovered from my expert enamelist friends is that lead-free red is the make-it-or-break-it enamel color. How so? Getting a good, consistent hue that you like and can rely on is what will make you marry a particular enamel brand. I haven’t experimented too much with these enamels yet, but to me, the ruby holds great promise — it’s a vibrant sort of scandalous, Friday-night-lipstick red. What could make your heart beat faster than that?
•Ultralite kiln: www.riogrande.com
•SpeedFire kiln: www.metalclaysupply.com
•Thompson Enamel: www.thompsonenamel.com, www.riogrande.com, www.firemountaingems.com
•W.G. Ball Enamels: www.allcraftusa.com
Helen Driggs is a book author and an experienced teaching artist. She has appeared in six instructional jewelry technique videos and her newest book, Metal Jewelry Workshop, was released in fall 2018. Follow her blog: materialsmithing.wordpress.com and on Instagram @hdriggs_fabricationista for news, updates and her upcoming workshop schedule. This post is excerpted from her feature “Tools and Techniques for Enamelists” in How to Enamel Jewelry, a Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist special publication.
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