Torch Fired Enamel Tips
We recently (in 2016) added Thompson Enamels to our product line, and have had a great time learning to use them. This blog covers a few things we’ve learned along the way!
These 80-mesh medium-temperature vitreous enamels can be kiln fired or torch fired at temperatures from 1,400°-1,500°F (760°-815°C), and are perfect for use on copper, gold, low-carbon steel, fine silver, fired copper clay and fine-silver clay. You’ll be surprised at the colors you create! With enamel, you may not get the same result twice! Experiment to find your favorite combinations.
- Opaque colors look great alone, or layered.
- Translucent colors are normally applied on top of a white base coat, so you can see the true color of the translucent enamel unaffected by the color of the base metal.
- Opalescent colors are normally applied on top of a base coat of your choice.
- Clear can be used on its own or in combination with other colors.
- White is a common undercoat or foundation for other colors, and looks great on its own.
You are working with powdered glass and open flame. Be careful. Some tips:
- Keep a fire extinguisher and first aid kit handy.
- Prepare a fireproof work area and remove clutter. It should be well-ventilated, free of drafts and away from pets and small children.
- To minimize irritation, we strongly suggest you wear eye protection, a fine-particulate mask and protective gloves.
- Avoid rubbing your eyes when working.
- No food or beverages in your work space (because of glass dust and other elements that should not be ingested).
- Refrain from wearing open-toe shoes and bare legs. Avoid loose, flowing hair, clothing and jewelry. We recommend you wear an apron (washable or leather), and natural fiber clothing.
- When you are done, clean your area, clothes and tools thoroughly. Wash hands and scrub fingernails with nail brush.
The firing temperature range for our enamels is 1,400°-1,500°F (760°-815°C), and they have a coefficient of expansion (COE) from 258 to 360, cubic expansion. The specific COE for each color is listed in the additional specifications for the item. Metals that work with these enamels must have a higher melting point, and a similar COE (otherwise your metal may melt before your enamel, or the enamel may pop off when your jewelry is exposed to temperature changes). These enamels work with copper, gold, low-carbon steel and fine silver, fired copper clay and fine-silver clay.
Some alloys of brass work. We’ve had good luck with Vintaj brass blanks and our 24g brass blanks, but color results are sometimes unpredictable. Brass often requires a second layer and a second firing to get the color you were aiming for. We had fun using the Big Kick to emboss the blanks before enameling!
After you decide on a basic design, make sure you thoroughly prep your piece. We recommend:
- Finish all hole punches and shaping (including filing edges) before you begin applying enamel (enamel is glass; shaping the metal afterwards will crack/break the glass).
- Punch hole slightly larger than you would normally need (just in case the hole gets slightly filled in with enamel).
- Thoroughly clean metal and refrain from touching it with your fingers). We recommend Penny Brite, 0000 steel wool, a brief pickle bath or a underwater grinding with an alundum stone.
- Use a tiny spoon to remove enamel from bags or jars (so you don’t fill the locking parts of the bag or lid with enamel powder).
- Place a creased paper on your sifting worksurface, so you can easily dump excess enamel into a storage container with a lid. If the colors get mixed, you can use the mix as a counter enamel.
- Moving the powdered piece onto the enameling basket requires a steady hand. Do not over-caffeinate prior to this step!
Sift or paint enamel in desired pattern, carefully transfer to your firing station, and fire! A few handy hints for applying enamel powder:
- Before you start, figure out how you are going to transfer the powdered piece to the torching station. You can set the piece on an enameling spatula or small pedestal. This makes it easier to pick up without marring the edges of your item.
- Use a sifter to evenly coat the item. Hold the sifter near the back end, not near the basket, and scrape – not tap – your finger or fingernail along the ridges of the handle. Before sifting, spray a light coat of Klyr-Fire to help enamel stay in place with an even coating.
- To paint on enamel, mix powder with Klyr-Fire or distilled water and paint onto piece with a small, natural fiber paintbrush. We recommend a dropper bottle filled with liquid to moisten enamel powder.
- Let Klyr-Fire or water dry before firing (or your enamels will pop/volcano off as you begin heating).
- If you fill in a hole, poke it open with a toothpick.
- You can apply a few layers of enamel to a piece, firing between each layer. A white base on your piece really allows colors to pop!
- You might want to counter enamel the back side of your piece (if using 18-22 gauge metal).
It’s nice to be able to use enamels without having to use a kiln. A kiln is a wonderful professional option for firing, but for simple, flat pieces it is great to have the inexpensive, simple option of using a torch. There are a few different fuel types that work well: MAPP gas, Propane Fuel or Butane. (Please note that smaller butane micro-torches can be used for enameled head pins, but do not typically provide enough sustained heat for larger pieces). We have found that for multiple firings, using a different gases at each firing can produce interesting (read: beautiful, iridescent) results. A few basic tips to consider before firing:
- Make sure that you are working over a fire-proof surface that is free of drafts.
- A tripod is essential to torch firing. You can fire using the metal mesh screen that comes with the tripod. The downside to this method is that you are heating the mesh grid in addition to your piece. For a faster, clearer, cleaner firing we recommend using the enameling basket. The basket nestles inside the tripod, allowing you to directly apply heat to your piece.
- If you are using a torch that has a hose, it is strongly recommended that you invest in a fuel tank holder. The tank holder yields one less moving part, allowing you to focus your flame and not worry about a canister tipping over or otherwise being a burden.
- Cross-locking tweezers provide a stable way to transfer your powder coated piece to your firing station. It is tricky to transfer powdered pieces to the enameling basket or mesh screen, consider practicing this movement in advance so that you are confident in your technique before you have a coated piece ready to fire.
- The MAP/Pro Gas Fuel torch can be used with either MAP gas or Propane fuel canisters. Many prefer MAP gas for firing enamels, but Propane can be used (and is also a cost-effective way to anneal metal, whether for enameling, fold forming, embossing or other techniques).
- The Butane Torch Head is fast and easy. There is no additional cord to deal with, and it is great for enameling beads. The fuel canister lasts a surprisingly long time.
When firing your piece:
- Set item in basket or mesh. Gently heat from underneath with a bushy flame. Move in a circular motion, heating from the back to the front. (Do not heat from above as you can “blow” the enamel off your piece).
- Watch closely: when the enamel begins to melt, you’ll see a glossy “orange peel” stage where the enamel beads up before slumping to a smooth fired sheen. Fire a bit more, but don’t overheat – some colors will scorch.
- Carefully remove using tweezers to grasp the edge of your piece, and allow it to slowly cool in a mini crockpot of pre-warmed vermiculite.
- After piece has slowly cooled in the vermiculite, wipe off any spots using a cloth.
- If you are firing multiple pieces concurrently, you can quickly cool the enameling basket and tweezers by quenching them in cool water. If using mesh, allow it to cool naturally.
The final steps to completing your piece include cleaning and filing:
- Soak your piece in a pot of pickle for a brief period of time to clean. Remove from pickle using copper tongs. Wipe clean and use a cloth to dry.
- To refine any sharp edges or rough spots, use an Alundum Stone under water (to protect yourself from glass filings, and prolong the life of the stone).
- If, after pickling, there is any firescale or black spots, use Penny Brite to clean (be careful using this over the glossy enamel as it may scratch the glossy glass surface).
- Enamel is durable, but not totally infallible. Handle finished pieces with care.
It’s rewarding to use enamels. We recommend reading the Thompson Enamel Workbook, a great resource that contains lots of valuable tips, techniques and technical reference material covering a wide variety of enamels, metals, and methods:
- Want to experiment with alternate metals? Learn which types of enamels work best on which metals, and why. Learn more about COE (coefficient of expansion) in the Thompson Enamel Workbook.
- Learn the best patterns for sifting or using stencils, and why the pattern matters.
- Curious about counter enamel? The workbook explains when to use counter enamel and when it can be skipped.
Have fun playing with color and enjoy the simplicity of torch-firing enamels!