Intro to the History of Enameling

The following history of enameling was written by my good friend and mentor Craig Ruwe. He worked as an enamel artist for over 30 years before his passing in 2004. Craig first learned his craft at the side of Fred Ball in the late 1970's and helped Fred construct and install a large enamel work called "They Way Home" on the exterior of the Macy's parking garage in Sacramento.

Craig taught me what he knew about enameling and encouraged me to explore and experiment with this ancient media. He is always with me in my mind and by my side.

By Craig Ruwe

Enameling is one of the oldest arts in history yet one of the least developed in terms of contemporary usage. Enamel is not paint: it is a thin coat of glass applied to a metal which, when heated to high temperatures, melts and becomes fused to the metal in much the same way as ceramic glazes adhere to pottery. Pure gold, silver and copper are traditionally the only metals that will work in the enameling process, although now there are enamels that can be fused to steel, brass and aluminum as well.

Enameling was practiced as early as the 5th century B.C. by the ancient Greeks, and it was the Greeks who developed the most well-known technique of enameling, cloisonne (literally "to be cut off from one another" or "compartmentalized"), in which extremely thin metal wire is applied to a metal surface and areas between the wire are carefully packed with enamel before firing. Enamel played an important role in Byzantine art, French and German art of the middle ages and Renaissance, and Japanese and Chinese art from the 13th century A.D. to the present. Enameled pieces grew from the production of tiny jewel-like beads that were sewn into clothing or placed in sculpture to the magnificent and elaborate altar-pieces and reliquaries of medieval Europe, the fine enamel portraiture of the 16th century Limoge, France and fantastically ornate Chinese cloisonne vases, boxes, and trays still being produced today.

Many techniques have been developed over the ages, each giving the finished piece unique characteristics. These include champleve (the method of pouring enamel into sunken or gouged areas of metal), plique-a-jour (a backless wire technique used with transparent enamels so that the finished piece, held to the light, has a jewel-like, stained glass window appearance), bassetaille, grisaille and others.

The experimental techniques that I use were pioneered and developed by the late Fred Ball, a California artist who in the 1960's began using transparent glazes and non-traditional firing techniques on thin gauge metals. Enamel in its powder form (made up of silica and lesser parts soda and lime with metal oxides such as gold, cobalt, manganese, tin, platinum and titanium added to produce color) is sifted onto the metal and then heated in a kiln at 1200-1700 degrees F. until the powder melts, fusing to the metal to produce a thin, glass coated sheath of foil.

The color and texture of the work can be altered by varying the density of the application of the powder enamel, by adjusting the temperature and length of firing time of the firings, and by performing repeated firings. The kiln used is quite small, and the individual pieces of copper that make up the completed work are all fired separately and then laminated together. The final piece is coated with an acrylic finish to prevent any exposed copper from oxidizing. All the enamels used are transparent; the unique glowing color quality of the work is caused by light traveling through the enamel and reflecting off the polished surface of the underlying copper. This color will not fade over time even when placed in direct sunlight, a quality which makes the work unique among framed wall hangings.