First, L. Sue Szabo wrestled with how to bid the job of building 18 sculptures that will encircle the walls of the Brittania cruise ship’s main dining room.
After signing the contract in May, she ordered supplies, figuring $10,000 for 750 copper disks, 75 jars of glass powder (enamel), and 20 jars of etching cream. She had a metalsmith make heavy steel bowls in different sizes in which to hammer the disks, and had 55 steel trivets made for sliding disks in and out of the kiln.
Hiring a welder to affix a screw on the back of each disk would cost a couple thousand, and shipping and insurance would be about $1,000.
Not factored in was studio time at the University of Toledo Center for Sculptural Studies: she pays $1,200/year to be an independent student. She bought a kiln (oven) and ventilation hood ($2,000), upgraded her basement’s electricity to 240 volts, and installed her old stainless steel kitchen sink in the basement work room (all about $1,200).
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Labor, she estimated, would average four hours per disk, and she figured less than the $30/hour fee she usually factors for her work.
In June, she began work at the UT studio, heating each copper disk with an acetylene torch to 1,400 degrees, then setting it in a heavy steel bowl and hammering it into a slightly cupped shape. A large disk can demand 200 heavy hammer blows; a small one, perhaps six.
“You have to gradually shape it; if you hammer too fast, the copper will crinkle.”
Oxidized metal (from being heated) is sooty, so the disk then receives its first cleansing (pickling) bath in sulphuric acid, followed by a water rinse.
She takes the hammered batch to the studio of metalsmith and knife maker Hans Rubel, who brazes on a brass screw. When done, she’ll pick up that batch, then clean each disk by filing off extra melted brass, and giving it its second pickling, following by a rinse.
Enamel won’t stick to dirty copper.
“That’s the most time-consuming part, getting the metal clean enough for the enamel to stick to.”
Working in batches of 50, she applies color by sifting powdered glass (enamel) onto the disk; each receives two coats of a base color (the color she wants to come through), followed by four to six additional colors.
Each time a coating is applied, the disk visits the 1,500-degree kiln for a few minutes, then it’s removed and cooled, dipped in pickling, rinsed in water, dried, and is ready for the next color to be applied.
“You don’t know how these colors are going to turn out until you get to that last firing. You get some surprises.”
With a sharp tool, she etches radial lines in a starburst pattern that suggests sea urchins or sand dollars.
She also puts two base coats on each disk’s back, which can be slightly seen from the side.
“I don’t take short cuts. It just needs to be right,” she says.
When baked, the disks are glossy, but she prefers a more sophisticated matte finish, so she wipes each with a finishing cream, lets it sit for 20 minutes on the front, then sprays it off with water, and repeats for the back.
“I think a piece of art should be finished as beautifully on the back as on the front. I liken it to a woman who spends a lot of money on lingerie and feels special even though no one sees it.”