Large Cloisonne Wall Pieces on Copper

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HomeLearning CenterJewelry DesignLarge Cloisonne Wall Pieces on Copper
By Marian SlepianMore from this author

I have worked in cloisonné on large-scale wall hangings and site-specific installations for public spaces. My work ranges from 8″ x 10″ to several feet. I have also created a walk-in outdoor sculpture that has withstood time and the elements. Recently I have been making fine silver cloisonné objects, but this article deals only with my large cloisonn6 enamels on copper.

I begin my work with a series of rough sketches on inexpensive newsprint I purchase by the bolt from a local newspaper. This paper is cheap, sturdy and large enough. I refine my sketches and then make a full size line drawing for the cloisonné wires. I do not color the drawings; I prefer to work the colors as I enamel.

My kiln is 18″ x 18″ x 12″ on its own 220V line, so I have to make the enamel in sections no larger than 17″. With this limitation in mind, I red line the drawing to indicate the cut lines for the metal. The cut pieces are my patterns for the 18 ga metal I cut with a metal shear and a nibbler. The nibbler cuts away a ¼" strip of scrap from the metal. Copper is wasted this way but for very large pieces a lot of time is saved. The nibbler is what I call my electric shear that is used by roofers and metal workers. It is heavy, so it takes two of us to move it around. If the enamel is one piece with straight sides, I sometimes bend the sides in a flange. I also use a small nibbler (available from Micro-Mark, 340 Snyder Ave. Berkeley Heights, NJ 07922) and an electric Dremel saw for fine cutting pieces that fit on the saw's table. Any etching is done after all the pieces are cut.

My kiln was custom-built; it has a pyrometer and three sets of independently controlled elements. Firing is kept to 1450°F to prevent the fine-silver cloisonné wires from sinking into the copper and forming a eutectic, a metal alloy. The danger of this happening is increased by the size of the piece, so it is necessary to rotate the piece during the firing to distribute the heat more evenly. The areas closest to the elements will mature faster.

I use large amounts of silver cloisonné wire and, therefore, I can have it milled to my specifications. The wires that I order range from .005 to 16 ga, both round and flat.

The wire is priced by the ounce, and there is a 10-ounce minimum order of mixed sizes. I found that the 16 ga square wire could break loose in later firings.

Some pieces require more than 10 firings. Unlike silver on silver, silver on copper has an inherent danger, for the more the piece is fired, the greater the risk of a eutectic and also severe warping. Warping makes mounting nearly impossible. To reduce warping, when the piece comes out of the kiln, and is still white-hot, I sandwich it between two ¼" thick steel weights that are 18 " square. I have developed muscles!

My leaded enamels are 80 mesh in the opaques and 100 mesh in the transparents. The back is counter enameled and a base coat of hard enamel is enameled on the front. These base coats are sifted. The drawing is transferred to the enamel with either carbon paper or fabric transfer paper, as both burn off cleanly. The wires are formed on the pencil drawing, bent with two jeweler's tweezers, cut, dipped in diluted Klyr-Fyre and set in place on the enameled base coat. Each piece is dusted with either opaque or transparent enamel after it has dried. It is then fired and cooled between the steel weights. The cloisonné wires do not distort from being weighted; they are pretty well anchored because I am careful to place them so that they touch the enamel. The very light dusting of enamel before the firing also helps to embed the wires in the enamel.

From this point on, all enameling is done by wet packing washed enamels. I use mostly opaques and then many layers of transparents for shading. Each subsequent firing requires strict attention to the kiln. A millisecond of too much heat can cause the sinking of some wires, which is a real problem to correct. You usually have to start that piece over again. For wet packing, I use a spatula to carry the wet enamels from their containers to the piece and a fine sable brush to pack them in place. I prefer multiple, thinly applied layers of enamel because I am ever cognizant of the possible eutectic; however, I do try to keep the number of firings as limited as possible. The entire piece is wet packed to the same level before each firing.

When the enameling is finished, I sometimes de-gloss the surface with an etch, but usually I leave it bright so that it will be seen better from a distance, which is how most of my work is viewed. To mount the finished piece or pieces, I use outdoor plywood, 3/8″ thick, painted black and cut slightly smaller than the assembled enamel. The screws, flat-headed stove-bolts, are counter-sunk through the mounting board before the enamel is glued down. The wire for hanging is secured to these screws. The binders I use are a silicon material that is malleable but very reliable. My preference is the GE one, but I also use Dow or any other dependable brand name.

I prefer silicon to epoxy because the enamel piece can be sawn off with nylon fishing line if necessary.

Each piece is weighted with steel plates while the binder is drying. I have four different size weights of one or more inches thick with handles, plus some ¼" thick ones that are 12″ x 15″. I add an antique flatiron on top of these ¼" weights. The mounting depends on where the artwork is to be placed.

by Marian Slepian

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Marian Slepian

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