Torch-Fired Enamel: A Workshop in Painting with Fire
Do you love the look of enamel pieces in jewelry but you’ve been discouraged from making them because of the tedious and labor-intensive process? Maybe you’re turned off by the investment in a kiln and the associated tripods and other supports. Or perhaps you are daunted by the fussiness of cleaning copper and washing and sifting enamels. What if I told you that torch-fired enameling can solve all of these problems? That, for an investment of about $100, you could get all the necessary equipment for a start-up enamel studio, including a torch, several enamel colors, beads and bits of copper? That you didn’t have to wash or sift enamels or scrub metal? Better yet, that, as a beginner, you could enamel sixty beads in an afternoon?
Well, that is what I’m telling you! No kidding!
Even beyond the initial excitement over its affordability and spontaneous approach, torch-fired enamel offers much creative potential. You can manipulate pieces in the open flame to produce enamel flows or burnt edges. You can coax pink and golden flashes to the surface of a piece by manipulating the balance of oxygen and fuel. Want a smoky haze over there, right next to that hole you punched? Go for it! Torch-fired enameling gives you creative control. From the minute you place a bead or pendant on your mandrel, you are making design decisions. You are intimately involved with your work. Your pieces never leave your sight to go into a kiln. Your approach is fluid, and your design decisions can be either spontaneous or planned.
What happens if you don’t like the end result? Just re-fire it! Yes, you can do that, too! There are very few times in life when you get a do-over, but you’ve just found one of them!
Did I mention that it’s also fun? It’s the kind of fun that encourages play in the studio-the play of exploration! It was during a play session in the studio that I developed a heat rivet for delicate enamel. No hammering on glass required. Maybe you’re interested in making bezels without solder, or making unique, etched beads from copper pipe.
My first goal is to get you comfortable with the open flame of a torch. We’ll explore the types of enamels, their colors, and ways to modulate color. We’ll discuss suitable metals that work with enamel.
The Japanese have an expression, “shibui,” which means “happy accident.” For me, shibui is when something is perfectly imperfect. It is the triumph of personality over perfection. It is when the pressure is off and we allow ourselves to play without qualification or judgment. It is when things click, when they feel right, and when we have the most intimate connection to our work. Can you recapture the days when play was your work, the work of the innocent? This is my invitation to you.
So, what is enamel anyway? The definition of enamel is glass on metal. Enamel, powdered glass, is fused to metal with heat. The process involves putting an iron or copper bead on a mandrel, which is a thin metal rod made of stainless steel. You can purchase these from your welding shop or online. At the welding shop they are called “tig welding wire.” Get the appropriate sized mandrel for the hole of your bead. The mandrel should be approximately 9″ long.
We’re using Thompson Enamel, medium temperature/medium expansion, which is formulated for use on metal. It is 80 mesh, which refers to the particle size. Eighty mesh enamel looks like granulated sugar. We’ll start with a nice opaque color… there are many to choose from. Place the enamel in a small ceramic bowl, Pyrex custard cup, or tin. This is the perfect way to recycle tuna fish, dog and cat food tins!
We did mention this was “torch” fired enamel? So we need an inexpensive torch with a bushy flame that we can attach to a 1 lb. canister of map gas. I use the Fire Works torch, which has a handy self-igniting feature and an adjustable dial for oxygen flow. You can obtain the torch for less than $30.
The other important piece of equipment is the bead pulling station, which is a U-shaped piece of heavy gauge aluminum with V notches cut out along the front edge. This simple piece of equipment allows us to remove the bead from the mandrel by placing our mandrel in the V notch with the bead on the inside wall of the bead pulling. When we pull our hand towards our body, the bead slides down the mandrel and falls into a bread pan that contains vermiculite, a non-flammable cushion for our hot bead.
We need a non-flammable work surface, like a piece of cement board, ceramic tile, or a baking sheet. Some clamps to attach the torch to the work surface, a jar of water to cool our mandrel between beads, and that’s about it.
Set up your work area by attaching the torch head to the map gas. Slide a hose clamp onto the canister of map gas, wedge an angle bracket between the canister and the hose clamp, and tighten the hose clamp by turning the screw. The leg of the angle bracket should be facing in the same direction as the torch nozzle. Rest the angle bracket extension on the table top. Clamp the torch to the work surface with a C-clamp or other clamp. Clamp the bead pulling station, a patent pending piece of equipment, to the back edge of your work surface. The bread pan of vermiculite should be sitting inside the bead pulling station. If you’re right-handed, the torch should be clamped to the left side of your work surface and the bead pulling station should be clamp to the right outer edge of your work surface. If you’re left-handed, reverse the set up.
Let’s get started! Ignite the torch. Look at the flame. You’ll see the inner blue cone of the flame. The tip of this flame is where you want to fire your bead. So, now, put a bead on the mandrel. Fire the bead at the tip of the blue cone of the flame. When it glows orange, dip the bead into the enamel making sure to cover the entire bead. Really dredge the bead through the enamel. Tap the mandrel on the edge of the tin to remove excess enamel and reheat the bead. Repeat the dipping/dredging process two more times. Now it’s time to remove the bead from the mandrel. Bring the mandrel to the bead pulling station with the bead on the inside wall of the station, pull your hand toward your body until the bead drops into the vermiculite.
Congratulations! You’ve just enameled your first bead in 40 seconds!
Torch-Fired Enamel: A Workshop in Painting with Fire