Learning to Enamel at the Folk School

This past week, my granddaughter and I attended an enameling workshop at the John C. Campbell Folk School in North Carolina.  It was great fun and we learned a lot, made friends and came home with lots of enameled pieces.

This isn’t a complete “how to enamel” lesson, just a diary of what we did and learned.  Enameling is the process of fusing glass to a metal.  We used copper, mostly sheets – some thick and some heavier.  In fact the heavier was regular flashing that is used on roofs.  The instructor also had some blanks, geometric shapes, butterflies etc. and pre-formed bowls.  Making your own bowl from a flat sheet is more fun!

As usual, I wish that I’d taken more pictures of more processes, but when I become involved in making things, I forget to document.

The first step in enameling is to clean the copper and coat it with something to help the enamels adhere to the copper.  Finely ground glass, either clear or colored, is then sifted on top of the copper.  It takes a bit of practice to get just the right thickness of glass, but fortunately, enameling is very forgiving.  More enamel can always be added or the piece can be fired again.  That doesn’t reduce the amount of enamel, but it does clarify it and can take away that lumpy look. After the copper has its coating of glass, the fun begins.

The kilns were heated to 1450°F for most of the firing. On the last days one was at 1550° for high fire work.  Most pieces were fired for two minutes.  Instant gratification! Unlike the potters, we didn’t have to wait overnight to see how our work came out. After the front was fired, a counter-enamel had to be added to the back to balance the enamel.  Usually, this was just the leavings from previous work, but if it would be seen, as on earrings or pendants, a color could be used.  We had both transparent and opaque colors available, but I became fascinated with the depth of the transparent and almost all of my work was with them.  I also became obsessed with the shading and gradients obtained by trying to layer and blend the edges of colors.  Sometimes it worked, but other times, not so much.  Colors in enamelling are tricky as you get one shade if the color is fused to bare copper and quite a different shade if it is put over a layer of clear flux.

Torch firing was scary, but fun.  I’ve never worked with intense fire, but it really is quite easy if one is careful.  My grand-daughter loved it!  The torch is held under the piece with the bare copper side down. For light-weight pieces, a rod can be used to stabilize the piece so it isn’t blown off the stand by the torch.  Hot pieces of copper flying around are NOT a good idea.  The rod could also be used to create designs in the molten glass.  When a piece coming out of a kiln was dropped, it immediately burned a hole in the rubber safety mat which covered the floor.  Very stinky and dangerous!  Fortunately, it only happened a few times with little lasting damage.

Individual pieces with comments:

One of the techniques we use was to take a found object and make an impression of it on thin copper. I found a pin that looked to me both like fire and leaves.  I made two impressions, one enameled in reds and one in greens to reflect the dual nature.  My granddaughter made a butterfly from a pin.  It is the piece that she is torch firing in the gallery above. Here is the pressing operation.

I hope to keep you updated as I use these pieces in my books! Since the enamel is really just glass, it can crack easily, so I won’t be able to press thes books as I usually do.  Wish me luck!

5 Responses to Learning to Enamel at the Folk School

  1. Pingback: Kilns and Torches and Enameling Fun | Losing Her Marbles

  2. Sean

    How fun! One day, I’ll learn to make time in my life for such regular excursions.

  3. Pingback: Catching Up | Losing Her Marbles

  4. Pingback: My First Enameled Book | Losing Her Marbles

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