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Basse Taille

Random Wild Flowers - Basse Taille
by Bill Helwig
from Volume 2, Number 2, April 1983

Tools and Materials:
Kiln - 8 inch chamber
Stilt - 6" with legs
Copper saucer - 6" diameter, 5/8" deep
Enamel - LF 313, Mandarin Orange, tr.; LF 322, Prussian Blue, tr.; LF 344, Gem Green, tr.; LF 377, Red, tr.; LF 380, Wax Yellow, tr.; LF 143, Dragon Green, op.; LF 162, Black, op.
Black Underglaze #5
Klyr Fire - Holding agent
5 Gravers - Nos. 61, 55, 49, 45 41
French donut or sand bag
000 Sable hair water color brush
Petri dishes or low walled enamel containers
100 mesh, 200 mesh, 325 mesh screens and catch pan
Water soluble marker
Hand file
320 Emery cloth

     After the copper form has been degreased, it is counter enameled on the back or convex side with LF 162, 80 mesh black enamel, then fired 90 seconds at 1500F.  The scale on the front bare copper side is removed by pickling until bright and devoid of any copper oxide.

     Draw on this surface with a water soluble marking pen a random selection of flower forms.  Fig. 1.  Allow petal form to overlap.  Don't worry about extraneous lines.  They can be washed away later.  If the design is not to your liking, simply wash it off and start over.  Random placement creates its own rhythm and pattern as would be found in nature.  If the design is forced into composition with specific selection and spacing, the design tends to be unnatural.  The stylization of representing flowers in enamel and metal in itself is unnatural.  Thus, the components must give the effect and emotion necessary to override the deception to create a parallel with nature.  There are no buds or side views of flower forms as the image is viewed down upon from above.  This was part of the compromise to insure that the viewer had the feeling of looking down and at flowers, thus removing conflicting forms for the viewer.  This type of editing gives greater value to the negative space and removed the dissimilar which could easily become focal points.

     The intention of the subject matter was that of a group or cluster of flowers, nothing more and nothing less.  The value placed on this design was as an exercise in walking the graver.  The design allows for error by giving space for correction as well as change without compromising the design while learning the use of the tools.

     Walking a graver is a very east to learn technique, even though the textures created tend to look complicated.  A flat or round graver is used.  The graver is walked or rocked from side to side by rotating the hand about 45 degrees to 90 degrees, causing the tool to cut alternately left and right as it progresses forward.  This cutting creates a zigzag or zipper effect as wide as the tool selected.  This forward motion and the swing of the tool opens or closed the individual cuts.  Degrees of fineness depends on the size and sharpness of the graver, the forward movement, the downward pressure and the angle of the graver.

     The walking movement is not made by wriggling the wrist back and forth.  Wrist and hand are held rigid in position, while the arm rotates the tool from side to side.  Two bones of the arm, the ulna and the radius, rotate across each other.  The angle is determined by the elbow height in relation to the surface being cut.  The lower the relative angle, the longer the individual cut; the higher, the shorter the cut (space between left corner cut to left corner cut).

     The graver is started flat against the metal, Fig. 2, as the graver is tipped to the right, the right corner digs into the metal, the left corner swings forward, fig. 3.  The rotation back to the left, fig. 4, places the left corner against the metal, the right corner swings forward.  The motion is equal in direction and pressure.  This will keep each cut and space between also equal.  Repeated patterning requires the cuts to be consistent with each other if the texture is to be uniform.

     Difference in tool, speed, angle of rotation and angle of graver determine the quality of the line.  A variety of texture can be created by altering any one of the variables.

     This six inch plate is easy to handle since it is curved and neither too large to small for the hand to hold.  The plate is placed on a French donut or a sand bag for support.  I find that wearing a glove on the holding hand improves grip and gives protection from the metals' thin edge, fig. 5.

     When engraving, it is important to not lean over the piece.  Both feet should be flat on the floor and the back straight.  Cutting is done across, in front of the body, fig. 5.  The graver extends from the hand on the same angle as the arm.  The graver moves the same direction the arm is pointing.  The angle of the arm to the piece indicates the path of cutting.  Curved lines are created by rotating the piece gradually while cutting.

     After each cut, the burr should be cut off.  If not removed, they may cut the hand and/or will protrude through the enamel during firing.  To do this after the cutting forward motion is stopped, the graver is lifted in a forward motion.

     After all patterns are engraved, the copper form is washed and burnished with a glass brush, liquid soap and water.  The glass brush is used as a burnisher, not as a scratch brush, thus the exposed bristles are longer.  The article is rinsed and dried.  If there are burrs, they will catch during the drying with a towel.  It may become necessary to emery these off or cut off with a graver.

     The surface of the copper with its textures should be bright and highly reflective, fig 6.  Detail fig 7.

     To emphasize the design, create depth as well as add detail and texture.  Underglaze #5 is ground together with a medium, Klyr Fire and water, 50-50, and selectively applied to the copper surface, fig. 8.

     Fig. 9 shows the piece after firing.  The surface was dry sifted with LF 380, Yellow.  The enamel was prepared by screen grading 80 mesh material through -100+400 screens.  This material was sifted through a 150 mesh screen onto a piece.  Fired on a stilt at 1500F for 120 seconds, twice.  The amount of enamel is approximately 20 thousands, or 4 grains high, an even coat with no bare or thin areas.

     Edges were then filed, stilt marks ground down and thoroughly washed before the second application of enamel.  Color selection was made for the background, LF 344, and a color tone for some of the flower forms, LF 377.  Both materials were separately prepared by screening.  This time -200+325 mesh mixed with water and Klyr Fire, 90-10, and applied with a 000 sable hair water color brush to appropriate areas.

     Note - The application appears rather crude when dry, fig. 10.  Thickness and thinness is determined during application while the enamel being applied is wet.

     The piece was placed on a stilt and fired at 1500F for 75 seconds.  Figure 11 shows the piece after this firing.  Filing and cleaning procedures were followed as previously stated.

     Additional enamels were prepared:  LF 313 tr. orange, -200+325; LF 322 tr. blue, -200+325; and LF 143 op. green, -325.  The application was as previously stated.  Fig. 12 shows the application prior to firing.  Fig. 13 shows the piece after being fired at 1500F for 90 seconds.  The filing and cleaning procedures were followed as previously stated.

     Repairing the stilt marks left from firing convex side down was accomplished with a light sifting of LF 162 black.  The piece was stilted concaved side down and fired at 1500F for 90 seconds.  After cooling, edges were again filed then polished with 320 emery cloth. 

Editor's Note:  The enamel numbers listed in the above article are no longer used by Thompson Enamel.  Also, images will be included at a future date.


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