After our kitchen cabinets were installed up at the new house I found that they were kind of boring and just a tad too brown. They’re ordinary stock kitchen cabinets that we bought at a local home center, dark oak with a squarish boxy look. They urgently needed something to brighten them up and to combat the utter boredom of brown *yawn*. I searched high and low for the perfect cabinet pulls but I found each more uninteresting than the other. Until I came across a website that had picture after beautiful picture of handpainted Majolica knobs from Italy. The minute I laid eyes on them I knew those were the knobs I wanted! Until I saw the price. Italian majolica knobs are pricey, typically costing from 20 dollars to 35 dollars each depending on the size. Since I wasn’t about to shell out that much money for knobs (I needed 36 of them!) I began to look for a less expensive alternative. I had a little bit of experience with ceramics because I had taken a couple of ceramic classes many years ago. I knew that if I could find the unpainted bisque knobs somewhere, I could surely paint and glaze them myself and save a bundle of money. For those who are not familiar with “ceramic talk” bisque is the name for white unpainted and unglazed ceramic that has been fired in a kiln once, as opposed to raw unfired soft air dried clay which is called called greenware. After greenware is fired (but before it’s painted) it’s called bisque. I found bisque knobs for sale in different styles on Ebay. But the shipping wasn’t cheap. After much searching I came across a company called Lawless Hardware who not only had just about every kind of ready made knob imaginable but they also had unpainted bisque knobs for 35 cents (!!!!!) each! I did a double take. 35 cents? That was my kind of bargain. The shipping was only 10 dollars for the whole lot. I quickly ordered 3 dozen of the 1.5 inch mushroom shaped knobs. I remembered that I had an old box of ceramic paints in my storage room so I dug it out along with some old paintbrushes and I was set to go. Before I explain how I made my own ceramic knobs, let me tell you what you will need to make your own. You will need the unpainted and unglazed bisque knobs of course. These will come with the threaded insert and the screw in a separate little bag. This is because you can’t put the knobs into the kiln with the threaded insert in them. The metal will melt at such high temperatures, so you have to glue in the metal insert in after the knob is finished.
You will also need to send your knobs to a kiln. You can usually locate someone who will rent kiln space. This means that someone who owns a kiln can fire your knobs for you for a small fee. Alot of kiln owners do this and that’s how I had mine fired. Any ceramic shop or yellow pages can direct you to a kiln. You will need ceramic paints. Not acrylic paints which won’t hold up under heavy use. I’m referring to the ceramic paints that are made especially for firing in a kiln and once they’re fired they will never come off no matter what. Duncan Ceramics makes every color imaginable of ceramic underglazes (that’s what these paints are called) I recommend buying just the three primary colors if you don’t want to spend alot or be stuck with unused paint afterwards. You can always mix primary colors and come up with fabulous new shades this way. And lastly, you will need a jar of ceramic glaze. This is what will go on top of the paint and will give the knobs a shiny and waterproof finish once they’re fired. Oh, and you need paintbrushes.
The first step is to draw your design on the knob with a pencil. Don’t worry, pencil marks completely dissapear in the kiln and no trace of them will be left on your knob so scribble away. You can absolutely skip this step if you are a good painter and don’t need to pencil in the design first. On my knobs, I wanted geometric and flower shapes so that’s what I drew.
Next you will paint the design. Remember, ceramic underglaze normally needs three flowing coats in order to get good solid color. If you apply less than three coats, your finished results will looks uneven and you will be able to see the brushstrokes. This is not always a bad thing however. Alot of people go for this look and in fact, that’s the beauty of true Majolica. More about how to make majolica further down. Be sure and let each coat dry thoroughly before applying the next coat. It usually only takes about ten minutes or so to dry.
If you make a mistake you can always go back and scrape the paint off or rub it off with a damp clean paintbrush. Ceramic paint is easy to “correct” before firing. It just washes off with water. You can in fact, stick the knob under the running tap and wash off the paint completely and start over. I decided to make all my knobs different. I wanted alot of color and pattern on my kitchen cabinets so I painted each one with a different pattern and a different color. However, to keep them looking like a unified set, I painted the bases of all the knobs the same shade of yellow which matched the tile and granite countertops in my kitchen. I also limited the number of colors that I used to about 5 or 6 shades. I used these colors repeatedly in different combinations and patterns on all the knobs. So even if they were all different, they were still all in the same color “family”.
Once you have finished painting your knobs and are satisfied with the design, let them air dry for a day or so. Remember, unfired ceramic paint will often look like it’s a completely different color than what the finished result will be. The true color of the paint comes out in the firing, so don’t be dissapointed if the knobs look pale or pastel colored after they dry.
The final step in the painting process is to apply the glaze overcoat. This is just a clear glaze that goes on over the paint and this is what will make your ceramic piece shiny as well as water proof. Now, there are two ways to do this and each person has their preferred method. You can send your knobs off to the kiln after they are painted and BEFORE applying the glaze overcoat. Some people do it this way because kiln firing “sets” the paint on the knobs and will render it permanent so there is no danger of smearing or smudging the paint with the paintbrush when they are applying the glaze overcoat. However, I don’t do it this way. I prefer to apply the ceramic glaze overcoat on top of the unfired paint because I am usually too impatient to send ceramic pieces to the kiln twice (which can take days) and also because firing them twice is an added cost. So, if you are very careful you can apply the glaze overcoat right on top of the unfired painted knobs. You will need to apply two coats of transparent glaze. It’s important to DAB on the first coat carefully so you don’t smear the design underneath. If you rub the knobs too hard with the paintbrush you might smudge the underglaze. Apply the glaze overcoat generously using a dabbing motion and then let it dry completely before applying the second coat. Your knobs will begin to turn a pale chalky bluish-white as they dry. Apply a second generous coat of glaze brushing softly and evening out any “thin” areas. Make sure you have covered every centimeter of the knob with glaze. It’s not necessary to glaze the underside where the hole is, that won’t show anyway.
Let them dry for at least 24 hours and then take them to the kiln to be fired. The actual firing takes about 8 hours or so, and then another similar “cooling” period before they can be taken out of the kiln. So this part can take a couple of days depending on the kiln owner and how many pieces he has to fire at any given time. Be patient, it’s worth it. When you get your knobs back, they will be shiny and colorful and will look like this.
The next step is to glue in the threaded insert so that you can screw the knobs into the cabinets. The threaded insert is the little metal part that goes inside the knob, in the little hole on the underside. It has a hexagonal shape. Don’t try to crazy glue it in. Crazy glue doesn’t work well on metal and it isn’t strong enough to hold the insert in place when you thread the screw into it. I used an inexpensive trasparent epoxy glue. The kind that comes with two tubes and you have to mix the two components together. Use the transparent epoxy glue rather than the gray colored epoxy. You can get this at any hardware store. Epoxy glue dries within 90 seconds, so mix a little bit at a time and work on 3 or 4 knobs at a time. Just dip the backside of the threaded insert in the epoxy glue and quickly insert it into the hole. Press the metal insert down with a toothpick for a few seconds just to apply a bit of pressure and then let it set for a few hours before screwing them into your cabinets.
Let me say something here about Majolica. Mine are not majolica knobs only because I am not a natural artist. I always have to erase/rub off/ remove and start again several times before I get it just right. To make true majolica knobs, you must apply the ceramic glaze overcoat FIRST. After that dries, you then paint your design on top of it with the underglaze colors. In other words, you do it backwards. You glaze the bisque knobs first and then you paint your design on top of the chalky white surface of the unfired glazed knob using the underglaze colors. Then you send it off to the kiln that way. Since I knew that I would have to erase and correct both my pencil drawings and my painting, I didn’t want to have to work on top of the overcoat because for me it would have been a waste of time as the geometric designs were tricky to both draw and paint. I would have wasted alot of glaze overcoat as well as undercoat colors.
You can buy bisque knobs on ebay in different shapes, or if you want just a plain mushroom shaped bisque knob like mine you can order them online from Lawless. I noticed that they’ve gone up to 65 cents each now but they’re still a bargain nevertheless. Here’s a link: