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Enamelling on Copper

Enamelling on Copper

Автором Pat Johnson

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Enamelling on Copper

Автором Pat Johnson

446 pages
5 hours
Feb 28, 2017


Copper enamelling - essentially, the melting of glass enamel grains onto a copper surface - is an exciting and fascinating technique. Enamelling on Copper highlights the unique interactions between copper and enamels, and gives a detailed account of working with this wonderful combination. The basic technique - simply sifting ground enamels onto a copper surface and firing the two in a kiln for one minute - is a thrilling experience, but delving deeper into the techniques pays even greater rewards. Starting with an introduction to enamels, this new book goes on to explain how to work with an enamelling kiln, including temperatures and timings; the different kinds of enamels and how they work together; the enamelling process and how to control small sifted particles of the glass enamels to achieve your designs. A final chapter is devoted to the practice of firing the enamels higher than is necessary in order to transform their colours to create unique effects.This book wiill be of great interest to all enamellers, jewellers and metal workers at all levels and is beautifully illustrated with 226 colour photographs.
Feb 28, 2017

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Pat Johnson discovered the beautiful medium of melted coloured grains of enamel on copper as a young woman. The process was very quick and soon she was making and selling small enamelled pendants. During this time she developed her techniques to make virtually any kind of enamelled design or image. After she bought a larger kiln, Pat spent several years experimenting to see if enamelling was as much an art form as painting. She challenged herself to work in diverse styles ranging from realistic images to abstract art, and began to receive commissions to make murals on large scale steel panels. Pat then spent twenty years working in the premises of industrial enamelling firms and producing public murals. Eventually, wanting to return to enamel's beautiful transparent effects, she returned to working on copper, principally using bowls to achieve the best results. Throughout her career, Pat Johnson has taught enamelling on copper at West Dean College. The discoveries that have come out of these classes have contributed largely to her understanding of the behaviour of enamels and enamelling techniques.

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Enamelling on Copper - Pat Johnson


In the 1950s, thousands of little enamelling kits were bought by families who wanted to give a gift to their children. Everything necessary was included – a little hotplate kiln, a spatula, small flat pieces of copper of various shapes (referred to as ‘blanks’) and a collection of ground, coloured glass enamels. Some enamels were said to be transparent, others opaque, each packaged inside a small shaker-tube. I was twelve years old when I received my kit. It was set up on the dining-room table and I tapped some of the enamels onto a few of the blanks and put the blanks on the hotplate. After a minute the enamels melted, successfully covering the copper shape. I looked at the result and decided I did not like enamelling at all.

Enamelling these two antique bowls employed all of the techniques described in Chapter 7, with the exception of working with stencils. The build-up of opaque colours to create a sense of volume can be seen, as well as textures created by pushing layers of enamels around. The sharp edges were made with a stick and a brush. The theme of this image is the moment when bowls that have been buried for hundreds, or even thousands, of years emerge into the sunlight.

Years later, I was again given an enamelling kit, exactly the same as the one I had tried out sixteen years earlier. Uninterested in it for myself, I would get the kit out after a dinner party to entertain the guests, some of whom actually made some attractive pieces using simple designs and opaque enamels. The transparent enamels always produced a failure because no one knew that the transparent colours needed to be fired on top of a layer of colourless transparent enamel called flux. All of the guests’ efforts to use the transparent enamels only resulted in covering the copper with a boring dark brown colour.

Then one day, for some unknown reason, I set up the kiln and sifted a transparent enamel onto a copper blank. Probably the name of the enamel – transparent Amber – appealed to me and I wanted to give it one more try. After it sat on the hotplate for as long as opaque enamels take to melt, the amber had turned the usual dark brown and I was about to lift it up when the phone rang. I dashed off to answer the call, leaving the amber-covered blank on the hotplate. When I returned ten minutes later, I saw that it had transformed into the most beautiful transparent gold I had ever seen. The sight of it was captivating. I was entranced and have been enamelling ever since.

After that magic moment with the amber, which was effectively an accident (amber is one of the few transparent enamels that does not need to be fired on top of a flux), I was of the opinion that enamelling on copper was very easy to do – just a little matter of getting the timing right. It was only after many years of making my own work and teaching enamelling techniques to others that I fully realized just what a difficult and complex medium it is. Successes, like the sudden appearance of the transparent gold, have often come seemingly out of nowhere. The ensuing problem has been first to find out how these successes arrived and, after that, to take up the challenge of reproducing them. I have spent my life trying to repeat the wonderful effects enamelling has shown me.

This book has been written to increase the appreciation of enamelling by describing in detail the challenging behaviours of enamels and the techniques required to master them. In addition, I hope to give assistance to those who want to learn to enamel and experience the many gifts that enamelling has to offer.


Enamelling is the technique of melting coloured glass particles onto a metal surface. The glass particles are known as enamels, the melting process is called firing and in this book, the metal involved is copper. An enamelled picture, bowl or piece of jewellery is often referred to simply as an enamel, the same word as the ground glass. The words ‘piece’ and ‘work’ relate to an object that is being and has been enamelled and the copper will be called either a ‘blank’ or a ‘panel’.

This piece of enamel, just a bit bigger than a golf ball, was broken off the cooled mass that had just come out of a crucible. The mass was roughly pounded until the pieces were small enough to be put in a mill and ground up into fine grains.

About enamels

Enamels are a type of glass made up of minute fragments of rocks and minerals, jostled together with a great deal of sand. When this mixture is put into a crucible and taken up to its melting temperature, the sand melts, and the elements and compounds in the rocks and minerals are released. In the matrix of melted glass they break apart and then, during the cooling process, join up to make new components. The separate particles are gone and in their place is an enamel, a glass that will melt at a specific temperature and that will adhere smoothly to certain metal surfaces. At this stage, the enamel is one large mass, soon to be broken up into pieces of pea-sized lumps or ground into grains.

Enamels come in a wide range of colours and works in enamel are created by applying layers of these colours one after another, with firings in a kiln in between each layer. A firing will melt the glass particles and produce a hard shiny surface.


Enamelling gold and silver jewellery and vessels is very difficult indeed. Not only are skills and physical effort required to form the metal, the colours of the enamel must be pure and lack surface blemishes. Perfection lies at the heart of this practice, requiring a great deal of time and patience. Precious metal enamellers work with pea-sized lumps, grinding them by hand in distilled water to prevent any kind of contamination. The enamels are applied to a silver or gold object using a brush or feather to put the damp grains in place. This technique requires great care. Once dried, the piece is fired for a short time until enamels melt, after which it is cooled slowly. The glass has become bonded to the metal but apart from this, nothing has happened to change the enamels’ structure and nothing is revealed about them except their wonderful colour.

Enamelling on copper is a different story. Here, the metalworking technique can be much easier but the actual roles of the enamels are more complex. Most importantly, the copper intermingles with the enamels and this has a profound effect on their colour. In addition, enamels fired on copper are treated in a very different way from those fired on silver or gold. They are sifted on rather than laid down wet and because it is hard to gauge exactly just how much enamel has been applied, the results are not entirely controllable. Unusual effects are regularly created and most of them are so beautiful and interesting that perfection is not required, although with practice and great skill in sifting, it can be achieved.

Copper is relatively inexpensive and the enameller is free to experiment. In particular, firing times and temperatures are allowed to vary from the norm. At higher temperatures the enamels interact with each other, resulting in new colours and textures that look like they were formed by an act of nature. Even heating an enamel to the point where its colour disappears is practised because nearly burnt enamel can be used artistically.


Enamels come in two main categories – transparent and opaque. Transparent enamels act like watercolour paints in that any colour or drawing underneath will be visible but tinted with the colour of the paint or enamel on top.

Furthermore, the light colours must be applied first, because a dark colour underneath would not allow them to show up. Opaque enamels, on the other hand, behave like oil paint. Over layers of previously fired enamels, they will cover all the colours and designs that lie below them.

Most transparent enamels cannot be fired directly on to copper because the result will be a colour that is a combination of both. To allow the colour of the transparent enamel to show more clearly, a layer of colourless enamel, called a flux, must lie beneath it. The flux creates a space, which allows light to reflect back up from the surface of the copper through the transparent enamel, thus illuminating its colour. Some tinting from the copper remains, but it is much less pronounced.

There are many fluxes, all of which have different uses. Although supposedly colourless, fluxes actually appear to be lightly tinted when fired over copper. They can be transparent pink, gold, or a greyish blue. Transparent coloured enamels fired on top of a flux will be altered slightly, although much less than if they had been lying directly on the copper. The true colour of transparent enamels will only be revealed when they are fired over white opaque enamel.

This bowl shows several different enamels flowing and interacting with each other.

Nevertheless, regardless of the tinting effect, many pieces of enamelled copper feature a transparent on top of a flux because this is the way to make its thrilling colours glow.

Opaque enamels cannot produce the thrill of transparency but their strong colours play a major role in enamelling. They can be applied in any order of light and dark. The opaques often provide a wonderful foil for transparents but they are also the medium that will produce works of enamel that are on a par with fine art.


Almost all enamelling processes are based on layering. One layer is sifted on and fired, then a second, third and onwards, with trips to the kiln made between every application of enamel. When two enamels are fired at the same time, one on top of the other, a whole range of new possibilities opens up. A transparent red fired on top of a transparent yellow produces a wonderful orange, a colour that is difficult for enamel manufacturers to produce. Similarly, if a transparent red enamel is applied over an opaque yellow layer, the result will be an orange that simply has no equivalent in any other medium. Gradations of colour can be created, for example, with a layer of light turquoise blue on the bottom layer and a rich dark transparent blue lying over part of the turquoise, grading gently to produce a handsome, two-toned surface.

When enamels are melted together and fired above the recommended fusing temperature, a variety of reactions take place. Exploring these reactions, finding out how and when they occur, learning to control and use them to produce their wonderful new colours and textures is one of the pleasures that enamelling has to offer.


In addition to the categories of transparent and opaques, there is another area with two types of enamels – those that contain lead and those that don’t. Historically, all enamels were leaded but in the late twentieth century, the general concern over a number of potentially dangerous elements resulted in the development of lead-free enamels.

At the time of writing, both types of enamels are available. Each group can produce wonderful colours, so an enameller might choose a lead-bearing or lead-free enamel purely for aesthetic reasons. Using enamels from both groups together in one piece is possible, particularly if the lead-free enamel is fired on first.

How dangerous are lead-bearing enamels? Many enamellers who have been working with lead-bearing enamels for years have so far not suffered any ill effects. That said, it makes good sense to be careful. When enamelling regularly, a good-quality mask should be worn, no matter which kind of enamel is used and hands should be rinsed at the end of an enamelling session. In Chapter 2, there is information on how to find a mask that is effective.

Working with enamels

Making a work in enamel can be a quick process. Sifting on a colour takes no time and firings usually last one minute. Of course, the preparations may take much longer. Deciding on what is going to be made can keep the enameller occupied for quite a while and producing shapes and designs with enamel can be quick but also as long as a complicated drawing.


Most enamellers working with copper use pre-ground enamels, bought from companies that make and supply ground enamels. The most effective way of applying ground enamels is putting the grains of glass into a sieve and sifting them on to the copper surface. Sifting produces an even coating and allows for layering colours and covering large areas quickly. There are many ways of controlling where the enamel grains will fall and of using them to make any kind of image and design. Techniques for harnessing the potential of enamels as an art form are presented in Chapter 5 and onwards.


Physically, performing a firing is probably one of the easiest tasks in enamelling and it is the quintessential centre of the process. When one or more enamels resting on a piece of copper are put into a kiln, the conditions of the crucible are recreated in one minute. The grains of glass become liquid and blend into a whole.

For every enameller, firing is always exciting. The colour of the hot kiln chamber is wonderful and the sense of danger from being so close to the heat is compelling. The fired piece, fresh out of the kiln, is glowing orange, radiating a wonderful light that always leaves a sense of regret as it fades when the piece cools. It is only then that the colour of the enamel is revealed and the enameller learns if the firing has been successful or not. Often the result of the firing is what was wanted, but occasionally it is not. There might be disappointment or the enameller may receive a wonderful surprise.

Anyone who becomes involved with enamelling on copper must face the challenges of discovering the best firing temperatures and times for their enamels. Many factors are involved because each enamel is structurally unique, and overall there is a wide variety of firing behaviours. These will be discussed continually throughout the book but particularly in Chapter 4.


First attempts at enamelling are an opportunity to have an adventure, and to make a start in developing a personal relationship with enamel colours and techniques. After a while, a revelation occurs – that the whole process is two-way. The person enamelling has an idea in mind, a plan of action, and the enamels will have their own response to the plan. The finished piece, unless the enameller is very practised at reproducing what has gone before, is the result of a dialogue. Usually, it is lovelier and more exciting than the original plan.

Learning and inventing ways of manipulating the enamel grains so that they make textures, patterns, designs and pictures is a challenge. The enameller must also know what to do when things do not go to plan. Over the years, enamellers find out more and more about their art and craft. This progress is an amalgam of personal experience, learning from other enamellers, and reading about techniques. The varieties of enamel behaviour multiply out of sight but this is not a cause for despair. The pieces pictured at the headings of many of the chapters illustrate the rewards of learning to work with the fascinating combination of enamels, copper, heat and imagination. Success is a frequent occurrence; boredom is never a problem.

About enamellers

Enamelling is a very physical activity and personal experience is the best way of learning. Self-teaching will reveal the right amount of enamel to put in a sieve and how it feels when that right amount is subsequently sifted. What motion seems natural for dispersing ground enamel over a flat piece of copper or around the curved surface of a bowl? Chapter 5 suggests quantities and techniques that assist in answering this question, but eventually every enameller will develop an individual working practice. It all comes down to finding the movements of hands and arms that feel natural.

Because human physicality is involved, the result of any day’s enamelling is unpredictable. Judgements can vary wildly according to one’s mood. It is important to recognize that there are times when sifting will be too heavy or too light and estimations of firing times and temperatures are off the mark. Even if very careful notes are taken, and test pieces and samples are close at hand, reproducing a previous success is never guaranteed. The enameller should not take the blame if a piece does not turn out right – unknown factors due to the interactions of the enamels are at work. Every act of enamelling is an experiment and something exciting is sure to happen along the way. Enamels may not let themselves be tamed, but they will constantly deliver gifts when given a chance.

The role of books in learning to enamel

Over the years, many books on enamelling have been published, some of them very useful indeed. They contain information about materials such as lustres and present the venerable techniques of jewellery enamelling. Enamelling on Copper focuses on the enamels themselves, their behaviour on copper and how to get the best out of them. This book, and perhaps working with a teacher, will help a new enameller to get started. It may even suggest to experienced enamellers different techniques and possible solutions when things go wrong.

Where to find help

Enamel societies are widely available and offer large amounts of information, companionship, workshops, exhibiting opportunities and a sense of community. Searching on the internet will turn up all kinds of individuals and organizations dedicated to enamelling, including the national societies that exist in many countries.

From the most fastidious makers of enamelled jewellery to the industrial teams producing huge panels, all enamellers are going through the same experiences, the same cycles of challenge and success. The answer to the question ‘What is enamelling?’ covers not only the coloured glasses and the techniques, but the people involved.

All the materials and techniques in copper enamelling are essential. A failure in any one can bring the whole process to a stop and therefore all are equally important. Nevertheless, one particular characteristic of enamels – their firing temperatures – and one particular category of enamels – fluxes – are so fundamental that they must be presented first.

This bowl was enamelled using only a hard flux and a soft flux. The soft flux produced the lighter colour and the hard flux has become the deep rosy-grey colour. The hard flux was fired on clean copper first, with open patches carved in before first firing. After that firing, the bare areas were cleaned and soft flux was sifted over the whole outside bowl. The dark red spots, lines and patches were produced in places where the copper could not be cleaned. The inside of the bowl – transparent red over hard flux – was enamelled before work started on the outside of the bowl.


Hard flux (left) and soft flux (right) fired side by side. The hard flux has not received enough heat to become clear and hence is a dull red.

The words ‘hard’, ‘medium’ and ‘soft’ refer to the temperatures at which enamel grains will fuse. Enamellers rely on having a range of firing options and each of these three categories has a special role to play.

Hard enamels need a high temperature and a long firing to melt and, in the case of transparent enamels and fluxes, to become clear. Conversely, soft enamels require low temperatures and/or short firings. They are likely to burn out when fired directly on copper and subjected to too much heat, although this won’t happen if they are lying on top of other enamels.

Most fluxes are hard, even those classed as soft, and many of the opaque enamels are soft. The rest, both transparent and opaque enamels, are medium firing and melt at temperatures between the two extremes. Catalogues of enamelling materials will contain some information about the hardness or softness of the enamels they list.

The functions of fluxes

So many fluxes are produced by manufacturers that it is almost impossible for enamellers to learn what all of them can do. Although often beautiful in their own right, their chief function is to lie underneath transparent enamels, enabling their transparency to be seen along with their colour and brilliance. Soft opaque enamels also benefit from being fired on top of a hard flux because then they will not burn out easily.

The chief difference between the fluxes is their melting points, although they all differ in colour slightly when fired on copper. Used as the first layer covering the copper, the melting time of a hard flux will be at least thirty seconds longer than a medium firing enamel and another thirty seconds is required for it to clear. That means that a hard flux will need to be in a kiln one minute longer than a medium firing enamel. Higher temperatures will bring the firing time down. Once clarity has been achieved, further shorter firings will not reverse it. All fluxes have a temperature below which they will never clear, no matter how long they stay in the kiln. These temperatures are determined by testing.


Underfired soft flux.

Even though the softest of fluxes are relatively hard, they often bubble up through a layer of coloured transparent enamel that has been fired on top of them. If a sheet of pure transparent colour is required, such bubbling through is obviously a defect. The spotty effect can be minimized by keeping the firing low or short. In a piece that involves many layers and firings, as when designs and images are being produced, the build-up of layers on top of the soft flux will eventually defeat the intrusion of golden spots. Sometimes, however, the spots of flux are used to make a handsome surface. Where coloured enamels are thickly applied on part of a layer of soft flux but trail off into thinness on the rest, golden spots help to make the transition from colour to no colour look enchanting, with the darker enamels seeming to float some distance in front of the flux background.

Two transparent enamels fired over a soft flux, showing the gold spots of the flux breaking through.

The greatest value of soft fluxes comes into play when bowls are being enamelled with coloured transparents that need a flux undercoat. Instead of rising up through the transparent layer, the flux will slide down, taking its coating with it. The enamels thin out as they flow, allowing more light to pass through and

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