Thursday, August 21, 2014

What is Copper Enameling--An Introduction

“Enamel? You mean you painted this with Nail polish? Bathroom paint? Resin?”

“No. I painted it with fire.”

The simplest definition of Copper ENAMELING is:   The fusion of glass powders onto a base of copper metal. 

The base metal has a higher melting point than the glass enamel so that the glass will fuse to the metal surface before the metal gets to the temperature in which it will melt.

The product of Copper Enameling is GLASS on a base of metal.

It is a way to decorate a metal base product (in my case tatting shuttles) with colors & patterns.  The end product is more 'Glass' than 'Metal'.  It actually 'tinks/sounds' like glass.....and the glass surface will break if the shuttle is dropped to a hard surface!

The major manufacturer of enamel powders (Thompson Enamels) offer 169 different colors of enamel.  There are two main categories of enamels:  opaque and transparent as well as other types such as metallic and opalescent.

Combine all those colors & types with various ways to 'decorate' or to customize the surface and you will find that the technique of enameling offers infinite possibilities. 

However, the caveat of that statement is also that enameling often offers unexpected results.  Some of these results can be 'good' surprises and occasionally there can be 'bad' results.  In 60+ shuttles that I have made, only one was a true and utter disaster. 

The enamel powder (finely ground glass with pigments and minerals) is applied to the metal base (copper usually--as it is cheapest--why use precious/expensive metals such as gold or pure silver when you are going to cover the surface with glass?) by various ways such as sprinkling, painting.  The the enamel poweder is 'fused' (you can read 'melted') by heating the metal and enamel powder unit to 1450 degrees Fahrenheit (red hot!) with either a torch or in a kiln.  I use a handheld torch with MAP gas.  This is why it is termed "Painting with Fire".  I can use the 169 colors to mix and match the powders together to create individual works of art. 

There is a large element of unpredictability involved.  The different colors of enamels each have their own physical characteristics as they are 'fired' to fuse/melt to the metal.  Enameling is an artform of which  it is said:  "Success may come early to the beginner, but then the enamelist spends a lifetime learning the intricacies".  I have found this sooooo true!  I achieved almost instant success in learning to enamel, but I have had some results that I didn't expect and weren't what I had hoped for.  I have found that enameling is a truly addicting artform....there are so many variations to try:  color combinations, many surface embellishing techniques.   Each piece of enamel art becomes it’s own experiment.  However, the process is forgiving in that the artist can build the piece in layers through multiple firings, adding, correcting, and modifying the work.

The ShuttleSmith Glass-Enameled Copper Tatting Shuttles are decorated on one side with glass-enamel that is colorful.  The backside is 'finished' with a layer of semi-opaque glass enamel.   The picture below is the backside of 5 randomly chosen shuttles to show the finish work.  Unfortunately, they are not as 'pretty' as I would like them to me due to the process that the piece undergoes in the enameling process.  But the shuttle backsides are covered and smooth--they will not oxidize (tarnish). 
Backside of 5 randomly chosen shuttles

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this explaination, I was wondering if you used a kiln.
    I like the look of these. they are very unique.