Alternative for niello

Hallo everybody, This is my second request for finding information
about alternatives for lead in niello. Is there anybody who has
experence with working with niello? If there is no alternative for
lead what is then the best way to melt lead without getting a lead
poisening right away? If you have any
suggestions about niello please let me know. Jan-Peter

This is such an old and dangerous procedure that I don’t know of
anyone who has ever used it. I think that today people oxidize or
enamel or even use the cold enamels to get the effect.

Marilyn Smith

Dear Jan-Peter,

You can’t get lead poisoning just by melting the stuff - otherwise
every plumber, model railway maker, electronics enthusiast would be

Lead is poisonous but you have to get quite a lot into your system
for it to take effect. That’s why nobody in an Agatha Christie novel
has ever been poisoned that way.

Treat it with respect, wear gloves, wash your hands afterwards and
don’t eat or drink while you use it and you’ll probably be absolutely

Meanwhile have a look at this site:-

Tony Konrath
Gold and Stone

Hi Jan-Peter; I’ve done a lot of niello work in my time, and taught a
few workshops on it too. I haven’t heard of any substitute for lead
in the mixture. You can try some of the formulae with the least
amount of lead in them, but you’ll still have lead to deal with.
Lead is crucial to the color, but explaining the chemistry would
probably not be usefull to you. There are sulfides of lead, copper
and silver all involved in the coloration. You might select a
formula with the minimum proportion of lead in it, and always add the
lead after the copper and silver are well molten. Then don’t
overheat the mixture when keeping it molten and adding the sulfer.
Take care against the sulfer fumes too, as these can be harmfull.
When you are melting the niello into your design, overheating will
cause the silver to precipitate out and form silver crystals in your
inlay, but overheating also promotes lead fumes, as this metal will
evaporate out of the mixture more easily than the others.

Here is a formula for Russian Tula (bluish neillo) that contains a
minimal amount of lead, however, it does contain some bismuth, which
in itself presents some issues of toxicity.

	Silver     - 9 parts
	Copper  - 1 part
	Lead       - 1 part
	Bismuth  - 1 part

After melting the metals, saturate with sulphur as with other neillo

Best of luck. I have always though that some day I might experiment
and see if it were possible to create the silver and copper sulfides
without the lead present, then substitute antimony of even tin to
drop the eutectic down where it would behave like the lead bearing
compounds, however, my technology is severely limited.

David L. Huffman

    Is there anybody who has experence with working with niello? 

I have used niello, and found that it doesn’t do what one wants on
the first try. But one soon gains experience. I will say that it is
vastly better than the usual sulphide (‘liver of sulphur’) blackening,
in that it doesn’t wear off in three months, but will last as long as
the metal. It is a beautiful metallic black. It will also work on
high carat gold, which liver of sulphur wont touch unless you copper
it first.

    If there is no alternative for lead what is then the best way to
melt lead without getting a lead poisening right away? 

I don’t know of any substitute for lead in the alloy, but the amount
of lead fumes you might inhale from the preparation of niello would be
considerably and vastly outweighed by the (invisible!) clouds of
poisonous sulphur dioxide that is evolved. All the recipes require
that sulphur powder be poured on to hot molten silver, copper, and
lead alloy.

When I tried making the stuff, I did it outside, in the full
knowledge of what would happen, but I was beaten down by a sudden wind
reversal and got a lungfull of sulphur dioxide. I choked and coughed
for two days afterwards. Like an idiot I didn’t wear my chemical
absorbing gas mask as a precaution against just that happening.

But an incredibly kind friend gave me some which she had made, and I
am sure you wouldn’t get lead poisoning from simply melting niello on
to your workpiece. So OK; if you decide to make niello, do it out in
the yard and away from the house, and do it standing in the direction
from which the STEADY wind is blowing. Tim McCreight’s ‘The Complete
Metalsmith’ will give you the on it. Happy niello-ing
Cheers, –

John Burgess; @John_Burgess2 of Mapua Nelson NZ

I haven’t worked with niello myself, but my husband has. He wore a
respirator with filters for both particles and gasses, and gloves. It
was done outside, and much care was used.

If there are safer techniques I’d love to know about them- I love the
look, but am reluctant to get into it because of the toxicity.

-Amanda Fisher

Sorry I didnt respond last time, I thought someone would know more
than me on the subject. We made niello in school, in a casting kiln,
with a really good vent fan. The teacher gave us a couple of
recipes, all involved lead. I could look up the recipes if you
want, but thats all Ive got. karen

Hello again, Jan-Peter:

There is another matter concerning niello that I feel must be mention
and that is: When you are filing down, sanding, polishing or otherwise
removing niello from the surface of an article you’ve inlayed it into
(you must slightly overfill the cavities you are inlaying), the dust
has lead in it, as does the niello in any other state. You must take
precautions to collect the filings and dust and dispose of it
appropriately (I’d suggest sending it to your refiner with a note as
to it’s contents). If you contaminate your soldering area, it will
be as if you had contaminated the area with lead (and we know what
happens to gold heated to soldering temperatures in the presence of
lead!). Likewise, inhaling the dust may not be as immediately
dangerous as inhaling fumes from heated lead, but it could eventually
become a systemic poison if there are acids around (even skin acids
to some degree) that could break it down to a form that is water
soluble. Niello is an amalgam, and many of us have silver/mercury
amalgams in our mouths daily in the form of dental fillings. I don’t
know how stable the lead is in this format (amalgamated). Perhaps
those more informed in medical and chemical sciences can offer
explanation and supposition to that effect.

David L. Huffman

I’ve never worked with niello and don’t know of any metallic
substitute for it, but there are ways to inlay black, non-metallic
substances into various metals that do not involve working with highly
toxic materials:

Mix finely powdered ebony or graphite with epoxy. Place the mixture
into the incised or pierced design in your pre-polished metal. Let
harden, file away excess, and polish � very carefully, so as not to
undercut the softer epoxy. You will not quite achieve the blue/black
of niello and the epoxy will be less durable, but used in a piece like
a brooch or pendant that is not subject to heavy wear, it will give
you a very nice black inlay.

On the subject of coloring high karat golds: I don’t know if this
will work with liver of sulphur, but if you put a drop of “Silver
Black” (or another proprietary blackening agent) on a piece of gold (I
used 22K), then touch the wet place with steel (a burr, for instance),
the gold will take color!


On the subject of coloring high karat golds: I don't know if this
>will work with liver of sulphur, but if you put a drop of "Silver
>Black" (or another proprietary blackening agent) on a piece of
gold (I >used 22K), then touch the wet place with steel (a burr, for
instance), >the gold will take color! 

This is true–I have done it by applying the Black Max or the like
with steel wool. However, it is not very durable, even if the piece
doesn’t get a lot of wear, in my experience.

Am I the only one here concerned by the “panic” responses coming from
people about niello?

We all know that lead can be dangerous, that it’s a bad idea to hang
over a batch of it when its molten and breath in the fumes with
enthusiasm as if it’s an apple pie just out of the oven but honestly,
talking about the stuff as “highly toxic” just is not on!

I use lead sheets for chasing and forming, I live in a house where
the gutters and roof are flashed with it, the terminals on the battery
of my car are lead as well.

Yes, it is really important to ensure that it does not contaminate
your bench and tools, it will eat through gold and silver when you
raise their temperature - awful, horrid! But there is no need to send
filings and sweepings from the stuff to your refiner! Just bag it and
bin it!

It’s really not helpful to have myths posted here as if they were

If anyone wants to read an article by a master craftsperson working
with the material then read “Metals Technic : A Collection of
Techniques for Metalsmiths” by Tim McCreight (Editor). This has the

There! I feel better now!

Tony Konrath
Gold and Stone

   This is such an old and dangerous procedure that I don't know of
anyone who has ever used it. I think that today people oxidize or
enamel or even use the cold enamels to get the effect. 

Well, now you do. I’ve found the stuff rather fun, now and then, and
a lot easier than black enamel, and quite different in appearance from
enamel or oxidized surfaces. It gives you a hard metallic black,
almost like hematite, flush with the surface. No enamel or oxidized
finish really resembles it all that much. Yes, niello is an old and
ancient process, but still widely used today, especially in india,
Bali, etc. In this country, in the sixties, the late Phillip Fike,
among a number of others, did a lot of research into the preparation
and use of niello, and taught it widely, though his classes at Wayne
State University in Detroit, and workshops around the country, until
shortly before his death a few years ago. So while you may not
personally know any niello users, I assure you there’s a lot of folks
out there who do know how to use it. Yes, initial preparation of
niello is smelly and potentially toxic. So do as he did, and prepare
it out of doors. One relatively short session of such preparation can
make up more than enough of the niello to last you for years. Once
made, actually applying the stuff takes place at a low enough
temperature that no significant fumes of either sulphur or lead are
evolved. And I’ve seen pieces with the stuff, with a long history of
use and wear, with little enough degradation of the niello to suggest
to me that it’s relatively stable, and not a dangerous source of lead
to the wearer either. Obviously, don’t apply it to the skin side of
a piece of jewelry like the inside of a ring, or in wares designed for
food use. But I don’t expect intermittant contact, such as with a
design on the outside of a ring, to pose any significant risk.

As to the role of lead in the recipe, it serves to make the resulting
niello softer and lower melting. It’s thus much easier to apply, and
can be burnished more easily. The lead can still be a minority
componant in the mix, but it makes it a much easier material to use.
If this worries you, use less lead. If you want, mix it with just
copper and silver, but the resulting niello will be higher melting
and may tend to be pitty, from the sulphides breaking down again from
the higher temps required to apply and work it, and once applied,
will tend to be harder and more brittle. This is especially
significant in that burnishing a newly applied niello surface is an
important step to getting the best appearance, and is much easier to
do with a niello containing at least a little lead.

For good on how to prepare and use niello, see Phillips
chapter on the subject in “Metals Technic”, edited by Tim McCreight.
Many of the other various jewelry making books out there also give
good info. One particular favorite is Herbert Maryon’s classic
“metalwork and enameling”

Hope this helps.

Peter Rowe

Dear Peter or anyone else that knows, Is the work found on Siam silver
an example of Niello?

Thanks, Marta

Hi Tony; I must both agree and disagree with you. Lead is not a
hazard of the likes of dioxin, asbestos, plutonium, etc. It’s is
however, dangerous in a way that things like laquer thinner,
pesticides, and second hand smoke are not. It has the ability to
acumulate in the body until it reaches a level of concentration that
can cause serious and debilitating health problems. Personally, I
don’t mind having lead terminals on my car battery, but you can bet I
won’t be taking it to the landfill or putting it in the dumpster with
the rest of the garbage. I send that baby back to be recycled
properly. I don’t think that it’s unreasonable that if one is doing
a considerable amount of niello work, one should take care not to be
exposed to the fumes (how many wiffs of lead fumes will it take to
create havoc with the central nervous system?. . .I don’t want to
find out). I also think that if one is doing a lot of work in
silver/and/or neillo, one would certainly be sending out filings to
the refiner. Why not give them a call and ask them if it’s OK to
simply put the niello filings in with the rest of the filings, or if
they would prefer it kept seperate. That’s all I was inferring by
suggesting refining. I just can’t see putting lead in the trash,
down the drain, or in any other way directly into the environment.
There is some precident to suggest being carefull with lead. .
.they no longer manufacture lead shot for hunters shotgun shells,
since the stuff was ending up at the bottom of the ponds and being
eaten by the ducks. Apparently, it was showing up in the food chain.
I saw a pretty horrifying article on Mexican tile workers who were
using lead in the ceramic glazes and breathing the fumes from the
kilns (yes, “fritt” is used by potter for glazes that cover plates we
have all eaten from and fritt contains lead). But your point is well
taken, I think. Niello and lead are not treacherous if handled
respectfully. Just another 2 cents of mine,

David L. Huffman

Yes! They do beautiful Niello work over there. I bought 2 belt
buckles in Bangkok for a song. Had them both for 20 years. I love the
look of Niello, maybe because it is so unusual to see it in the
States. Regards …Bob Williams

"fritt" is used by potter for glazes that cover plates we >have all
eaten from and fritt contains lead 

David-- I guess I’m being a little nit-picky, but a “frit” is any
material melted into glass by the addition of silica and heat, and
then reground, making it insoluble. Enamel is frit. Many frits are
used in glazes, and lead is usually used fritted to make it safer, but
not all frits have lead.

Sorry–I have been a potter for 30 years and a jeweler for only 10.


David L. Huffman: Fritt doesn’t necessarily contain lead, or so I was
told when I studied glass casting. Fritt is a name for crushed glass
products designed for melting and including in worked glass, like
lampwork or casting; it comes in several coarsenesses ranging from
powder to lumps, and the lines are designed so that the colors can
usually be used together technically.

Lead compounds give clarity to glass, which is why they’re used. They
are generally not considered food-safe, which is why one may want to
be careful using ceramic- or glass- from Mexico or other third-world
countries. On the other hand, someone I studied enamels with put
vinegar into a vessel coated with lead-bearing enamels, and a week
later little to no lead had leached into the vinegar. The glass
seemed to have contained the lead reasonably well. Which still
doesn’t make carelessness a great idea.

who agrees that care is necessary and who wears a mask when working
with leaded enamels

I’d agree that long term exposure to lead salts and atmospheric
particles is hazardous.

Many people in Europe and America suffered from lead poisoning
because they ate from pewter plates. Fruit acids dissolved the pewter
and they ingested the lead.

We know that lead fumes from petrol that contains anti-knock lead
additives poisons plants and children exposed to it. But I don’t think
anyone ever died from sucking on a plique a jour earring.

But my protest is about the over safe precautions that have lead (?)
to not being able to get the wonderful enamels, stained glass etc.
because we’re suddenly scared of MINUTE amounts of the material.
Terrifying pregnant women so that they feel that a celebratory glass
of champagne will destroy their baby. Causing a woman in central park,
who came up and sat by me, to ask me to put out my cigarette because I
was polluting her space!

(Goodness I do sound reactionary!)

It’s a bad morning! I’ll go and poison myself with some strong coffee!

      I saw a pretty horrifying article on Mexican tile workers who
were using lead in the ceramic glazes and breathing the fumes from
the kilns (yes, "fritt" is used by potter for glazes that cover
plates we have all eaten from and fritt contains lead). 

The above is exactly the kind of statement that causes so much of the
misabout toxic materials. Some glazes contain lead oxide
which is used to make the glass of the glaze. It has been illegal in
the US to use lead oxide in ceramic tableware for quite a while. And
fritt is a term for a glass powder and not all fritt contains lead.
So number 1 not all glazes have/had lead oxide in them and number 2
it has been a known problem for many years and is being regulated
in the commercial industries and the great majority of craft potters
in the US are well aware of this and do not use lead glazes or only
use them on non food service items. The way you stated it you are
going to have half the people thinking that their table ware is going
to poison them :frowning:

James Binnion Metal Arts

Member of the Better Business Bureau

You are correct, Noel; I was referring to the frits used by potters
which contain lead (some of them, of course) that are used in some
glazes. By the way, have you any knowledge (or informed opinion) that
there are some glazes containing lead (probably added in a frit) that
are still somewhat soluble even after firing and therefore not safe
for foods or beverages? By the way, my father is a potter too, but
my knowledge is in metalsmithing. I have discussed the case of lead
glazes with him in regards to a raku workshop some of us were doing
for school kids. That was why I was concerned about frits with lead,
since raku is a relatively low firing method. We decided to simply
avoid glazes we thought potentially hazardous. Thanks for the
details, it’s something to think about.

David L. Huffman