KVO Industries Part 1

Note: It is at this point I would like to say thank you to the people that were integral to making my trip possible, those that were so generous to open up their homes to me and share their knowledge.  Judy, Brooke, Linda, Steve- you all were my cheerleaders through what was both an incredibly stressful and exciting experience and I cannot thank you enough.



Installation by Ellen Forney in Seattle Bus station made by KVO Industries

Installation by Ellen Forney in Seattle Bus station made by KVO Industries

KVO Industries is located in picturesque northern California in the small town of Santa Rosa.  This operation has been fabricating porcelain enamel signage for the last 16 years and grew out of a larger factory that re-located away from Santa Rosa in 2000.  KVO is a small company running impressive facilities with incredible possibilities.  They have made signage for the state and national park systems, large-scale outdoor images for cities and museums, and worked with artists to re-create images of their work in enamel for public projects.

Layout Room

Layout Room

On the Monday I arrived at KVO, I had planned to hit the ground running, having shipped off my crate 10 days earlier.  It was to have arrived the Thursday before- but did not.  I had been in contact with the freight company, and been assured several times it would get there on that Monday.  So while I waited for my work to arrive I got to know my new studio for the week.  There is a front office housing operations and graphic design, among other things they deal with the challenge of color matching, translating what is shown on a screen into enamel color range.  The warehouse holds the packing and shipping area, raw materials (mostly steel of various shapes), and a small fabrication area for welding on tabs or doing a little grinding.  Then the layout room is filled with large tables for silk screening, an area for spraying down screens, and more big worktables.  This is where I set up to work for the week.  Next to the layout room is the main enameling area.  There are rolling carts for hanging recently sprayed panels, a large spray booth, and the kiln.  At the back of this room is the dry box that you roll carts into to quickly dry your enamels, the parts washer, and the mixing area. 


The first thing one might notice about all of these spaces is there are panels everywhere. They decorate the walls and line the edges of the rooms.  Some are waiting for the next phase of a project, but most are rejects put aside because of a small chip or a miss-matched color.  You see the variety of the work they have done everywhere.  As an artist, I am not a perfectionist and while I could eventually spot the flaws in these cast-offs it is mind-boggling the level of perfection they expect and achieve in their work.  For those of us that have enameled before, we know how hard it is to have consistent repeated perfection in this material.  And during my time at KVO it was heartening to see that they occasionally struggle with some of the same technical issues I grapple with in my work.  The difference is that they work to eliminate inconsistencies, while I embrace them.

Crates and Shipping

As I make more sculpture, the more I realize one of the biggest hurdles is shipping.  It is not as easy as picking up a flat rate USPS priority box and making sure to insure it, which is usually simple and inexpensive when shipping jewelry and small objects.  The logistics of transporting these 3-4 ft panels to and from California, has been one of the more stressful components of this project.  I had hoped to get a crate made, but quickly realized the expense would be far too high and would need to budget in time to make it myself. Having heard plenty of horror stories about freight shipping gone wrong, I knew the crate needed to be well-built to withstand anything that might happen along the way. A couple YouTube videos later and I felt reasonably competent that I could make my first crate.  With a little help and lots of sweat I made the 4x4x2ft wooden crate. I did some dumpster diving in a local furniture store to get plenty of large Styrofoam to securely pack the 8 panels. I had felt I had made it plenty big enough, but turns out I only had inches to spare.

 I was told to budget 10 days for the crate to make its way from Dallas to Santa Rosa.  It was picked up the Thursday before the 4th of July weekend, and I have to admit to feeling some relief as I watched the truck drive away.  The first leg of this project completed.  


As I prepared to build the pieces, I asked for assistance from the experts at KVO Industries about fabricating and their construction techniques.  Just like in jewelry, the function of these panels have to be considered in the design phase. As an enameling factory, KVO strives for the most constant results, with most of their work being on flat panels.  I learned that they prevent warping by bending small flanges on the edges and weld the corners.  By comparison the panels I am making are quite complex with many bends and cut out areas.  Warping will be an issue as these pieces are heated in the kiln.  This will also be my first experience using a kiln that requires the work to be hung to go in and out of the kiln.  Each piece has to have a way to hang so it is stable in the kiln and is not likely to sag under its own weight.  Additional tabs or holes may be required.  I am using all 18 gauge and limiting the number of welded seams so there is not significant differences in thickness.  The enameling of these surfaces will pose an exciting challenge for both me and the KVO employees, as we will both be exploring new territory.  

A number of the panels are constructed from mild steel, and will have a pitted surface, enameled without a ground coat, an effect often seen in my jewelry work.  This surface comes from the carbon in the steel rising to the surface as the piece is fired in a 1500 degree kiln.  Although I enjoy the surface achieved using common mild steel, I felt it would be best to use the most compatible base material while dealing with the large surfaces, which is a special type of steel alloy called enameling iron or de-carbonized steel.  The alloy is made specifically for the enamel industry.  Due to the extra low carbon content, the steel makes a good bond with the enamel.   This steel, unlike much cheaper and ubiquitous mild steel,  is ordered in bulk from one of only a few suppliers in the U.S. and is nearly 5 times the cost.  Maquettes and careful planning were necessary to make sure each piece was constructed correctly and there was little wasted material.