Niello Inlay Problems

Dear all,

Perhaps you can help me with a thorny niello problem. I am new to
inlay and thought this would be a fun thing to get to grips with, so
in the summer set up my plant pot furnace in the garden, carefully
weighed out my lead, silver and copper, melted them down in an old
crucible and then poured in loads of sulphur. Fairly predictable
results, lots of gagging, clouds of brimstone smoke and some fairly
good theatrics from me. Anyway, I ended up with something which looked
like it had the right properties but just would not work.

Reluctantly, I stumped up the cash and did what I should have done
all along and bought a small packet of the stuff from Fischer.

Then, with great anticipation, I set up my test rig and tried again,
only to find that it failed in the same way as the stuff I had made.

As I don’t have a kiln, I was torch firing from underneath the piece
I was trying to inlay. The niello was powdered and mixed with alcohol
and a bit of sal amoniac ( so far, so Mcreight), inlaid into channels
I had cut into the sterling. On the rare occasions that the powder
staid in the channel it first seemed to degas the sulphur over the
surface of the piece, turning it black, and then would not really
flow. I seemed to get good niello on the very edges of my channels,
but the middle remained unfused or badly fused. Also large parts had
just eaten into the silver.

Does anybody have any suggestions on how I might go about getting
this right?


Well, the McCreight instructions call for fluxing the channels, and
grinding the niello in water, then gently dried. The fusing process
shouldn’t take the niello past 540 C (1000F), and needs to be pretty
uniform. Spot heating doesn’t really seem to work very well. If the
metal gets hotter than that, then you will have the problem of the
lead content eating into the silver. Often it doesn’t actually flow,
and has to be helped along with a spreader. I think your mixing the
ammonia chloride with the niello, probably didn’t help matters.

Ron Charlotte – Gainesville, FL
@Ron_Charlotte1 OR

Not haveing recently read McCreights instructions, I was surprised
by the thought of mixing Ammonium chloride into the process. I can’t
quite see how that would help. It’s normal use (for me, at least) is
as a refining flux, where it works by converting the baser metals to
chlorides, which are generally insoluable and collect in slag,
leaving purer melted metal with fewer undesireable impurities…
Somehow, that doesn’t seem like an effect I want to happen while
applying neillo, considering that lead is one such base metal that
would react with it… I recall watching the late Phillip Fike do it,
and he applied it either by spreading the dry powder or just feeding
in a stick, like soldering with heavy wire solder or plumbers solder.
The main point was the channels to be inlaid were well coated with a
liberal amount of Handy paste flux. No air anywhere near the metal.
The niello flowed nicely under the flux, just like solder would do,
though less liquid perhaps. Too much was applied, overfilling the
channels, and then the surface filed or abraded to a proper level
again. Then the work was gently heated and the niello surface
burnished with a standard steel burnisher.

Hope that helps.
Peter Rowe

Hello Chris;

I learned the art of niello inlay from the renowned niellist,
Phillip Fike, many years ago. I have a text file in which I describe
the process of making and applying niello. I will email it to you,
perhaps it will prove useful. Too bad you’re in the UK and I’m in the
US or I’d convince you to come for a stay, wherein I bet I could make
you an expert in the stuff. Really, once you understand what’s going
on, it’s a pretty intuitive process. Let me know if you get anything
out of my instructions.

David L. Huffman


I have to say I think niello is a bad idea. I mean, when you melt
lead you have a very toxic situation. Why design yourself into that
corner? Can’t you get the effect you want with black enamel, maybe
sanded to get a matte finish? The smiths who invented niello probably
had no idea how toxic their materials were.

Just my opinion, Janet (in Mill Valley where the winter is one of the
most beautiful ever.)

I have a text file in which I describe the process of making and
applying niello. I will email it to you 

Will you email it to me, too, please? And maybe to the list… Thank
you kindly, Noel