Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Making an Encaustic Palette - Anodized Aluminum

Its been two years, and I'm ready for a palette upgrade.  Pancake griddles have been the workhorses in my studio. They are a great entry level palette into the encaustic world.  I have two brands - Presto and Procter-Silex.  By far the Presto is a better griddle with a more dependable thermostat and reliable heating elements.  The Proctor-Silex, on the other hand, had a mind of its own when it comes to regulating heat.  Now, mind you, these are purchased at Fred Meyer.. on sale and were less than $20 each.   The Presto is square and slightly textured which is not good for mono prints.  The other is the traditional rectangle with a smooth Teflon coating.  The square one was like a ready rack - it held many colors of wax and just kept them at a constant temp.  The other held my favorite colors and was also where I mixed colors in what seemed like a teeny tiny space.  Yet it worked and was working fine.  In fact, I would probably still have them except for the fact that when I went to Wax Works West for a class in March - they had beautiful anodized aluminum palettes for us.  I got spoiled - fast.   
The light colored, smooth. large surface for mixing color was heavenly.  Mixing color on black is challenging and hard to get a real feel for what exactly the colors are - and how they will look once they are on a painting. 
I really wanted to buy one there - at the class, and bring it home.  But, too heavy, too big and wouldn't fit in the overhead bin on my flight.  So, I left it thinking I would order one.  They're heavy - several pounds (like 30+) and that equates to a lot of additional shipping costs.. and mind you, I had nooooo interest in the small version - only the big Mama - 22 x 36.  I can fit a full sheet of paper on it for mono printing (which I don't do - but... maybe I will) - or... all of my favorite colors and STILL have lots of room for mixing colors.  I had to think about it - really... its an investment and after two years of this, I think I'm in - all in.  So, it was definitely worth it.
But.... its in my DNA that I have to do it myself - so I made some calls.

 First, the aluminum palette MUST be anodized - why?  Because aluminum can have some funky reactions with pigments and can cause sludge - black sludge.  Don't want that. 
So, its not just a matter of finding someone to cut a piece of aluminum to size - 22 x 36 x 3/8, I had to find someone to anodize it.  Anodizing is a special coating in which the aluminum is dipped.  
I didn't pursue anyone to do any special tooling, drilling or addition of a brush rack or anything fancy.  I'm going for total plain Jane here - aluminum slab on top of a heat source. 
I ordered two matching double burner hot plates from Amazon (here).  I went with the coil burners - I think either burner types are OK.  I wanted ones with dimensions that worked for the size of the palette, the controls were located towards the ends where I could adjust them easily, and one that had two burners that were the same output wattage and size.  So far, I am very pleased with the burners that I chose.
What I did discover is that this is a very large piece of metal.  It takes longer to heat up and there is a cooler spot in the middle where there is no burner elements. So, I added a single hot plate burner in the middle which keeps the entire surface where I am working to the temperature I need.  I love the new palette.  It has its quirks as did the griddles, but overall well worth the time and effort to put this together.  I actually found it quite easy once I located the sources.  Total cost was less than $270 and it was ready in a week.
Some things I would consider if I was doing this all over again - I have rough edges and scratches on the aluminum because I did not have it finished before taking it for coating.  I went straight from buying it at the metal fabrication place to the coating place.  In hind sight, I would have considered having it finished around the edges to remove the burr that you get in the shearing process and any deep scratches (coating does not hide any of this).  The palettes you can purchase here or here are Cadillacs compared to what I made.  They have adjustable legs (for leveling) and brush holders and are a really nice piece of gear.  I highly recommend those options if you prefer no hassle and a nicer look and finish. 

Its worth making phone calls. I found the prices varied on the metal and the plating substantially from place to place. The plating company did have a minimum. My job was quite small, but they were willing to do it. 

If you live in the Seattle area - here are the sources I used:
metal::  Everett Steel, 3126 Hill Ave, Everett, WA 98201• (425) 258-4505
Anodizing:  Production Plating, 4412 Russell Rd Mukilteo, WA 98275 • (425) 347-4635


  1. Very impressive, my friend!! I have always wondered what an encaustic artist's space/palette/tools look like, for the end result is close to magic in to my eyes... So I thoroughly enjoyed seeing this! But I am doubly impressed by your resourcefulness:-)

  2. This whole process is enlightening to me. I had no idea how complicated encaustic was.


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