What is Vitreous Enamel?

Sheryl Butterfield
Sheryl Butterfield

Vitreous enamel, also known as porcelain enamel, is a type of glass coating. It is typically bonded to a metal or another enamel, then fired at around 850 degrees Fahrenheit (454 Celsius). Coating metal with vitreous enamel can prevent it from corroding, add a decorative flair and make it easier to clean. The inorganic coating provides resistance to abrasion and wear, making it a practical technology for cooking utensils and cookware, as well as jewelry and decorative accessories.

Woman posing
Woman posing

A powdery mixture, typically made of borax, quartz and feldspar, makes up a ground coat. A cover coat consisting of titanium dioxide, quartz and dehydrated borax completes the enamel powder. The powder is applied to a substrate, or, the material being used. Common substrates are metal, ceramic and glass.

The powdered glass is fused to the chosen material by firing, which melts the powder and coats the substrate. Vitreous enamel turns out smooth, durable and hard as glass. After firing, the powdered mixture can result in a transparent or opaque coating or in brilliant colors. Sometimes, a translucent quality is achieved.

The colors in vitreous enamel are obtained by adding minerals that come from cobalt, iron, praseodymium or neodymium. The minerals create varying shades of purples, reds and grays. New enamel colors cannot be mixed as with paint. The powder can be so finely ground that minute dots of two colors form what appears to be one color.

Vitreous enamel cannot burn but can shatter upon strong impact. Its durability offered a way to improve functional items throughout history. In the early 1900s, it was used on signage for advertisements. Oven walls, kitchen pots, bathtubs, sinks and the outsides of kitchen appliances benefited from vitreous enamel coatings. Commercially, farm silos and coal chutes began taking advantage of its long-lasting abrasion resistance.

Many artists admired the bright colors and began to make jewelry and decorative items. The Faberge eggs by Carl Faberge and the popular enamel boxes are two examples of enameling. The French used gold or copper wiring to separate areas, or cells, of color with vitreous enamel to create cloisonne pieces. French designers also popularized champleve pieces, or "raised fields" of metal around which the enamel is fired. The famous Limoges ceramic ware featured vitreous enamel paint used before firing.

Enameling was used by ancient Egyptians, who chose pottery and stone as substrates. Ancient Greeks and Chinese, Russian and Celtic artists used metal substrates. The Romans decorated glass vessels using enameling techniques.

Sheryl Butterfield
Sheryl Butterfield

Sheryl is a freelance writer based in Denver, Colorado. She specializes in articles about environmental issues, renewable energy, and parenting teenagers.

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Discussion Comments


@Mor - It doesn't have to be that expensive. I think if you were creative with the source of your metal, the firing would be the most expensive part. And if you managed to get into a pottery club, generally they do bulk firing which cuts down the cost for everyone.

That said, I think enamelling is quite a demanding hobby. Some of the artwork I've seen from ancient civilizations is extremely intricate, so it must be possible to achieve. I wonder if maybe you need to shape the metal to contain the enamel?

In my experience with pottery it is more runny than paint and wouldn't sit all that well on a smooth surface. But, I'm sure there are all kinds of techniques to overcome this.


Vitreous enameling can make for some beautiful, shiny artworks. I've seen artists who paint it onto sheets of metal like it was canvas.

I don't know how intricate it can be, however, as the ones I've seen have been made with quite broad strokes.

I also imagine it would be quite an expensive hobby. It probably takes quite a lot of time to learn how to work with the materials.

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