Enameling 103: Metal Preparation

Read clear step-by-step instructions for properly preparing your copper and fine silver workpieces for enamel.

Last edited: 10/25/2019
An enamel necklace with realist leaves
2013 Saul Bell Design Award winner, Nena Potts, crafted this lush and vibrant necklace using her considerable enameling skill. An inspiring example of what’s possible with this fantastic technique!

We discussed safety and supplies in Enameling 101, and kiln firing vs. torch firing in Enameling 102. Now, let’s get down to the hands-on process. This post will cover the importance of proper metal preparation for the enameling process.

It’s important to have your metal clean and free of any contaminants such as oils, dust, fingerprints or oxides prior to applying enamel. If you don’t begin the enamel process with metal that’s properly prepped and cleaned, all of your other planning could be in vain. It’s possible to end up with enamel that won’t adhere to the surface, or, after firing, might chip, crack and possibly pop off your work piece. It’s kind of like trying to put makeup on a pig. It’ll last a short time, but all the color will come off and you’ll be back to a dirty pig again.

When it comes to enameling there are several methods of preparation and cleaning. Some are more complex than others, but that doesn’t necessarily make them better. It’s important to select a method that will work with the piece you’re creating and above all, one that you’re most comfortable with. Regardless of your preference, the point is, do it right the first time!

Metal-Prepping Process

A copper disc above a pickle pot and hardwood dapping black and punch set
Top: After annealing, dip your piece in pickle to clean the oxides off; Bottom: hardwood dapping block and punch set

The first part of this process will be to prepare your metal by smoothing any rough edges. This can be done with a Scotch-Brite™ pad, which also works great for scrubbing and texturizing metal. Next you’ll want to decide if you should dome your piece or leave it flat. This will be determined by your design; however, doming the metal will help to keep its shape and avoid warpage during the enameling process. A domed piece will also reflect light much better than a flat piece.

Doming/Annealing

To dome the metal, you’ll first want to anneal it with a torch. Yes, annealing can be done in a kiln, but it takes longer because you’ll need to wait for the kiln to heat up and reach the correct temperature.

If you’re working with copper, after annealing, quench in water, and then place in pickle to remove firescale. Once the pickle has cleaned the oxides off of the piece, remove with copper tongs and rinse both sides thoroughly under running water so as not to leave any of the acid on the piece. The metal is now soft enough to be placed in a hardwood dapping block. You can now press down upon it with your fingers or a doming tool to generate a slight dome. (Not familiar with annealing? Here’s a link to a great Annealing Metal video that will help you to understand the process.)

Metal-Cleaning Process

You’re now ready to clean the metal and remove the oil and grease transferred from your fingers during the preparation process. You might wonder why the metal needs to be cleaned after it’s been heated, pickled and rinsed. This is necessary because pickle only removes tarnish and oxides. It does not remove oil or grease and if you touch your piece during the sanding and doming process you’ll need to clean it prior to applying the enamel.

Method 1—Scrubbing

A copper disc being cleaned and a pair of tweezers
Left: Scrubbing in a circular motion with a Scotch-Brite pad to clean your metal; Right: Stainless steel straight tweezers with fiber-grip handles
  1. Take a Scotch-Brite pad and water, along with a cleaning agent like Pam East’s PreNamel Surface Scrub or some pumice powder made into slurry. (Pumice powder is a de-greasing agent and is great not only for cleaning a piece to be enameled, but also prepares metal for soldering, and helps to remove firescale. It’s always a good idea to have some on hand.)
  2. Scrub the metal on both sides in a circular motion until the water flows evenly across the surface. If the water beads up or pulls away from any part of the metal, then you’ll need to scrub again.
  3. Once thoroughly clean, dry the metal using a clean, lint-free cloth. Be sure not to touch the surfaces with your fingers or you’ll have to clean it again. Hold the piece by the edges or with some tweezers to avoid re-contamination.

Method 2—Heating the Metal

Copper—Heating to Green

  1. You can heat the copper with a torch, or in a kiln to burn off any grease or oil. If you work with a torch, set the piece on a tripod and begin heating under the piece keeping the flame moving. Soon, the copper will begin changing to a dark reddish-orange color. Within a very short period of time, as you’re moving the torch, you’ll see the color begin changing to a greenish tone. Once the entire piece is this color, turn off the flame.
  2. If working with a kiln, pre-heat to the standard enameling temperature of approximately 1500°. Once heated, set your piece on the kiln shelf and watch for the dark reddish-orange color change. This should take about 35–40 seconds. As soon as this happens, remove the hot item from the kiln with a spatula or kiln tweezers. While the piece is being removed, it should begin changing color to a greenish tone. If it doesn’t change, place back into the kiln for just a few seconds. Watch closely to be sure you don’t over-fire.
  3. Either set the piece off to the side to cool, or using tweezers, pick up the hot piece, and quench in water. When firing to green, there‘s no need to pickle the piece. However, if you over-fired to black, you‘ll need to pickle, and then rinse both sides well under running water to remove the acid.
  4. Dry the metal using a clean, lint-free cloth. Remember not to touch the surfaces of the piece or you’ll have to go back and start the process again.
Three stages of annealing copper
Left to right: The copper changes color as it heats. It goes from a dark reddish-orange color to a color with a slightly-greenish tone and in the end its color is changed and its surface is grease-free.

Fine Silver—Flashing

  1. Pre-heat the fine silver piece with a torch until it has a slight orange glow.
  2. Watch carefully for the piece to look like it’s about to melt. At that point, pull back the flame of the torch where only the tip is heating the surface of the metal. Be sure to keep the flame moving over the piece in a circular motion until you see the entire surface of the metal become very shiny. Once this happens, immediately remove the flame and turn off your torch. This is known as “flashing” the surface. Use some caution with this technique. Too close with the flame and you will actually melt the piece, too far away and it won’t flash. Flashing the fine silver not only helps to clean the piece, but also creates a polished looking surface visible through transparent enamels, which adds to the beauty of the piece.
  3. Once the piece flashes, put it aside to cool. Be sure not to touch the surfaces.
Before and after flashing a fine silver disc
On the left, a dull disc of non-flashed fine silver and on the right, a disc of polished-looking, flashed fine silver.

Method 3—Saliva

Cleaning a copper disc with saliva
  1. Follow the previously-described metal prepping process (anneal, pickle and rinse your piece).
  2. When you’re ready to enamel, get some saliva on your clean thumb or finger, then rub the saliva over the surface of metal you’re enameling. Once this is done, don’t touch the surface. Saliva is a good neutralizer and works well to easily clean off the oil and grease after you’ve been handling the piece of metal. Please note, while this works great for small pieces, you wouldn’t want to use this technique on large projects. It would be hard to create that much saliva for your piece, not to mention…eww!

This part, along with Enameling 101 and Enameling 102, includes an explanation of all recommended supplies, except for the enamels Now that you have an understanding of the prep and cleaning process, it’s time for the fun to begin! In the next—and final—part, Enameling 104, I’ll discuss the enamels and their application. Until then, if you’re still questioning your ability to enamel, remember this…

“You don’t have to be great to get started, but you do have to get started to be great.”—Zig Ziglar