The College Hobbyist: A 5-Minute Primer on Setting Up a Glass Beadmaking Studio at Home
In the recent months I have had a whirlwind experience with glass lamp working and it has come to literally redefine how I view sculpture and fine art as a whole. I feel that all people should experiment with sculpture whether or not they are a career 'artist'. The impact of creating something from next to nothing in three dimensional space is huge on the individual as we are human and it is among our principles and purposes to create things for ourselves and others to experience in this world. So without any further delay, lets get started!
Glass lamp working and glass blowing is an intricate and classical art that dates back to the 5th century BC but has its roots and widespread classical footholds in 14th century Italy. Sculptures range, at least on a cultural level, from glass beads and marbles, to trees, to large vases, and intricate hollow sculptures, but borosilicate glass is also used extensively in spaceship parts and high end laboratory equipment. I don't exaggerate when I say that the possibilities when working with glass are limitless and infinite. In this primer we are going to build a small home studio setup so you too can get started working glass!
What Kind of Glass Work Do You Do or Want to Do?
Colored Rods - These rods are the glass we are going to be working with. There are many brands and each brand will have different sets of signature colors. Often times the different brands' glass have different C.O.E.'s or coefficient of expansion. It is important to be aware of this number as it refers to how your glass reacts and expands in heat and means everything in terms of the behavior of the glass. Glass of different c.o.e.'s cannot be worked together, and with soft glass this often means sticking to one brand. These are usually found at local specialized glass shops if not purchased online. Search for one of these locations in your area if possible and become familiar with it.
Didymium Glasses - Didymium refers to a combination of praseodymium and neodymium. This mixture prevents vision of sodium burn off, or the bright orange flame, from propane torches when working glass. Absolutely essential.
Bead Mandrels - These are the structure that you build the bead around in order to get the clean hole through the center. Usually made from stainless steel, these come in all sizes and shapes so you can make anything from regular beads to holllow beads to glass rings.
Bead Release - The sludgy release that coats the mandrels. This keeps the bead from being attached the mandrel and allows an easy clean release when the bead has cooled. This can almost always be found at any store that sells colored rods.
Clacker/Water Bowl - metal bowl with a solid layer of water to break trash off into. Helps keep your work space clean.
If you are interested in checking out some of my work or browsing my personal webstore a link can be found below to my Etsy store where some of current beads are listed. I can also do custom order work as well as other items like borosilicate marbles and pendants. Check it out and leave some feedback!
Building the Studio
Find a good area to set up your studio, be it in your garage, outside, a work shed, or an art studio. Make sure your work space is clean and regularly tidy up after working. The materials involved in lamp working (very high heat and broken glass) are not necessarily safe and very injury prone. It will behoove you to keep your working area free of hazards. Keep things as fireproof as you can and don't work in an area where you cannot control this. Ventilation is hugely critical, for this reason I prefer to work in an open garage or outside to avoid having to spend on or build complex ventilation systems indoors.
Propane - For small torch-head sized tanks your have options between propane and MAPP gas. MAPP gas burns 3x hotter than propane, and when working with soft glass the heat of a propane torch is more than sufficient. For starting I highly recommend using propane tanks and a good torch head. My favorite torch head for small home tanks is the Hot-Head surface mix torch, it allows oxygen to mix with the propane at the base of the flame so you don't work in a strictly reducing flame. You will always want and need to be aware of your flame quality and whether or not it is oxidizing or reducing, how you can control this, and when to use each.
Base/Table - This is your workstation. This can be anything from a small desk or your front porch to a large stainless steel worktable that lines your shop. For my home studio I use an art desk on a metal frame with a small shelf on the bottom where my vermiculite is placed. The desk is on wheels to keep this mobile and I work over either stainless steel or ceramic work plates. This works perfectly for me as long as I use small propane tanks for soft glass work.
Putting it Together - In order to attach the propane torch to the table to keep it suspended in one place so you can work you will need three (3) things. A C-Clamp or small vice, an L-clamp, and a Ring Clamp. The Ring is fitted around the top quarter of the tank with the L-Clamp resting inside of it, below the torch head. The C-clamp is then used to vice the L of the L-Clamp to the edge of your base.
Cooling - You will want to have an excellent method of cooling your beads as slowly as possible in order to represent the flame annealing and then cooling process of using a kiln in a larger studio. There are couple options here in both vermiculite and fiber blankets. I personally prefer using vermiculite as it supports larger workloads and tends to be a little more forgiving, however breathing in the dust is very unhealthy and it is messy to move around, making a fiber blanket optimal for the mobile glass blower.
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Rotation, Rotation, Rotation!
Mastering various techniques is what flame working is all about. From stacking dots, to wrapping and raking, to marvering or even just making something round, it pays off and will be more than visible in the end results if you invest time into mastering your various techniques. The most important and quintessential glass technique is rotation, and the best part is that in can be practiced almost anytime and anywhere with just a pencil, straw, or something similar. Keeping an even, steady, and comfortable rotation is everything when it comes to developing good even symmetry and terminations in your glass work. The better you can steady your rotation and build the muscles that govern it the better the overall quality of your work will increase almost exponentially.
Keeping a good and consistent rotation will also greatly help your flame annealing and cooling skills as you will have much more control and be able to better distribute the heat evenly and in turn cool it more evenly. This is only one example of how developing this will overflow into all aspects of your glass work.
Glass is such a cult-following style art that often that way people find themselves involved in it is through a master-apprentice relationship. This obviously isn't available for everybody, but should not prevent or discourage people from glass flame working. There are good number of high quality reading materials available on this as well as dvds that help detail the subject of bead making. Check your local library or bookstore for some of these materials.
Whether you've never considered glass working before and want to try getting your feet wet, or weren't sure what you could do on your own outside of a large shop or class environment, or even if you have been into glass working for some time and just needed some points reiterated I hope this Hub could help you. I'd love to hear back from you in the comments and if you do mix anything up I'd love to see your work!
Stay creative and have fun!