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No-Fuss Enamels

Your paint: watercolor enamels. Your canvas: steel.  Your frame: metal clay.

SUPPLIES

  • Watercolor enamels
  • Pre-enameled steel sheet: 0.32 mm, white
  • Copper foil (optional)
  • Metal clay: low-fire formula, 25 g
  • Metal clay paste
  • Syringe clay (optional)
  • Metal clay overlay paste 
  • Distilled water
  • Eyedropper (optional)
  • Permanent marker
  • Templates: oval (optional)
  • Safety glasses
  • Metal shears
  • Denatured alcohol
  • Paintbrushes: fine tip with taklon bristles for enamel only, fine tip for metal clay only
  • Magnifying visor (optional)
  • Glass palette
  • Toothpicks
  • Kiln (choose from): 
  • Ultra Lite Beehive Kiln, tweezers, ceramic tile 
  • Programmable kiln, firing rack, firing fork 
  • Mica sheet
  • Cardstock or manila folder
  • Natural hand balm or olive oil
  • Acrylic roller
  • Texture sheet
  • Playing cards
  • Flexible Teflon sheet
  • Tissue blade: flexible or scraper tool
  • Craft knife or scalpel
  • Plastic wrap
  • Sanding pads: fine grit
  • Sponge-tip applicator
  • Drinking straw
  • Food dehydrator (Dedicated to nonfood use) (optional)
  • Cotton swabs
  • Brass brush: soft
  • Agate burnisher; or tumbler, stainless steel shot, burnishing compound
  • Liver of sulfur (optional)

INSTRUCTIONS

NoFuss Enamels Part 1 Step 1
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NoFuss Enamels Part 1 Step 2
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NoFuss Enamels Part 1 Step 3
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NoFuss Enamels Part 1 Step 4
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NoFuss Enamels Part 1 Step 5
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Part 1: Enamel panel

Prepare the enamels. Place one or two drops of distilled water in each cup of watercolor enamel [PHOTO 1]. We used an eyedropper. Allow the water to soak into the paint while you do the next step.

Mark and cut the pre-enameled steel sheet. Use a permanent marker to draw a few 1 x 1-in. (25.5 x 25.5 mm) squares on the pre-enameled steel sheet. We liked having a few spare squares to experiment on. The small-size squares keep the finished pendant from being too large or heavy once the metal clay frame has been added. We also used templates to draw some ovals on the steel sheet. Put on your safety glasses. Using metal shears, cut the squares from the sheet [PHOTO 2]. 

NOTE: As you cut the steel sheet, bits of enamel will likely chip away from the edges. The metal clay frame will cover these edges. As an alternative to framing the enameled plate with metal clay, you could bend copper foil around the edges.

Clean the pre-enameled plates. The surfaces of the pre-enameled plates must be clean and absent of any oils to ensure that the watercolor enamels will adhere to them. Moisten a paper towel with denatured alcohol and use it to clean the plates.

Prepare your painting station. Use clean brushes that haven’t been used with metal clay. We use fine-tip brushes with taklon bristles. Keep a glass of distilled water and a paper towel on hand to clean your brush as you work. A magnifying visor makes it easier to see the fine details as you apply the watercolor enamels.

Apply the watercolor enamels. As you paint, apply the lightest colors first, then the mid-tone colors, and then the darkest colors. This prevents the dark colors from bleeding into the lighter ones, and you’ll also get a better result as you layer colors.

You can also mix colors before you brush them on the plates. Mix and blend the watercolor enamels on a glass palette [PHOTO 3] instead of mixing the colors in the cups. If you want to make the colors less intense, add more water to the enamels. 

NOTE: Yellows, oranges, and reds turn brown or fade when they come in direct contact with silver. Because you’ll be adding a fine-silver frame at a later step, keep these warm colors away from the edges of your plate to minimize discoloration.

Change your mind. There’s no need for regrets if you don’t like the way a painting turned out. As long as you haven’t fired it, you can clean off the enamels and start over. Or, if you want to change just a portion of the image before firing, let the enamel dry, and then use a toothpick to scrape away the unwanted area. We scratched away portions of an image and then went back and brushed in these areas with black or some other dark color to make the other colors pop [PHOTO 4].

Dry the enamels. Allow the enamels to air-dry completely (it’ll take a few minutes or so). Do not use heat to dry them — the pigments are suspended in wax, and heating the enamels will smear the colors.

Fire the enamels. You can use either an Ultra Lite Beehive Kiln or a programmable kiln to fire the enamels. We like the ease and immediacy of using the Ultra Lite. For instructions on using a programmable kiln, see “Firing Enamels in a Programmable Kiln,” on the PDF of this project. 

Put the lid on the Ultra Lite and preheat it for 20 minutes. Cut a piece of mica sheet slightly larger than the enameled plate you are firing. Place the enameled plate painted-side up on the mica sheet. Lift the lid of the Ultra Lite. Use tweezers to grasp the mica sheet with your enameled plate, and place it on the floor of the kiln, over the kiln’s heating element [PHOTO 5]. Replace the lid and leave the plate in the kiln for 1–2 minutes. 

As the wax medium burns off, you’ll hear a popping noise and the enamel will briefly flame up. The enamel is fused when its surface is glossy. It may take some practice for you to recognize the appearance of fused enamels that are not overfired. (Overfired enamels have a darkened, toasted appearance.) 

Once the enamel is fused, use the tweezers to remove the mica sheet along with your plate from the kiln, and place the mica sheet with the plate on it on a ceramic tile to cool. 

NOTE: When the enamels are still hot, the colors will appear “off.” As the plate cools, the colors will take on their accurate hues. If you applied the enamels too thinly, the colors will appear lighter or will have burned off completely. If this happens, reapply the color and refire the plate. For more on reapplying color, see “Color Touch-up,”also on the PDF. 

 
NoFuss Enamels Part 2 Step 1
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NoFuss Enamels Part 2 Step 2
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NoFuss Enamels Part 2 Step 3
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NoFuss Enamels Part 2 Step 4
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Part 2: Metal clay frame

Make a frame-panel template. Place your enameled plate on a piece of cardstock or a manila folder, leaving at least 1⁄4 in. (6.5 mm) of cardstock beyond the edges of the enameled plate. Trace around your enameled plate. Remove the plate and use a ruler to measure and draw a 1⁄4-in. (6.5 mm) border around your traced square. This is the outside edge of your frame panel. 

Use a ruler to draw a square inside of your traced square, leaving an 1⁄8-in. (3 mm) border between the inside square and the traced square. This inside square is the inside edge of the frame panel. Cut the frame-panel template from the cardstock [PHOTO 1]. 

You’ll be firing a metal clay frame that will shrink during firing around a steel sheet that will not shrink during firing, so it’s best to use a metal clay formula with a low shrinkage percentage. This puts the least amount of stress on the metal clay and minimizes the possibility that the clay will crack or split as it sinters.

Prepare your work area. Remove any enameling tools and supplies from your work area before you set out your metal clay tools and supplies.

Make the frame’s front panel. Lightly oil your hands and an acrylic roller with natural hand balm. Use a paintbrush to apply a thin coat of oil to a texture sheet. Place approximately 10 g of metal clay in the center of the texture sheet and roll out the clay to 3 playing cards thick.

Remove the clay from the texture sheet. Place the clay texture-side up on a flexible Teflon sheet. Place your frame-panel template on the textured clay, and use a scraper tool or tissue blade to cut around the outer border of the template [PHOTO 2]. Then use a craft knife or scalpel to cut out the center square of clay [PHOTO 3].

Place your enameled plate on the flexible Teflon sheet and carefully position the clay frame panel over the enameled plate [PHOTO 4]. Allow the clay to air-dry completely (see “States of Dryness for Metal Clay,” below) in this position. The clay will conform to the shape of the enameled plate, making it easier to add the metal clay back panel in a later step. 

NoFuss Enamels Part 2 Step 5
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NoFuss Enamels Part 2 Step 6
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NoFuss Enamels Part 2 Step 7
Step 7
NoFuss Enamels Part 2 Step 8
Step 8

NOTE: Because the clay frame panel is rather thin, let it air-dry. Using a dehydrator or other heat-drying methods could cause the frame panel to warp.

Make the frame’s back panel. Texturize and cut a second frame panel as you did to make the front frame panel. Cover this back frame panel with plastic wrap to prevent it from drying out.

Assemble the painting and frame panels. Set the dry front frame panel texture-side down on your work surface. Use a paintbrush to apply metal clay paste to the back side of the front frame panel [PHOTO 5]. Carefully position the enameled plate, painted-side down, onto the pasted frame. Gently press the plate into the paste, and then apply a thick layer of paste to the untextured side of the back frame panel [PHOTO 6]. Position the back frame panel over the front frame panel, sandwiching the enameled plate between them [PHOTO 7], and making sure there are no air pockets between the frame panels. Set the assembly aside to dry completely.

Fill and refine the frame. Check the outside edges of the frame, filling any cracks or gaps between the frame panels with syringe clay or paste. Allow the paste to dry completely, and then use a sanding pad to smooth the frame’s edges. Use a sponge-tip applicator to smooth the inside edges of the frame [PHOTO 8].

NoFuss Enamels Part 2 Step 9
Step 9
NoFuss Enamels Part 2 Step 10
Step 10
NoFuss Enamels Part 2 Step 11
Photo 11
NoFuss Enamels Part 2 Step 12
Photo 12

Make a bail. Roll approximately 5 g of clay on the same texture sheet to 3 playing cards thick. Use a flexible tissue blade or a scraper tool to taper the strip of clay [PHOTO 9]. Trim the bail strip to the same length as your framed pendant (back side shown) [PHOTO 10].

Attach the bail to the pendant. Apply metal clay paste or syringe clay at one end of the untextured side of the bail strip. Position the pasted side of the bail strip against the top, back side of the frame, making sure the bail strip is centered. Turn the assembly over, and apply paste or syringe clay to the opposite untextured end of the bail strip [PHOTO 11].

Slightly flatten a drinking straw and lay it along the top edge of the frame, on top of the bail strip. Wrap the bail strip over the straw [PHOTO 12], and press the end of the bail strip against the front of the frame.

Support the frame by setting it on a piece of cardboard. This prevents the bail from being pushed forward. Allow the assembly to dry completely. At this point, it’s okay to dry the assembly in a dehydrator.

Add metal clay details. We used overlay paste to draw designs on the back of the enameled plate [PHOTO 13], because overlay paste bonds well to vitreous and metallic surfaces. You could also sign your name, or cover the back completely with overlay paste.

Clean the enamel plate. Dip a cotton swab in denatured alcohol, and use the tip to carefully clean the front of the painted plate [PHOTO 14]. Do not leave any specks of paste or metal clay dust on the surface of the enamel.

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