How Bone China Works

Decorating with Style
The Lenox back-stamp is applied to the underside of a plate.
The Lenox back-stamp is applied to the underside of a plate.

With about 85 different patterns and something like 400 shapes to cover, decorating the china can be a time consuming and tedious process. Depending on the shape of the piece and the detail involved, some processes require a personal touch while others are done by machine.

There are three things that can be applied to adorn a piece of china:

  • Decals
  • Precious metals, either gold, platinum or a combination of the two
  • Enamel

Decals can be applied by hand or machine. When a decal is to be applied by hand, to a plate, for example, a thin, blue line is drawn around the edge. This line will be used as a guideline for the decal that comes next. The blue ink eventually disappears; it burns away in the kiln. The decals are soaked in water and then placed, by hand, on the plate. Using a slightly damp sponge, the decal is smoothed onto the plate. Once the decal is in place, the plate is flipped over so the Lenox back-stamp (actually a decal made of gold) can be applied to the bottom of the plate. The pigments (and sometimes metal) of the decals are sealed into the whiteware in a kiln running at 1,600 degrees F (871 C) for about two and a half hours.

This stack of decals and back-stamps will soon be applied to a nearby stack of dishes.
The metal rims shown here can be applied by machine.

The process of applying precious metal (gold or platinum) to whiteware is referred to as gilding. Like the decal application, this can be done by hand or by machine.

For pieces like creamers and cups, a human touch is best. The metal, which is in a liquid state, is painted on each piece with a delicate brush. For other pieces, such as dinner plates or platters that are to be edged in a wide rim of metal, a machine can handle the job.

No matter what the application, the metal is permanently formed to the china in a kiln running at 1,400 degrees F (760 C) for about one and a half hours.

When enamel is applied, the design will ultimately look embossed on the plate. Enamel is applied either by hand or by a machine that stamps an entire design on the china.

Painting on the metal

At first glance, the by-hand application looks pretty simple, sort of like writing with decorator icing.

Applying enamel by hand

It turns out, though, that it's a lot more difficult than it looks. The work requires patience and a very steady hand. For the plate shown below, close to 400 dots of enamel must be applied to complete the decoration.

With a decal and gilding in place, 390 enamel dots must now be added to this plate to complete the pattern.

The machine used to apply enamel decals is one of the coolest things we got to see at the Lenox plant. Unfortunately, its many moving parts are encased in a glass box, so photographing them was difficult. But here's how it works:

  • The decal, covered in a waxy residue, is heated.
  • A giant silicone rubber bomb (looks like a huge, red, rubber kickball, except it's cone-shaped on one side) is squashed onto the decal.
  • As the bomb is lifted, so is the decal.
  • The bomb is squashed against a plate, transferring the decal to the plate.
This pink enamel decal was applied in the heat-release decal machine.

After the enamel has been applied, the china must go through a 1,400-degree kiln for about one and a half hours.

Once the decorating is complete, the china is ready to be packaged.

Now that the china is completely decorated, it's ready for final inspection and packaging.

The finished pieces of china are moved out of the decorating area and are inspected one last time. China that passes muster will be bar-coded, wrapped in foam and bagged.

The bagged china will then go to a boxing area and be passed on to shipping.

Plates being inspected and bar-coded

For a piece that isn't perfect, one of three things can happen:

  • It will be destroyed.
  • It will be marked as a "second" and sold in a special outlet store.
  • If the imperfection can be fixed (maybe an area is missing a bit of gilding), it will be fixed and sent through the final inspection process again.

For even more information on bone china, fine china and other porcelain, check out the links below.

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