114: Enamel Stencils

img_20161023_144721598I’ve always been curious about enameling, but I wasn’t ready to buy lots of equipment for something I wasn’t sure I’d do regularly.  I understood the basics of enameling – powdered glass is fired to its melting point, and it adheres to the metal beneath.  Designs can be drawn on (well, the powder can be moved around at least), or most easily, stenciled.  This was my in; my justification for taking the class. I could use the laser to make my own stencils!  Satisfy my curiosity AND get a blog post!

I’m a fan of Water Street Studios on Facebook, so I am continually tempted by their class offerings.  I signed up for their last “Introduction to torch fired enameling” class of the year, taught by Lisa Dienst-Thomas of Lisa’s Pieces.  Water Street Studios was a real treat – it’s only about 20 minutes away from me, but I’d never checked it out  They offer classes, have artists studios (both 2D and 3D), host lectures and have gallery space.  Creativity is steeped into the place.

Lisa was a great instructor and I had the pleasure of being the only student in class (which means I got to ask a lot of questions!)  She provided all the materials and had everything neatly laid out.

Starting tools, from left to right: Spatula, plastic container (just to keep spatula level), tweezers, fine tipped brush, awl, small sifter, large sifter, toothbrush, foam backed sanding block
Starting tools, from left to right: Spatula, plastic container (just to keep spatula level), tweezers, fine tipped brush, awl, small sifter, large sifter, toothbrush, foam backed sanding block, and old magazine pages in the upper right

The Tools:

Spatula – you use this transport your piece flat from the table to firing stand.  This is important because the enamel is a dry powder sitting on top.  Tip it and it the powder will fall off.  And you can’t touch the top with your fingers, lest you deposit oils on the surface and cause the enamel not to stick.

Little container – that’s just to hold the spatula level – the bent handle causes it to tip.

Tweezers – so you can move your fired piece without touching the top, saving it from the dreaded finger oils

Brush – moves and sweeps away grains of enamel that aren’t exactly where you want them

Awl – a nice sharp point is great for drawing in the powdered enamel

Small sifter – sifts powder over a smaller area, great if you only want to hit part of your piece

Large sifter – covers a larger area

Toothbrush – for cleaning the surface of your piece.  We used pumice-type cleanser, Bon Ami

Sanding block – to clean off the back for the discoloration from firing

Magazine pages – a slick disposable surface so you can save as much of the enamel power as possible, without mixing the colors.  If the colors mix in the jar, there is no separating that.

Not pictured: The enamels.  We were using Thompson brand enamels, Medium Temperature and Medium Expansion.  Also not pictured is the firing stand, mesh and torch.

Piece #1

Stencil 1 - I was kind of going for the Japanese fan motif, abstractly. I wasn't sure if the points would come though well becuase I wasn't sure the amount of detail I'd get with dry powder
Stencil 1 – I was kind of going for the Japanese fan motif, abstractly. I wasn’t sure if the points would come though well because I wasn’t sure the amount of detail I’d get with dry powder

For my first stencil, I created a basic repeating stencil with Japanese fans in mind.  I wasn’t sure how much fine detail would translate with dry sifting, so I was taking a little risk with the small points at the narrow end of the fan.  But that’s what experimentation is about, right?

I made the stencils out of the same material we used for the Pyramid Holograms for Week 100 – 1/32″ think acrylic.  Lisa pointed out some potential difficulties in using thicker stencils – you can inadvertently put too much enamel powder because the spaces are so much deeper.  Also, it might be more difficult to grasp when you are trying to lift it up smoothly.  Lisa likes using manila folders – lightweight, easily obtainable, and you can fold up the edge if you need a spot to grab and lift.

Base layer of enamel - we did two light layers of the same color, to make sure it was fully and evenly covered
Base layer of enamel – we did two light layers of the same color, to make sure it was fully and evenly covered.  You can see how important the magazine page is to not waste enamel!

After cleaning the piece thoroughly with Bon Ami, I sifted a layer of cream colored enamel on the copper base, which made the first of two base coats.  One coat might be a little uneven, a second evens things out.  Tip from Lisa: start be sifting around the edges, then work your way to the center.  Of course, the pieces I was working on were pretty darned small, so it was easy to get full coverage.  Between each layer, we melted the enamel powder with a MAP torch.  You heat the piece from below, which is why you can see my piece is on a 9″ tall firing ring.  It was neat watching it go though sugar stage, orange peel stage to fully fused glass, and it didn’t take as long as I thought it would

Just a little glimpse of the Water Street Studio's jewelry maker space. Note on my shirt: I was a little surprised to look in my closet and only have ONE long sleeved cotton shirt. Since I knew I was working with fire, I didn't want and potential issues for man made materials.
Just a little glimpse of the Water Street Studio’s jewelry maker space and the torch set up. Note on my shirt: I was a little surprised to look in my closet and only have ONE long sleeved cotton shirt. Since I knew I was working with fire, I didn’t want any potential issues for man made materials.  Photo by Lisa Dienst-Thomas.
Tapping the cute little sifter allows for even application of the powder on the stencil.
Tapping the cute little sifter allows for even application of the powder on the stencil.
Powered stencil pattern, before firing
Powered stencil pattern, before firing

After the piece was cooled and cleaned, it was time for the third layer. I lined up my stencil and sifted a very light layer of enamel on it.  There were some errant grains that I used the fine brush to get rid of.  One more firing, some clean up to the back and sides with sandpaper and add a bail, we’ve got a finished piece!  Easy, right? 🙂

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Piece #2

Lining up the stencil
Lining up the stencil
Powdered stencil
Powdered stencil
The stencil came off surprisingly cleanly - I didn't have any clean up work! I thought I was homefree!
The stencil came off surprisingly cleanly – I didn’t have any clean up work! I thought I was home free!

My second piece pointed out my hubris.  I followed the same process  – two base coats, a layer for the blue bunting and this one included a fourth layer of Orchid pink.  There was very minimal overlap with the blue bunting strand, so I didn’t think the 4th level would be a problem.  I was wrong.  Things this piece taught me:

  1. Light colors should go on first, dark after. I intended the pink to be the top layer, but where it over lapped, the blue still comes through.
  2. Really, there should be only 3 layers on powder on the piece.  There is a little wiggle room based on the thickness of the powder you lay on, but as a beginner, I was a little heavy handed.  The more layers, the harder it is to heat and fully fuse.
  3. Enameling is really just glass on metal.  If it is improperly cooled, not fully fused or even dropped on a hard surface, the colors can crack and flake off.  I didn’t apply enough heat where the colors overlapped, and there was a huge crack.
  4. You can reheat pieces, in the hopes to fully fuse them.  We did that….and then had did it again because the second final torch firing didn’t take care of the crack fully.  It took three tries to fully fuse this piece!  Between chatting and refiring, I kept Lisa 2 hours late!  Thankfully, she was as committed to getting it right as I was.
  5. Reds and pinks are temperamental souls.  The orchid pink enamel DID NOT enjoy being reheated, twice.  It separated interestingly, and allowed the base coat to come through.  So instead of two solid bunting lines, I have a love blue on and a lovely pink crackly / shabby chic one.
    If you look closely where the bunting crosses, there is a crack. THis means that the glass didn't fully fuse to the copper beneath - which meant it will pop off eventually.
    After the first final firing.  If you look closely where the bunting crosses, there is a crack. This means that the glass didn’t fully fuse to the copper beneath – which meant it will pop off eventually.  The pink looks pretty good at this stage!

    The final piece. The crackling is actually interesting to look at, but I think it would work better with a more abstract piece.
    The final piece. The crackling is actually interesting to look at, but I think it would work better with a more abstract piece.  Sadly, I didn’t use the cute arrow I designed.

In total: Enameling was a lot of fun.  The tools are actually relatively minimal – I actually have nearly everything from my jewelry making forays except the actual enamels and the firing stand.  I know I’ve only scratched the surface on techniques, but I love that I can use the laser to make a more unique look that using store bought punches for templates.  Maybe Lisa will teach Enameling II in the future 🙂

Finished pieces. Do the crackles on the bunting make it shabby chic? :)

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