Lampworking: Making Handmade Glass Beads

Lampwork - Making Glass Beads

Lampwork glass © Janet Crosby
Lampwork glass © Janet Crosby

What does "lampworking" mean?

Lampworking is an old term, used to describe the first torches used -- oil lamps with a foot pump or other type of blow pipe to add oxygen to the oil flame and make the flame hotter. The flame was used to melt the glass into shapes, goblets, beads, etc. and this technique has been used since ancient times.

Today, people use propane-oxygen torches. Natural gas or other similar fuel may be used alone or in combination with oxygen for a variety of torches on the market. While the term "lampwork" is still commonly used, it is now preferred to use terms such as flamework or torchwork to more aptly describe this technique or the resultant art (i.e. flameworked glass beads).

Making glass bead with propane-oxygen torch

Making a glass bead © Janet Crosby
Making a glass bead © Janet Crosby

Glass used for flameworking

Glass used for lampworking is most often in rod form, and suppliers can be found in Italy, the US and around the world. There are two main types of glass: "soft" or soda-lime glass and "hard" or borosilicate glass (common trade name: Pyrex).

Soft glass comes in a large variety of colors and has a high COE of ~104 (coefficient of expansion), meaning that it expands and contracts much more than hard glass in the heat/cool cycles. By comparison, hard glass COE is 34. This means that you must work carefully with soft glass to keep the piece hot while working, or it will crack! A good kiln is essential. More about that in a bit.

I use soft glass for the majority of my beads. Most of the glass I use is originally from Italy, purchased from a US supplier. There are also a few glass companies in the US Pacific Northwest that produce glass for lampworkers.

Samples of soft glass rods

Photo © Janet Crosby
Photo © Janet Crosby

Flameworking tools

The most obvious tool is the torch. I use a propane-oxygen torch called a Minor, made by Nortel. It is important to learn from someone who has lots of experience with torches and working with glass, as safety is not something to be taken lightly. Propane and oxygen are highly explosive, and must be handled with care and respect.

Didymium Glasses are special glasses to reduce the soda flare (bright red flame) and protect your eyes. Here is a photo of these glasses. Extra filters are needed if working with hard glass, as you can burn your retinas over time. Eyes are so important! Wear protective eyewear at all times when at the torch.

There are many, many hand tools on the market for lampworkers. I admit that I am not much of a tool person, so my main tool selection is pretty sparse:

Flamworking hand tools

Flamworking hand tools © Janet Crosby
Flamworking hand tools © Janet Crosby

Basic hand tools for flameworking

From left to right:

  • Tweezer masher - this is great for pressing and shaping beads.
  • Razor blade - this is a regular razor blade in a pin vice handle. I use this to cut indentations in the glass for lips and other sculptural elements
  • Long-nose pliers - basic pliers for squishing and squeezing the glass.
  • Brass shaper - brass moves glass well, and I use this to push the glass where I want it.

Making a bead

Making a bead © Janet Crosby
Making a bead © Janet Crosby

Making a bead... and cooling it slowly

Another tool necessary to make beads are mandrels. These are steel rods of varying diameters that flameworkers use to wind the glass around. It is essential to use some type of bead release to dip the mandrel in before adding the glass. This prevents the glass from permanently fusing to the metal and allows for easy (hopefully) removal of the bead.

Bead Making Kiln

As mentioned earlier, a kiln is essential to making quality beads that won't crack after they cool. Cooling the beads slowly at controlled temperatures is called annealing, and it adds to the strength and integrity of the finished piece.

At the torch, the flame is 1600 to 2000F. To cool to room temperature quickly is a sure-fire cause of cracking with soft glass (hard glass can withstand temperature changes better, but still needs to be kiln annealed).

When the bead is still hot, it is placed in the kiln, usually at a temperature of 950F (for soft glass - higher temp for hard glass) to cool slowly over several hours. I ramp my kiln down over a period of 8 hours.

Beadmaking Kiln

Beadmaking kiln © Janet Crosby
Beadmaking kiln © Janet Crosby

Ventilation

Ventilation is of extreme importance when flameworking! Unfortunately, many people are either too excited to start flameworking, don't know how to properly set up ventilation, don't have enough money to pay for a proper system, or any combination of these elements, and therefore don't set up a system to protect their health.

Heavy metals are what give glass its color -- lead, copper, silver, gold are some of the common ones. Once these metals hit the flame they vaporize. You can't see, smell or taste these harmful gasses, but they can do many types of damage to your health. Some effects are quick; headache, dizzy, some are long term and take years to show up; lead toxicity etc.

Be safe -- use proper ventilation!

Below is a typical exhaust fan and hood set up. It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss ventilation setup, but I hope to add a hub on that in the future.

Ventilation set up

Exhaust fan and vent hood © Janet Crosby
Exhaust fan and vent hood © Janet Crosby

Glass is a blast, but safety first

Glass is my passion and is amazingly fun, however, I was very careful to fully research the costs and risks of working with this medium. If you are interested in trying this type of art, please seek the help of a qualified teacher for hands-on lessons in learning how to safely operate the equipment and work with the hot glass.

You can see more of my glass work on my web site or in my Etsy store.

Below are some of the books I have found to be particularly helpful in learning new techniques.

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