Introduction: Torch-Fired Enamel Penny Bracelet
This bracelet is a terrific project for folks wanting to dip their toes into the process of enameling but are a bit hesitant. This tutorial covers the basics of simple enameling using a torch and items you can pick up from the hardware store. Once you get the hang of enameling on pennies... look out! It's really fun, and you might find yourself with a new addiction.
I've written a book for iPads with 4 more penny-jewelry projects in it. If you pick up my book, you'll also see video and more in-depth pics and info on the enameling process. You can find the book here: A Penny Saved
And I do other stuff... check out my website: www.TamaraCentral.com
Step 1: Materials and Tools
10 pre-1982 Pennies* (see Note below)
1 oz. Opaque Glass Enamel Powder (got the blue here.)
8 Copper Jump Rings, 7mm
1 Copper Lobster Claw Swivel Clasp, 14 MM
1” of Copper Chain for an Extender (Optional)
Drill or 2-Hole Punch
Enameling Station (see below)
Pliers, 2 pair
Bamboo Tongs or Wooden Chopsticks
Jewelry Polishing Cloth
*NOTE: You MUST use American pennies, minted before 1982 for this project.
Prior to 1982 every penny the U. S. Treasury minted was 95% copper (except in 1943). With the rising price of materials, the government was looking to cut costs. To save a few pennies on all the pennies they were making, the Treasury began minting new pennies out of zinc, and plating them with copper. Today, a pre-1982 one-cent coin is actually worth nearly 2½ cents in metal costs! If the date is 1983 or later, it’s made of 97.5% zinc and plated with a thin copper coating. (Pennies made in 1982 come in both varieties.) Because copper and zinc have different metallic properties, including the melting point, 1983 and later pennies can not be used for this project. Think of a post-1983 coin as a foil-wrapped chocolate coin sitting out in the sun too long…the chocolate inside melts, but the foil wrapping remains the same—the exterior plating of the copper can split apart and the zinc will show through.
Always wear Safety Goggles. Always, always, always—when working with metal, when making jewelry, and when working with a torch. Duh.
Do not wear loose or flowing clothes. Make sure your sleeves fit close to your arms.
If you have long or unruly hair, pull it back or cover it.
Wear closed-toed shoes.
Don’t wear jewelry while working because: a) you could ruin your jewelry, and b) your jewelry could get caught in something while you’re working, which can be dangerous.
Work in a clean, safe, well lit environment that’s properly ventilated.
Keep a fire extinguisher within reach at all times.
Place fireproofing materials around the work area where you will be torching or firing.
When working with a torch I always hold a pair of tongs or tweezers in my other hand. That way I’m not tempted to move a piece or touch something with my bare hand—it always has something in it!
Don’t use concrete pavers, brick, or terra cotta pots when working with torches—they cannot withstand the amount of heat generated by the torch.
Safety-proof your workspace. I work in my kitchen on a tile counter. I remove everything from the area and make sure all flammable liquids and items are put in another room. I work on a large foil-covered metal cookie sheet. The metal protects my counter top and the foil makes cleanup easier.
Step 2: Set Up
Tripod—I use a tripod I got from a jewelry supply store. It is mostly used as a soldering station, but works great for an enameling platform. It costs around $15 and is 9” tall. The height is important because we’re firing from beneath the platform and you need to have enough room to move your torch freely and safely. For a butane torch 9” is sufficient, for a plumber’s torch, clearance below the platform should be at least 14” to allow for the necessary tilt of the propane canister. Also be aware of low cabinets or curtains, etc., that hang over your enameling station. Again, with the flame coming from below, they could catch fire. Not cool.
Metal Mesh Platform—Its official name is “hardware cloth,” and can be found in the screening section of hardware stores. The mesh I use is 10-squares per inch. Start with an 8” square and fold over each side 1-inch to form a 6” square. Use caution when folding, as the edges are very sharp. And make sure your tetanus shots are current.
Note: If you wanna make your own enameling station, feel free. Just be sure to use non-flammable items.
Torch—Believe it or not your kitchen crème-brulee torch will work just fine. They’re comfortable in the hand, and are just powerful enough for small projects like this.
Propane Plumber’s Torch—Available at hardware stores and home centers. It’s inexpensive and has been called a ‘forgiving’ torch because it’s not as hot as propylene gas. Propane torches are meant to be held upright, or mostly so. Flashes, flare-ups and flame-outs may occur if the bottom of the torch is elevated above the top. The clearance of the platform should be at least 14", to allow for the necessary tilt of the propane canister.
It’s important to know that the hottest part of the flame is about an eighth of an inch in front of the interior blue cone.
Step 3: Drill Holes
Using a clock orientation as a reference, mark all 10 pennies (we're enameling extras just in case) at 3:00 and 9:00. Drill or cut holes in marked spots.
If using a Drill: use a center punch to dent the spot and keep the bit from wandering. Tape down the penny or hold in place with a clamp. Use a few drops of machine oil on the bit to make the drilling easier. Begin with a small drill bit, and if you need a bigger hole, drill a second time with a larger bit, this is much easier than drilling with the bigger bit from the start.
If using a 2-Hole Jewelry Punch: Use the 1/16” hole (the smaller one). Place penny in opening of the desired hole size—positioning it so the hole will be made in the previously marked spot. Hold penny in place with one hand. Twist the handle above the hole being punched with your other hand until contact is made. Continue twisting until the hole is made.
No matter which method you use, check for burrs around the holes. If needed, remove burrs using a metal file for a smooth finish.
Step 4: Clean Pennies
In a small glass cup—or glazed ceramic— dissolve 1 teaspoon table salt in 1/2 cup vinegar. Add pennies. It only takes a few minutes, just dip and done! Rinse thoroughly in clean water, and dry.
Step 5: Enamel Pennies
Until you get the hang of enameling, you may want to start with only one penny at a time. You’ll place it on the mesh platform, powder it, torch fire it, wait for it to cool, remove it from the mesh and repeat the process until all pennies are done. However, you can do it with multiple coins on the platform. That way, while you’re waiting for one to cool, you can torch another. Also, it’s a good idea to enamel a few more pennies than your bracelet requires. It’s not uncommon for some to turn out better than others, or to have some crack hours after firing. By enameling extras you’re sure to have enough. Better still, you’ll have the pick of the crop. An added bonus is that if they all turn out great, you’ll have enough to make matching earrings. Yay!
Place clean, dry pennies on metal mesh platform of enameling station about one inch apart.
Using sifter, onto the penny, apply a thin, even layer of enamel powder. When applying powder, err on the thin side. Thick layers can lead to the enamel cracking as it cools. Good rule of thumb: sift powder onto penny until you can no longer see the copper or definition of the coin. Then give it one more little shake, for good measure.
Helpful Hint: Place a bowl under the mesh platform to catch excess powder that doesn’t land on the pennies. A glossy magazine page under the platform works, too. Return excess powder to jar BEFORE firing as some of it may melt while torching and to prevent charred remnants from landing in the fallen powder rendering it no longer usable.
Ignite torch and set to continuous flame.
Before firing pennies, remember to keep a pair of tweezers in your ‘other’ hand—so you don’t burn your fingers trying to move something hot.
Hold torch under mesh platform with the tip of the inner blue flame about 1” below penny. Keep the torch moving beneath the coin in a circular motion. With a crème brulee torch, it should take about 45 seconds for the enamel powder to begin melting, and another 45 seconds to complete the process. Times will vary depending on how close you hold the flame to the coin. A plumber’s torch will take about half the time due to its greater capacity, larger flame and because propane burns hotter than butane.
If the powder isn’t melting, move the flame a little closer to the underside of the penny, remembering to keep the torch moving. Soon the powder will melt, changing from a granular surface to a smoother one. Once there are no gritty patches and the surface is completely smooth and glassy, remove the flame.
After pennies have been torched, let them cool on the mesh for 3 to 5 minutes. Depending on the color and thickness of the enamel, you may see the penny under the glass. If you like that look, carefully remove the pennies from the platform, using tweezers, and place on fireproof pad (like Solderite). Make sure to grab the coin only by its edge and not the now-enameled face. Place another coin on the mesh platform, powder as before and torch.
If, however, you don’t want to see the penny under the enameling, sift on a second thin layer of powder and repeat the firing process. (Two layers of enamel is usually enough to cover a penny completely.) After second layer of enamel is melted, allow pennies to cool on the mesh for 3 to 5 minutes before moving to a fireproof pad to complete the cooling process.
Continue powdering and torching pennies until all are enameled. You can place several pennies on your platform at a time, but when sifting the powder and when firing, focus on one penny at a time, for even coverage and heating.
Note: When using the torch firing technique, you can only enamel one side of the penny. Flipping the coin over and trying to enamel the other side will result in permanently fusing the first layer of enamel to your mesh screen. Wah wah.
On the bright side of torch firing, your penny bracelet is now reversible. One side colored, the other, simply coins!
Lastly, during the torching process, the back of the coin will turn black—this residue is called fire scale and will be cleaned off later.
COOL pennies—After 5 to 7 minutes on the fireproof pad or insulation tile, the coins should be cool enough to move with your fingers. Test before picking up by placing your hand close to the enameled pennies. If you feel heat, wait until they’re cool before picking up with bare fingers.
NOTE: While the pennies are pretty durable, they are now covered with glass. Work with them carefully to avoid damaging the enamel.
Step 6: Clean Off Fire Scale
Once cool, pop the pennies back into the vinegar/salt cleaning solution for 3 to 5 minutes to remove fire scale. It won't hurt the enamel if the coins are left in the solution longer than suggested. After soaking, remove with bamboo or copper tongs.
If any fire scale remains on the back of your pennies, use a plastic kitchen scrubby to remove the last bits. Rinse thoroughly under running water and dry completely.
NOTE: It’s normal for the vinegar solution to turn blue-green after repeated use. This is caused by copper sulfate from the pennies.
Also, while it's tempting, do not quench the hot pennies in the cleaning solution. This rapid cooling will crack the enamel.
Step 7: Assemble Bracelet
On average, bracelets are 7” long. Using standard-sized jump rings and clasp, 7 pennies will make a 7” bracelet. To allow for adjustment, we’ll add an extender chain. If the bracelet ends up too big for your wrist, you can easily remove a penny. Or, if you like a looser fitting bracelet, you can always add a penny. Kind of like those, take-a-penny, leave-a-penny caddies near cash registers.
Link one end of your clasp to an enameled penny with a copper jump ring. Add a jump ring to the other side of the penny and continue linking all the enameled pennies in this manner. Complete your bracelet by adding the 1” copper extender chain to the seventh and final enameled penny. That’s all there is to it. So easy it’s almost anti-climactic, right?
Step 8: Polish
To add a little sparkle to your bracelet, use the polishing cloth. Start with the rouge side then give a final buff with the plain side until the shine hurts your eyes.
Be prepared for lots of compliments when you wear your new enameled penny bracelet. People will think it cost a pretty penny—even though it only took 10 measly cents!
Step 9: Info, Tips and Legal Stuff
Thanks for reading, hope you enjoy enameling. And remember, if you want to find four more penny jewelry ideas, check out my multi-touch ebook for iPads here: A Penny Saved
My website is here: www.TamaraCentral.com
Cracked enamel pennies can sometimes be saved by carefully brushing off the broken pieces, re-applying a layer of enamel powder then torching again.
Oh, and this is what our crack legal-staff says about using pennies to make jewelry:
“According to Federal Law, anyone who “fraudulently alters, defaces, mutilates, impairs, diminishes, falsifies, scales, or lightens” coins minted in the U.S. is subject to fines or imprisonment up to five years, or both. (18 U.S.C.A. § 331.) The same penalties apply if you possess, pass, utter, publish or sell (or attempt to sell) said coins.
The key word here is “fraudulently.” If you deface a coin without any intent to rip someone else off, then you are free to deface and mutilate at will. This isn’t just my interpretation of the law; the learned judges of the United States District Court in New York adopted essentially the same interpretation back in the sixties in a case called U.S. v. Sheiner:
Criminal intent and guilty knowledge, essential elements for conviction under the various charges in the instant indictment, need not be established by direct proof; they may be inferred from the statements and conduct of the defendants. If the defendants' acts were done inadvertently, mistakenly, or in good faith without an intention to defraud, then the government has not sustained its burden of proof, and the defendants must be acquitted.
Some reasonable latitude is permissible when one extols the merits of one's product or engages in a certain degree of ‘puffing’ or ‘salesmanship’ to sell one's product. (U.S. v. Sheiner 273 F.Supp. 977, 982, emphasis added, internal citations omitted.)”
However, if you don’t want to take our word for it, you can always consult your own crack legal-staff.