Converting to Lead-Free Enamels

By June Jasen *            picture: Byzantine enamel, 1100   (Wikipedia)
In the past, several enamelists have developed lead poisoning from using leaded enamels. 

If you are working with enamels, it is important to join the crowd and consider converting to a lead-free (acid-resistant) glass-based enamel.  You will find that after you have made the commitment to convert to lead-free enamel, you will be able to attain the same results and jewel-like qualities you had achieved with the leaded enamels.

We are now being motivated to purchase lead-free enamels because companies in the United States no longer produce as much leaded enamel as they did twenty years ago.  By switching to lead-free enamels, you will be using materials that are safe and easy to purchase.  I personally made the conversion from leaded to unleaded enamels over ten years ago, with the idea of making a commitment to myself and my art.  If you are an enamelist, switching to lead-free enamels can make your life simpler, longer, and healthier.

What is the difference between leaded and unleaded enamels?  I find that since enamelists work with a hot kiln, most problems begin and end outside of the kiln, especially if you do not use an annealing kiln or cooling box.  During the firing process, you take the piece (which usually consists of glass particles on a piece of metal) and place it into a hot kiln.  (Don't forget that if you are extremely watchful and mother your piece, please wear infrared goggles to prevent cataracts.)  The differences between firing temperatures and the firing time for leaded enamels or unleaded enamels is negligible.  You will get used to it as quickly as learning to drive a car.

It is more important to take a look at all the elements that go into making a piece of enameled art.  These include:
    •    Your base metal.  Gold, silver, copper, and steel all have different melting points, and therefore also take different amounts of time to heat up in order to get the glass/enamel particles to melt or fuse onto the base metal;
    •    The shape, size and gauge of the piece of metal;
    •    The thickness of the enamel;
    •    The shape of the piece of metal.  When you use shapes other than standard circles and domes, you have altered your firing conditions;
    •    How close your piece is to the kiln element;
    •    The influence of the temperature and the humidity of the weather outside or inside the studio.  Each enamel piece that you pull out of the kiln will be affected by your environment as it begins its cooling process. Even the air pressure can affect crazing or cracking of the surface or underlying glass.

There are not many colors in my palette that I could not get when I switched over to the lead-free enamels.  In the beginning of this conversion from the leaded to the lead-free enamels, I seem to remember missing a yellow and an orange, but in the meantime, Forsythia and Burnt Orange (both leaded enamels) were taken off the market due to their uranium content.  I became accustomed to the yellows and oranges in the lead-free enamels, and am more thrilled with "Wax Yellow" than I had been with any other color.  Depending on whether you sift your enamels down to different particle sizes for the purpose of cleaning and firing, you will notice very few differences.  The colors can be brighter with lead-free enamels, especially if you are using purely sifted 60 mesh or 40 mesh enamels.  Some of the colors that are really special are: "Quill White" which can be used as a transparent, an opalescent, or an opaque enamel, depending on how thickly you apply the layer of enamel to the surface, and how hot or how long you fire It.  There is also a magic that happens with a "Copper Red", which is a red that can be used directly on copper.  Sometimes, it takes two firings for this red to mature.

A special added attraction to the lead-free enamels is that they are also acid resistant.  This means you can take a piece and place it into pickle (a solution of diluted nitric acid, or preferably Sparex or vinegar water and salt) without tarnishing or changing that glass surface, which is something that you CANNOT do with leaded enamels.

In the end, I can only tell you that if you live in or near a major metropolitan area, your body already contains some small amounts of lead.  You can have your lead levels checked with a simple blood test just as you do with your cholesterol.  It was my choice to switch to lead-free enamels and not risk lead poisoning.

Most importantly, as with anything else new or different that you are about to experience, you will learn that if you make a commitment to it, everything will go smoothly, and you will even get to the point where you will ask yourself, "Why did I ever make my life so difficult for myself ?".

* June Jasen is an internationally recognized enamelist with pieces in many collections.

Art Hazard News, Volume 16, No. 3, 1993

This article was originally printed for Art Hazard News, © copyright Center for Safety in the Arts 1993. It appears on nontoxicprint courtesy of the Health in the Arts Program, University of Illinois at Chicago, who have curated a collection of these articles from their archive which are still relevant to artists today.