A history of glass beadmaking and lampwork
Glassmaking itself is an art that dates back to ancient civilisations when open fires and furnaces were used. However, the Romans created what was recognised as the first authentic glass furnace and developed more sophisticated glass working tools for shaping glass. Venice went on to establish a glass making industry that truly made its mark in the history of glass making.
By the 17th Century, glassmakers in France, Germany and Italy were using oil and spirit lamps to shape smaller pieces of glass, which is why the technique is still called lampworking today. Moving ahead to 1913 when Jessie Littleton invented durable, heatproof Pyrex for cookware, flame torches using oxygen and natural gas were required to work the material since its melting point was higher than traditional glass. Tools and techniques evolved and in time, glass artisans were able to produce glass pieces of high quality.
Although the lampworking method is time consuming, because each bead is made individually, a one of kind look can be achieved for pieces created. There is certainly a charm and individuality to handmade glass beads which give them the edge over mass produced beads.
Tools of the trade
Goggles - It is absolutely essential to wear protective eyewear! Didymium lens safety glasses are often highly recommended before carrying out glasswork.
Torch - There are many models to choose from so it is best to consider your budget, skill level and what glass you will be working with. One model which receives good reviews is the Nortel Mega Minor.
Mandrels - These are stainless steel rods which the molten glass is wound round to form the bead shape. The size of the beads will depend on the thickness of the mandrels which will create the bead holes. There are mandrels of different diameters available depending on your requirements
Bead Release - This is a substance which is like clay. Mandrels are dipped into the bead release substance to prevent the glass sticking to the mandrels.
Bead cooling product - this can be one of the following:
Lampworking Kiln - The kiln is a container used to gradually cool warm beads and can be adjusted to a temperature to suit the type of glass you are working with. This is the only cooling method that anneals your glass to reduce thermal shock and increase its durability. You can ensure the right temperature and timing is maintained for the cooling down and annealing process.
Vermiculite - This is available in granules which retain heat and gradually cool your beads. These can be placed in a suitable container for cooling beads.
Japanese Annealing Bubbles - Highly insulated micro spheres made from silica which retain heat and gradually cool warm glass beads. These can be placed in a suitable container for cooling beads.
Fibre Blanket - A blanket of insulating fibres which cools glass beads when placed between layers of this material
Your chosen glass rods - there are many brands of lampworking glass rods available, varying in diameter. Bullseye, CIM and Lauscha are some popular brands. Glass rods are available in different colours.
Safety Note: Do not start working without your safety goggles on!
1. Prepare a mandrel by dipping it into the bead release and then leave it to dry overnight.
2. Turn your torch to the highest setting, take the prepared mandrel and heat it in the flame until it glows orange. The mandrel needs to be warm enough for the glass to stick but do not overheat it
3. Take a rod of glass and warm the tip by slowly introducing it into the flame. To ensure an even heat, rotate the rod while you are heating it. The glass rod will glow but keep heating it until you have a molten ball of glass at the end.
4. Place the tip of the molten glass rod on the mandrel and wrap the molten glass onto it, turning it as you drip the molten glass on.
5. To add more glass to the bead, heat the glass rod again and drip the molten glass onto the bead to build up the volume of glass, keep rotating.
6. When you have the desired volume of molten glass, place the glass rod on an appropriate rest. You can take the mandrel out of the flame, keeping it horizontal so the bead is formed symmetrically. Practice lowering the mandrel towards the worktop away from the flame. Keep turning the mandrel and the glowing hot glass will shape itself through gravity.
7. When the bead has cooled a little, you can then cool it fully using your chosen cooling product. Give the bead at least 45 minutes to cool as it will be very hot!
8. Once the bead has cooled, remove it from the mandrel and clean any bead release from it. You can use water to wash the bead. Enjoy your creation!
Tips and tricks
- Keep working tools close by so you are not dangerously reaching for them
- Heat the glass slowly to avoid fracturing
- Invest in a fire extinguisher - it is better to be safe than sorry!
- Having cool water to hand is good for immediate relief if you get any burns
- Research before starting and keep practising!
- If you plan on selling your beads, kiln annealing is a must to ensure strength and durability
Ideas and inspiration
Once you have mastered the basic round bead, why not let your imagination take you into the realms of more intricate beads. It is worth researching methods of creating lines and designs using fine glass rods or techniques such as acid etching, polishing and sandblasting for a different finish to glass beads.
Once you are confident you may even want to experiment with layering glasses of different colour to create patterns or to achieve a depth in colour. You can even incorporate gold leaf or objects into the glass.
A vast number of designs can be created and free patterns are available on the internet if you are short on inspiration!