Enamel Workshop

The weekend before last I taught an enamel on steel workshop at Danaca Design, located  in the nearby University District (nearby if you’re in the Queen Anne neighbourhood of Seattle.) Dana Cassara’s studio is well suited to teaching enamel – she has a sandblast unit with garnet grit, two kilns (that fact became very important on day two) and a raft of materials from brushes to klyr fire mixes to masks and green glasses and an assortment of jewellers/sifting enamels. And now quite a large supply of liquid enamels.

After ordering via Dana a bunch of extra enamels from Thompson, some low-carbon-steel test squares then having found some mild steel at the local legendary super-hardware store, Hardwicks, and having checked out the kilns and the sandblast cabinet in the leadup to the class, come 10:30am Saturday we were ready to rock. To add to the collection of tools and enamels at Danaca, on the day I took in a bunch of my enamels (my trusty low-fire clear turning out to be the most important) as well as some sgraffito tools, a pre-blasted tin (steel) can, my favourite marker for making linework on a pre-fired surface to stick more enamel powder/sand to (Pentel seems to be the brand, y’all), as well as my trusty Rotring tech pencil (from my hand drafting days) and a graphite ‘crayon’.

My students were the local enamel aficionado Nancy Bonnema as well as two jewellers who had made the trek down from Canada to get involved, Patsy Kay Kolesar and Simone Richmond.01 Class

As it turns out, the GC-16 Cobalt Blue, which I had been relieved to find was the Thompson ground coat earlier in the month was not with the other enamels that we had ordered, so I got to teach enamelling my way – using the exact method of how I treat my steel surfaces. To start we laid down some Thompson Low Firing clear on to a well blasted pieces of a recycled whiskey can (yup, it’s 100% steel, under the paint) and got down to business. We then all had a go at mixing the powdered enamels with water, after which the colour tests began in earnest.

Removing a galvanized surface - the zinc is the lighter coloured material. This needs to be totally removed before the piece is ready to be enamelled.
Removing a galvanized surface – the zinc is the lighter coloured material, the steel coming through underneath is darker. This needs to be totally removed before the piece is ready to be enamelled, as zinc is hazardous at high temperature.

Owing to a small glitch in the sandblast system I ended up taking most of the blasting work home with me at the end of day one to get it into shape in my own sandblast unit. Following this I then searched the basement and office for my supply of enamel decals, to fulfill a request – my Canadian students have a large supply of decals but were yet to have any luck at having them fire correctly. To remind myself of how it’s done I went straight to the source, Elizabeth Turrell’s instructions of course! In my research I found a bunch of links on the internet that also provided some other reliable firing instructions that supported or provided an alternative to Elizabeth’s.

03 Samples

Day two saw the application and successful firing of the decals.  We went the two-kiln method, firing off the plastic slowly using a kiln which had just been turned on from cold, and then pulling them out and straight into the second kiln which was at full temperature, to fuse them properly. It worked a treat. (Nancy, a seasoned decal-er, watched on with interest and shared her method – similar to the second set of instructions linked directly above.) Look out for the decals on the samples above, and my little sample below. They were mostly words taken from a larger decal I had made in Bristol for the Two Mugs exhibition in 2011.

My sample - a fired 'Sydney' decal, over a drawing in graphite by Chloe Vallance
My sample – a fired ‘Sydney’ decal, over a drawing in graphite on enamel by Chloe Vallance

After our adventures in decal-ing, there was many more pieces of steel to work on, so the class got down to the tough business of more experimentation with sgraffito, working with graphite over stoned and porcelain slip surfaces, layering and adding jewellery enamels over the top. Expert enameller Nancy kindly brought in her work to show us, which was suitably ah-maze-ing both conceptually and in execution. She also brought in her supply of P-3 Underglaze (as I learned, they come in the form of little pellets of pigment that can be ground and suspended in oil – this we were told works better than the pre-mix you can buy) and then used it with a dip pen (calligraphy stylez, y’all) to draw onto a pre-enamelled surface. Then she got all inspired and worked with a dash of watered-down Thompson Flame Red to try using the same technique with the liquid enamels,  which seemed to work well.

04 Enamel table

By the end of day two we had a great team of confident steel enamellers in the house, who had all enjoyed the chance to ‘play around’, a change from going into the studio with ideas and outcomes in mind.

Since we finished I have heard from my students over the border; they have made an order from Thompson to get the ingredients to continue working with steel. As we cleaned up on Sunday, Nancy and I also discussed her pleasure at knowing how to enamel with steel without the ‘pinging’ that had turned her away from it previously, as she has some larger steel works on the drawing board. I sense we will see some enamel atop their surfaces… Call it a hunch 😉

Day 1: a perfectly productive mess!
Day 1: a perfectly productive mess!
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2 responses to “Enamel Workshop”

  1. Please reply. I have never atempted enamel to steel. Ceramics is my base of my knowledge, but i am determined to see my dream come true! Will a kiln for ceramics work? Where should i start, i dont know anyone who has tried this in my area. Columbus Ohio is the largest city to my location. Please help!

  2. Hi Thomas,
    There is a very good enamelling department at Kent State in Ohio, so you’re in in a great spot. Enamelling for ceramics and on steel are very similar; Elizabeth Turrell (mentioned in the post numerous times) was a ceramicist before she turned to working on metal and was one of the first people to take ceramics techniques across to metal, so don’t be scared! A ceramics kiln will work fine, so long as you can get it up to temperature and get it to hold there. It does not need to ‘ramp up’, so it should be a little quicker than working with ceramics. Let me know if you have any specific questions, but I would suggest that the Thompson enamel workbook might be a good place to start, which is available here or find yourself a copy of Linda Darty’s book.
    Good luck!