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Enameling is the technique used to cover metal with coloured glass in order to produce stunning pieces of jewellery and decorative items. The glass, which is usually used in a powdered form, is fused to the metal by heat to form a strong bond between the two materials.
Traditional methods of enameling are always referred to by their French name.
This technique involves mapping out the design on a metal base with thin
copper or silver wire. The enamel is then placed around this framework and held
in place by soldering or firing.
The firing process is slightly more complex as it involves the piece being fired three times before the design is complete.
Here the design is created by either etching it into the surface of the metal, or by building up thicknesses of metal. The enamels are then applied and fired.
Plique à jour
This method produces a result similar to stained glass. The design is cut out of the metal and the holes backed with mica. This is removed once the enamels have been fired into place.
This describes the technique used for enameling both sides of an object. The underside of the piece must first be enamelled and allowed to cool before the top surface can be worked on. In order to fire the top surface, the piece is set on a ceramic tripod, or a metal furniture glide, to avoid the underside sticking to the firing tray. If the base is very thin or large it may warp - this in itself can add interest to a design.
The most widely used metal in enameling is copper as it is reasonably cheap and very easy to shape. Silver and gold are also popular. Brass however, is unsuitable as its melting point is too close to that of the enamel.
Both opaque and transparent enamels are used in enameling. Each is applied in the same way, however, opaque enamel completely conceals the base metal it covers, whereas transparent enamel allows the metal to show through. Enamel usually comes in the form of a fine powder that is dusted on to the metal. After firing, the enamel sets to a shiny, smooth surface.
The metal is cleansed thoroughly in a wash usually a mixture of wine vinegar and salt before the enamel is applied and the surface of the metal design smoothed with an emery cloth and rinsed in water. From then on, it must be handled with wooden or copper tongs to prevent dirt which will prevent enamels from fusing.
Enamel powder can be mixed with water and painted on as a paste, sprinkled on to the base through a fine sieve or trailed on using sifting tubes. Alternatively, prepared strands of enamel frit can be laid on the surface with tweezers. A combination of these methods may also be used.
To keep the enamels in place while the pattern is formed, the metal surface may be coated with a thin layer of glue. The enamels are applied as evenly as possible because too much in any place can cause a crack or a lump to appear and too little means that the enamel may burn off during firing. Once the enamel has been applied, the piece is set aside to dry before firing - if wet, particles of powder may pop off.
The kiln is pre-heated to 850'c. Enamels are generally fired for two minutes, however some shades may vary - for example, red fires slightly faster than blue.
Once a piece of work is fired and cooled, it is dipped quickly into a wash to remove any oxides that may have accumulated. The finished piece is then rinsed in water and dried. If required, the work can now be re-fired to create different effects by using additional, thinner layers of enamels on top of the first.
When working with enamel, bear in mind that it is in fact, glass and can therefore be an irritant, so care must be taken to keep it away from your hands and mouth.
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