We’re finally reaching the end of our journey in basic enameling. In my Enameling 101 post, I covered enameling safety and supplies, Enameling 102 compared kiln firing vs. torch firing, and Enameling 103 covered the details of metal prep and cleaning. In today’s post I’ll talk about choosing, preparing, and applying your enamels. It’s time to dive into the magic of color!
When it comes to the selection of enamels, you have quite a few choices to make. Do you go with enamels that are intensely colorful or those with more muted tones? Lead-bearing or lead-free enamels? Granules or chunks? Some of these choices will be based on your personal preference for enameling, as well as the project you’re completing. Here at Rio Grande, we carry Thompson Lead-Free Enamels. Thompson is a USA based company, which has been in business for over 119 years. They’re known for producing quality, lead-free enamels in an amazing variety of vibrant colors.
In determining color choice, many people will make their selection on a project-by-project basis; whereas others might have a favorite color pallet they enjoy working with. Of course, if you’re like me, selecting only a few colors can be a tough decision. Fortunately, Rio carries three enameling kits by Thompson, which can help you enamel to your heart’s content. The Complete Color Sampler gives you 169 colors, the Enamel Beginner’s Kit includes 8 assorted opaque colors along with a few basic supplies and tools, and the MCE Metal Clay Enameling Kit, which includes all the basic supplies you need to enamel your metal clay projects using the same kiln you use to fire clay.
Lead-Bearing or Lead-Free Enamels? That Is the Question!
In making this decision you should select what works best to meet your specific needs and possible concerns. There really isn’t too much of a noticeable difference between the two, but there are some things to consider.
What are some differences?
- Lead-free enamels are safer to use than lead-bearing enamels.
- Lead-free enamels will be more acid resistant, don’t scratch as easily, and are a bit more durable.
- Lead-free enamels weigh less by volume.
- Lead-free colors won’t discolor as easily, and can absorb more copper oxide from the surface of the metal.
- Lead-bearing enamels offer a greater range of colors.
- Lead-bearing enamels can be deeper in shade. As such, some colors might appear more vibrant.
- Lead-bearing enamels are more water soluble.
- The refractive index and workability are the same for both lead-bearing and lead-free.
When using lead-bearing enamels, you absolutely must follow the appropriate safety precautions and use the correct safety equipment to prevent lead inhalation. However, if you’ll be torch firing, then you should only work with lead-free enamels. It’s important to note, while lead-free enamels are considered to be safer, they also contain other ingredients that can be hazardous if inhaled. Because of this, you should follow the same safety guidelines as you would for the lead-bearing enamels, which were outlined in the Enameling 101 post.
After deciding on which enamels to use for your particular project, it’s time to prepare them to be applied to your piece. You do this by washing your enamels, and possibly grinding them with a mortar and pestle set prior to washing. The decision to grind your enamels will be based on the desired particle size which will work best for the technique you are trying to accomplish. Also, if the enamels you are using happen to be in chunks, you will want to grind those into a powder.
When your enamels are in a powder form they can contain very small powdery grains, called fines, which can affect the clarity of your piece, especially when using transparent enamels. Because of this, it’s a good idea to wash them. Since you can’t see through the opaque colors they don’t need to be washed as thoroughly as the transparent colors. Opalescent colors can be rinsed only once—if at all—since they will appear milky after firing anyway.
Be sure to only wash the amount you need. Enamels that’ve been previously ground, washed, and exposed to the air have a shorter shelf life, and if stored for too long can decompose. If storing wet enamels only do so for a couple of days. Use an airtight container and cover them with distilled water. If you prefer to store dried enamels, quickly dry them by placing on a piece of foil and setting on top of the hot kiln. Once dry, immediately place them in an airtight container. When storing washed enamels that are dried, be aware they can still easily absorb moisture from the atmosphere causing them to decompose.
Steps for Washing Enamels
- Using only the amount needed based on the size of your piece, place your enamels in a small glass or plastic container, approximately the size of a shot glass. Colores Mixing Cups work perfectly for this.
- Pour about twice the amount of water into the cup and swirl it around slightly to stir up the enamel making the water cloudy. Tap water can be used, but distilled water is preferred, especially if your water has a high mineral content.
- Let the enamel settle to the bottom of the cup, then pour the cloudy water slowly into a larger container. You will dispose of the cloudy water later, but never pour down the drain as it can cause damage to your pipes.
- Repeat these steps until the water to be poured off is clear. Be sure to make the last two rinses with distilled water only.
- Once washed, keep your working enamels in the cup, moistened with distilled water.
You’re now ready to begin applying your enamels. Rather than cover the application process in this post, I’ll leave you with the first in a series of enameling videos that feature the multi-talented Ricky Frank. In this video, Ricky shows you how to dome a copper component, sift enamel onto the piece, and torch fire it to apply a layer of red enamel.
Rio’s video library includes five other instructional videos that feature Ricky’s enameling expertise. Check out each of these and you’ll see firsthand just how simple, yet wonderful enameling can be!
- Creating a Domed Sgraffito Enamel Component
- Enameling Roller-Printed Metal, Part 1
- Enameling Roller-Printed Metal, Part 2
- Adhesive Techniques to Enamel on Deeply Fold-Formed Metal
- Cloisonné Enamel Start to Finish
To further your knowledge of enameling, I highly recommend the book The Art of Enameling by Linda Darty. Regardless of your level of enameling experience, this thorough guide will educate and inspire you!
It’s been a joy sharing this information with you over the past few months. I hope you’re encouraged to either try enameling for the first time or to start enameling again if you’d previously felt discouraged. Even if mistakes are made, the important thing is to try. We can never have enough color and beauty in this world. Be bold…get out there and add to it!
“No matter how many mistakes you make, or how slow you progress, you are still way ahead of everyone who isn’t trying.”