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Butterfly-wing enameled pendant

Learn to make solar-plate molds and try a custom-designed pendant project

Champlevé enameling — a process in which recesses are traditionally made in metal and then filled with enamel — demands sharp, clean lines. Metal clay is often used to emulate traditional champlevé, but by its very nature, metal clay is more suited to soft, organic shapes than sharp lines.

Solar plates make it easy to produce a mold with crisp design lines at home, from your own drawings or chosen artwork, and without the need for expensive equipment or dangerous chemicals. 

For instructions on making the pendant, read below. Click here for the complete project PDF, which includes additional information on working with solar plates and determining exposure time.

Materials

  • Metal clay: 16g
  • Metal clay paper
  • Metal clay paste or white wood glue
  • Enamel powders: transparent, #80, suitable for use on silver

Tools & supplies

  • Overhead transparency, printed with black-and-white artwork
  • 2 solar plates (photo-polymer plates): plastic- or steel-backed, 4 x 4 in. (10.2 x 10.2cm)
  • Heavy-duty scissors; or metal shears or drawknife
  • Exposure frame: Thin wooden board, craft wood, or masonite (about 2 in. [51mm] larger than artwork); bubble wrap or thin foam; tape; solar plate (prepared with transparency); glass (5⁄64 in. [2mm] thick, same dimensions as board); 4 large bulldog clips
  • Cardboard, 2 x 6 in. (51 x 152mm)
  • Timer, displaying seconds and minutes
  • UV-light source
  • Shallow tray
  • Natural-bristle brush, soft (boot-polishing brush)
  • Natural sponge (optional)
  • Electric fan heater or hair dryer
  • Sturdy, flexible work surface
  • Olive oil
  • Natural hand balm
  • Playing cards
  • Acrylic roller
  • Paintbrush
  • Craft knife
  • Hotplate (optional)
  • Sandpaper: 400, 800, 1200 grit
  • Needle files
  • Moist towelettes
  • Thin straw or skewer
  • Kiln setup: kiln, kiln shelf, steel trivet with steel “trees,” barbecue slide or enameling fork, kiln mitt
  • Dust mask
  • Small watercolor palette or small plastic cups
  • Pipette or dropper
  • Distilled water (optional)
  • Synthetic watercolor brushes for enameling, nr 000 and nr 1
  • Finishing items: stainless steel brush, tumbler with steel shot and burnishing compound, alundum stone (optional), diamond files: coarse, medium, and superfine grades (optional), silver-polishing cloth, burnishing tool or flex shaft with rotary polisher (optional), fiberglass brush

Instructions

Butterfly wing enameled pendant 1
Photo 1
Butterfly wing enameled pendant 2
Photo 2

[1] Conduct a “real” exposure. Create your final solar-plate mold using the same process as in your test exposure (click here for instructions) and under the conditions you determined were ideal. 

Post-expose the solar-plate mold. Post-exposure will dry and harden your solar-plate mold all the way through. After the “real” exposure, wash the plate, dry the plate, and expose it under ideal conditions again. Or, put the plate in a sunny spot for about an hour. The plate is now ready for use as a mold.

[2] Make the impression. Lightly coat your work surface and acrylic roller with olive oil. Roll 16g of metal clay to 5 playing cards thick (about 1.5mm) and large enough to fit your solar plate’s design. Lightly brush your solar plate with olive oil, and apply a coat of natural hand balm to the clay slab. Press the clay into the plate. Ease the clay out carefully, gently lifting from all sides to avoid trapping any clay in the design lines. Trim the clay to shape with a craft knife, and clean up any nicks or dings with a damp brush. Store the excess clay, and dry the piece thoroughly.

Butterfly wing enameled pendant 3
Photo 3
Butterfly wing enameled pendant 4
Photo 4

[3] Clean up the design. When the clay is totally dry, perfect the design lines using a craft knife or needle file. Smooth the outside edges and back of the piece with sandpaper, starting with 400 grit, followed by 800 and 1200. You can even carve lines into the back to echo the design of the front. Wipe over the finely sanded, finished piece with a moist towelette. This will give the piece a very fine finish without weakening it.

[4] Attach a bail. Cut a long, narrow strip of metal clay paper, and wrap it around a thin straw or skewer once. Apply a thin layer of metal clay paste or white wood glue to the outside of the strip, and wrap the strip around again so you have a double thickness around the straw. Trim the strip with a craft knife, and smooth the seam and sides. Slide the strip off the straw, and paste or glue it to the top back of the pendant. Paper clay doesn’t dry out with normal air exposure, so as soon as the paste or glue is dry, the pendant will be ready for firing.

Fire, brush, and tumble. Fire the pendant according to the metal clay manufacturer’s instructions. Firing it hotter and longer will create a stronger piece (only for plain metal clay without glass or stone inclusions). Once cool, brush the fired pendant with a stainless steel brush, then tumble it for up to 2 hours until it has a bright shine. This will maximize the reflection of the silver through the transparent enamel.

Butterfly wing enameled pendant 5
Photo 5
Butterfly wing enameled pendant 6
Photo 6

[5–6] Enamel the pendant.

When handling any enamel powders, wear a good-quality dust mask and work in a well-ventilated area. Both unleaded and leaded enamels are dangerous to breathe. Fine enamel particles become airborne while you work with them and are a serious health risk when inhaled. Wash your powdered enamel colors (also called “rinsing”) to remove the fine dust particles and leave behind heavier particles that will not become airborne. This is a much safer process than sifting. Washing the enamels also makes them more transparent, which is usually desirable in enameled jewelry.

Select your powdered enamel colors. Place 1⁄2 teaspoon (2.5mL) of each color in a small, individual plastic cup. Wash (also referred to as “rinse”) the enamels by using a pipette or dropper to add enough water to each cup to cover the surface of the enamel. You can also hold the cup under a gentle stream of cold tap water. (If tap-water quality is poor in your area, use distilled water.) Swish the water around until it becomes cloudy, and carefully pour it out. This removes the fine, dusty enamel particles and leaves the heavier ones in the cup. Repeat, washing your enamels until the water runs clear. Transfer the damp enamels to a palette if desired.

Put a thin layer of damp enamels into the cells of the pendant [5], then let them dry [6].

Butterfly wing enameled pendant 7
Photo 7
Butterfly wing enameled pendant 8
Photo 8

[7] Fire the enamel. Heat the kiln to 1500°F (816°C), and keep it there for the duration of your enameling. Put the enameled pendant into the hot kiln on a trivet [7], and fire it until the enamel looks nearly smooth — only about 1 minute. You can use a timer, but always look to see that the enamel has smoothed out. Take the pendant out of the hot kiln using a barbeque slide or an enameling fork, and place the hot pendant on top of the kiln where it can slowly cool. It is very important to keep the pendant away from drafts to avoid cracking. Once the enamel has cooled, apply another thin layer and fire again. Repeat until the last coat of enamel that has been fired is level with the top surface of the pendant.

Apply a counterenamel, and fire. After you’ve enameled the front of the pendant, use the same procedure to apply three to five thin layers of counterenamel to the back, whether the back is carved or not. This will even out pressures between the metal and the glass, making the enamel stable and less likely to crack.

Because the front of the piece is enameled, you can’t put the pendant face down on a trivet again. You’ll have to support the piece in a way that ensures that none of the previously enameled surfaces will be touching the trivet. Try creating steel “trees” that can bend to support your pendant [8]. Fire each counterenamel layer for about 1 minute.

Butterfly wing enameled pendant 9
Photo 9

Traditionally, counterenamel is applied only to areas of the back that mirror the enameled areas of the front. The color(s) to use for the counterenamel are optional; however, using the same colors as on the front will give you the best results because the expansion rate of the enamels will be exactly the same [9].

Grind the finished enamel. Some prefer the natural enameled look, with its slightly rippled appearance; others prefer to “stone” the enamel.

Stoning is traditionally done by rubbing an alundum stone back and forth over the surface of the fired enamel under a stream of faucet water. Alternatively, try using progressively finer grades of diamond files with a little water.

If using files and water, work the files over the enamel as well as the silver to get a seamless, inlaid look. It is very important to finish with a superfine-grade file so that bits of enamel don’t creep into coarse-grade grooves in the silver during firing and blur your nice crisp lines.

When the filing is finished, wash the piece under running water with a fiberglass brush. This will remove any loose particles that may otherwise fire into the enamel’s surface. Dry the piece.

Fire again and polish. Place the piece back on a trivet “tree,” and fire it again for about 1 minute; this will put the shine back on the enamel surface. Set the piece on top of the kiln to cool slowly.

Then, polish the silver to a nice shine using a polishing cloth, burnishing tool, or flex shaft with a polishing attachment.

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