I attended the Bead and Button conference for the 6th year in a row this year and I learned an exciting new skill. Torch enamelling!
That was the most fun class of the year. We showed up for class with our closed-toed shoes and our hair pulled back per the rules of the class (the instructor did neither) and were ready to roll!
We were given initial instruction on how to place the iron beads onto the heat-proof mandrel, how to heat the beads in front of the torch, how to roll the red hot beads in the little pots of enamel powder, and how to reheat the beads to melt the powder and add additional layers.
Then they turned us loose with hundreds of iron beads; as many as we could use in a full day class, and we were told to enamel as many as we wanted to. My goodness! There was an orgy of torching and melting and heating red hot as everyone tried making every color of bead imaginable. No one managed to set themselves (or anyone else) on fire.
We took a lunch break that was way too long – we all wanted to get our mittens back on that enamelling torch. We did a quick tutorial on enamelling flat discs (pendants) and adding millefiori, and off we went again!
I did all the colors of beads in pairs so that I could generate a pair of earrings for sale from each set. At the end I counted, and I had done over a hundred beads!
For several days I pondered bringing home the technology to do enamelling on my own. I finally talked myself into it; the starter kit cost only a hundred dollars and contained the torch head, a pulling station with mica for pulling the hot beads off the mandrel, a starter pack of beads, a clamp to attatch the gas tank to the work station, 3 mandrels, and 3 of the most popular enamel colors. All I needed to add was MAPP gas from the local Home Despot (intentional misspelling). I excitedly brought home my new kit.
I got my husband to help me hook up the cannister of gas after checking two different places for the MAPP gas. I set up the pulling station and put the enamels into metal tins that could withstand heat. I got the mandrels and the beads lined up and I was ready to go! I fired up that torch, and boy, did I get to work! I enamelled everything in sight. I even tested old metal beads with a magnet in hopes they were made out of iron. When they weren’t, I tried enamelling them anyway. They melted. Copper can be enamelled and I enamelled every copper bead and decorative copper piece that I had. I even bought copper refrigerator coil and cut it into cylinder beads that I enamelled. And I made earrings, earrings, earrings. I made my own copper head pins and used copper leverback earring posts for a rustic look. I must have nearly a hundred pair of enamel earrings!
Then I took my habit on the road. I went to the local bead store and discovered that they had an iron mix of little charms and findings. I bought two bags of those. Then I went to Crazy Mary’s (a hoarder with a variety shop that includes LOTS of beads) and discovered that she had strands of the iron beads for sale! I bought several strands and I was ready to go again!
I encountered some snags. I was putting 4 layers of enamel on the beads to ensure that the color showed well; two layers of white with two of the color on top. This was making a sticky mess on the surface of the beads and the bead holes were closing (permanently) when I withdrew the mandrels. I experimented with different numbers of layers of enamel. Two was too few and the color didn’t show up. Three was just about right! I am still getting some closing holes on some of the beads, and I am not sure how to put a stop to this.
As I was enamelling a little copper charm that I had made, the loop it was hanging off the mandrel from vaporized in the torch and a red hot piece of copper hit the floor. Instantly flames leaped up from the carpet! I was stupidly not wearing any shoes, so I could not use my feet to put out the fire. I grabbed the roll of copper refrigerater coil and scrubbed it vigorously over the fire until I put it out. Boy, was DH going to be mad. There was a fifty-cent piece sized smoldering molten hole in the carpet. My daughter came upstairs and saw it and said, “Ooooo, I’m going to tell Daaaaaaddy!” “Go ahead,” I told her, “I’m going to tell him first.” So I had to fess up to the giant hole in the rug. DH was not pleased, as predicted. He wordlessly went out and bought an industrial floor rug to put over the carpet in my work area. Now I wear shoes at all times when I melt those things. And I don’t heat anything on tiny loops. And I have prepped the fire extinguisher by cutting the plastic tab protecting the pull pin, so it is ready to go.
I have backed off on the enamelling a bit lately. I don’t know if it is fear of setting fire to myself or running out of new and different things to enamel. (The iron beads and resulting earrings are now beginning to look a bit alike, all one hundred pair of them). I’d better get back on the horse, so to speak. I do have the little iron charms and findings to coat, although I am concerned that they will not pull off the mandrel well in the pulling station, which was made for larger beads. I would also like to order some new enamel colors and they are not cheap (like $18 for one color in an appropriately sized tin) but I am afraid I will feel guilty if I then don’t use the new enamels as much as I should. It has definitely been a fun diversion, but I will have to come up with some variations if I am going to continue doing it!