Monday, May 28, 2007

Childhood dream, take 3

Fairly soon after I started working with PMC, I bought a Paragon Quick Fire kiln. There was a less expensive option, but when I read that the Quick Fire can also be used to enamel metal and fuse glass, I was sold. Ever since I saw pictures of copper enameling in a crafts encyclopedia when I was around 9, I've wanted to try it. I still remember clearly the piece that illustrated the article: it was a largish round pendant that had been covered with a layer of enamel and then had a lump and two threads added to make a design like this. Very 60s astro modern. The idea that you could actually take glass that was powdered or in thin threads or lumps and melt it to metal blew me away. This was glass like I'd never thought of it before and the process seemed somehow occult. I kept my fascination with enameling but never took a course and never tried it. Now, the Quick Fire promised to make all those childhood dreams come true, and more! Not only could I fire my pmc pieces, I could enamel them and even make fused glass pendants to go with them! I could turn out amazing multi-media art jewelry made completely from components that I had created, even down to the jump rings! (Never mind that I haven't actually started making my own jump rings in spite of the fact that I have a saw. It just seems so fiddly.) I was sold.

In retrospect, I think I was a little overly optimistic. Let me tell you something: enameling is not easy. There's some serious chemistry and physics going on in this process and, in spite of having several books to consult, I have not yet become one with the process. At first I couldn't get the powder to come out of the sifter at all. The books always show people doing it with this elegant one-handed tapping motion. All I managed to do was give myself a hand cramp. So I put the piece down to coat it and used two hands (something you're not supposed to do since then you have to somehow pick it up without disturbing the enamel powder). Naturally, when I tried to pick it up, I disturbed the enamel powder and had to re-coat the piece. Figuring out how hot and how long to fire the pieces should have been easy: every book has loads of charts. It wasn't. The first pieces I tried out had a variety of problems: uneven coating, pulling away from the edge, weird texture from being over-fired (or possibly under-fired). And sometimes the enamel just popped right off the metal as it cooled. (Note on the red piece my failed attempt to recreate that childhood memory.) I realized that I wasn't going to be making an fancy enamel jewelry anytime soon, so I put the supplies away and decided to focus on the work with pmc.

A couple of months later I was working with the pinch form in pmc: what you get when you pinch a ball of clay between the thumb and forefinger of both hands at the same time. (The necklace to the right has three pinches that I drilled and strung directly onto a wire cable. One is heavily oxidized, the other two are highly polished.) I fused several small ones together and liked the shape, but there was a hole in the middle that needed something. Then I remembered the container full of glass lumps packed away with all the other enameling supplies. I got them out, fired up the kiln, and stuck a chunk of blue glass into the middle of the cluster of pinches. I heated it just until the glass balled up, not long enough for it to spread out flat. It worked! The light shines through the back of the form so the blue glass looks positively illuminated. I've worn it a few times and fiddled with it a lot and the glass still hasn't fallen off. (The color of the silver in the picture is wrong - it's not actually brown. The color of the blue is right though.)

Not wanting to stretch my luck, I let another couple of months go by before trying enamel again. That was this morning. This time I had a couple of pieces that I'd created from scraps particularly to use with enamel. One is a little cup that I filled with large chunks of transparent red glass. The other is the oval pendant with blue and green swirls. As you can see, I'm still not making beautiful enamel jewelry, but I'm getting the hang of how hot and how long to fire the pieces. I'm definitely having better luck with enamel on fine silver than enamel on copper though. Just to see if I could do it, I tried enameling a blank oval copper pendant. I put a layer of clear enamel over the copper and added just a couple of chunks of green glass in different shades. It was quite pretty - except for the part where the enamel popped off the metal as it cooled. It doesn't matter. The Quick Fire kiln is amortizing rapidly and my childhood dream of enameling on copper is just around the corner. Really.

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