January 30, 2009

How I Create Enameled Pieces

Posted in Look, Make tagged , at 6:45 pm by onetinyacorn

The question I am asked most frequently at art shows is, “How did you make this?” For inquiring minds, here is an abbreviated look at how I make each enameled pendant. Each technique is a little different, and everyone has their own methods, but this is how I create a cloisonne piece:

1. From copper sheets, measure and cut squares or rectangles. Hand-saw specific shapes, like hearts or leaves. Drill holes, hammer metal, etc. Basically, any metalworking needs to be done now.

2. Heat metal in kiln, at approximately 1500 degrees for a few minutes.

3. Once cooled, wash off firescale. Place copper in acidic bath for a few minutes.

4. Remove from acidic bath with tongs. Rinse under water. Scrub until shining brightly. Be careful to only handle the very edges, and make sure that your hands are very clean, with no grease on them. Grease is the bane of the enamelist’s existence, because it causes “resist”–the enamel chips off right after you’ve carefully fired it. Scrub, scrub, scrub. Dry the copper with a lint-free cloth, and handle it as little as possible.

5. Mix powdered glass (the enamel) with water and a fixative if using opaque colors. Transparent colors require an additional step: swirling the powder in a jar of water, then casting off any impurities. Repeat a few times, then add the fixative.

6. With a small paintbrush, apply this mixture to the surface of the copper. Tap on the edges to create an even surface, unless you’re going for a textured look. Let this dry.

7. Fire for a few minutes–1500 degrees.

8. Remove. Cool. Acidic bath. Rinse.

9. Scrub the other side of the copper. Repeat steps 6-8 on this side.

10. Bend copper wire into whatever shapes I want. These will form “cells” into which different colors will be applied–like stained glass.

11. With tweezers and a brush, gently place the wire pieces onto the enameled surface, and move around until they form the design I want. Make sure that every cell is closed up–otherwise, unfired enamel will leak out and ruin the piece.

12. Fire until the wire has sunk into the glass a bit. Remove, cool, acidic bath, rinse, dry.

13. With a brush, carefully add powdered enamel (mixed with water and fixative) to the cells, and the background. For very small areas, enamel may need to be sifted down to a face-powder consistency.

14. Let dry, fire, cool, acidic bath, rinse, dry.

15. Usually, one firing is not enough for cloisonne. Repeat steps 13-14 until the enamel is flush with the tops of the wires. At the last firing, sign the back.

16. Place in acidic bath one last time. Rinse. File edges.

17. String with tiny glass beads, semi-precious stones, or with chain.

The End! The second most-frequently asked question is, “How long does it take you to do this?” I honestly have no idea. I get so wrapped up in what I’m doing, that hours fly by. After the initial stages of coating both sides of the copper in enamel, it gets more fun and interesting. I try to do those initial steps on many pieces at once, to get to the good stuff.

When I’m working, I’m always either listening to NPR or music, so I can measure the time in the number of albums or episodes of This American Life I’ve listened to.  But, since I’m always working on many pieces simultaneously (in different stages of the process)…it’s a rough estimate. 2-3 hours, minimally, with another half an hour to string those tiny Japanese glass beads that I love. Naturally, cloisonne is one of the more time-consuming techniques in enameling, but I’ve always loved it. So there you go.



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