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How to get started making lampwork beads

I get asked all the time how to get into lampwork as a hobby. I can tell you about how I got started. I was going through a phase where I was really addicted to beads, and spent loads of time (and money) in the local bead shops. I saw the lampwork beads in the stores and I was really intrigued. Like many people, I assumed this was related to glass blowing but didn’t know anything about how lampwork is actually done.

Pink Lipstick K100

Well, one Christmas my mom got us a lampwork bead-making class as a present and we went and did it together. It was a day long workshop. I was instantly hooked. I came home almost feeling giddy, showing the first beads I’d ever made to my husband, and already talking about setting up my own studio. I hadn’t been so excited about anything in a long time.

The first thing we did was look into what local glass shops our town had. We found one, and we went and talked to them about what we needed to get started. They recommended the Hothead torch because it’s the least expensive, and requires the least amount to set up. We got some other basic supplies (I’ll talk more about what those are in a minute) and glass.

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I found the Hothead pretty noisy and frustrating right from the beginning. The torches we had used in the class were Nortel Minor’s, running on an oxygen and propane mix, and they had a much hotter flame. Not to mention, the Hothead is so LOUD! To me, melting glass is an almost meditative experience, and the loud hissing of that little thing kind of wrecks that.

232 Lt Turquoise 404 Lemon Yellow 034

I did persevere with the Hothead for a little while, determined to make beads. But pretty soon I decided I wanted more. My dad is an artist as well (a painter), and he is Scottish. He will often say about things, “It’s not worth @*&#$ing around.” That’s how I felt. I knew I wanted to make beads and I wanted to get set up right.

Hyacinth Violet 004

I ended up getting a Nortel Minor because it’s a very good basic surface mix torch (running on oxygen as well as propane, the oxygen boosting the heat given by the propane), and since I had used it already I knew I liked it. I was going to be setting up in my parents’ basement rather than at my house, and my mom was nervous about having oxygen tanks around, so we decided to purchase a used oxygen concentrator instead. I also ordered a small kiln with a digital controller so I could anneal my beads. (More on annealing later.)

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I haven’t really added much to my setup since then. I did add a second oxygen concentrator which gives me just a little bit more heat. Each of them only puts out 5 litres per minute of O2. Of course I have also greatly added to my stash of glass, and acquired many tools and other items. There is so much different stuff out there in terms of tools and materials and it’s really about what kind of beads you want to make.

Peony Pink K100

Anyway, I will start here to discuss how YOU can set up your own studio. Keep in mind that this information is as accurate as I can make it, but it is mostly based on my own experiences, which are somewhat limited. I’ve been making beads for about 6-7 years now, and I am still really something of a newbie compared to some of the masters out there! However, I have been successfully selling my beads since almost the beginning.

My current studio setup – click to enlarge

So, after all this rambling, here is the info you really came here for..

Step 1. Take a class if you possibly can.

Lampwork is an expensive hobby to get into. You might not even like it! (I find this hard to believe because I was so instantly hooked, but hey, you might not be). My mom took the class I did with me, but she didn’t get into doing lampwork afterward. She decided she was more interested in glass fusing, so there you go.

Impression encased in Lauscha

Anyway, beadmaking is one of those things that I imagine would be difficult to learn from a book. Learning the basic techniques and safety information doesn’t take that long – my class was only a day – from there you can practice practice practice those basic techniques on your own, and teach yourself a whole lot more too. But having someone experienced show you the fundamentals will give you a good solid foundation to begin from.

Step 2. Buy some books!

Books can be helpful too. There are some great ones out there on lampwork. My very favorite is definitely Passing the Flame by Corina Tettinger, although it’s a bit on the expensive side. A more economical choice, also a great book, is Making Glass Beads by Cindy Jenkins. There are many other books out there too, but these are two that I have personally used and found very helpful.

Step 3. Do your research

Read your books, and go online and read read read. There is a LOT of information out there so try not to get overwhelmed. A great resource is the forum Lampwork Etc. I always recommend it to people because it has such a wonderful community of lampworkers and there is almost always someone there to answer a question. Often, your question has already been addressed. And on top of all that, this forum boasts so much inspiration and eye candy from amazing artists sharing their work.

Step 4. Choose your space

  • Making glass beads is pretty messy. Shards of glass will end up flying, and often they will be very hot. You want to set up in a room with flooring that is not very flammable (carpet is a bad idea), and that you don’t care about getting marked up.
  • You will need enough power to run everything you are going to be running (you might need an electrician to check this out if you end up with oxygen concentrators and kilns)
  • You will want to store your propane tank outside (most insurance companies won’t cover you if you have a propane tank in the house – so at the very least, you will want to disconnect the fuel and take the tank outside between torch sessions – even better, just keep the thing outside and run a pipe in through a window. My studio is in my garage now, and I run the pipe under the garage door).
  • Also very important is ventilation for your space. This needs to be more than just an open window. I have an exhaust hood that came from an old stove, that vents to outside and provides some air circulation.
  • Good lighting is going to be an asset to you
  • You might want to listen to music or watch/listen to TV while you work. I bring my laptop out to the studio and watch TV shows sometimes, or else I listen to music or audiobooks on my iPod.

Ocelot spots on lt streaky brown

You really might want to bring in some professionals to help you set up some aspects of your studio. You want to make sure that you’re safe and have everything you need. I would especially recommend getting an electrician involved, particularly if you are running a kiln, and someone to hook up your ventilation system properly.

This might be a good place to mention that many glass studios will rent torch time, so if you aren’t ready to commit to a studio in your home, this might be a better option for you.

Step 5. Acquire your equipment and supplies

I recommend talking to someone with expertise – perhaps at your local glass store – to guide you in what equipment and supplies are right for you personally to get started. I am going to try to outline the different components of this as best I can, but this is by no means going to cover all the options out there.

The torch

There are so many options for torches out there and I am not going to go into them all right now. I don’t even know much about most of them myself.

The Hothead

The cheapest option is the Hothead, and I don’t want to put you off it completely by what I said before. It is noisy, and it melts glass a bit on the slow side, but I know of many professional glass artists who use a Hothead and produce beautiful results.

Hothead Torch

 

The best way to set your Hothead up is to mount it to your table, and connect it to a barbeque sized propane tank with the correct hose. I started with tiny MAPP gas containers with my Hothead, and they ran out so fast it was stupid, plus they were expensive. I don’t recommend this.

Hothead setup shopping list

  • Hothead torch
  • Materials to mount torch, eg wood block, screws, clamps, etc
  • Gas hose (long enough to put the propane tank outside, if possible)
  • Propane tank

The Nortel Minor

The Minor is reasonably priced, I think it’s one of the cheaper surface mix torches. It runs on propane and oxygen, so you will need a source of both. You can use the BBQ sized tank of propane, and you can either buy bottled oxygen, or an oxygen concentrator.

Nortel Minor Torch

 

You also need hoses for both the propane and the oxygen. You will need regulators, and flashback arrestors are highly recommended to prevent a “flashback” which is basically the flame going back up into the torch, and down the line to your propane tank or oxygen tank, causing a big explosion. (Although this is a pretty unlikely occurrence, it is better safe than sorry).

Nortel Minor setup shopping list

  • Nortel Minor torch
  • Materials to mount torch eg wood block, screws
  • Oxygen and propane hoses (long enough to put the propane tank outside, if possible)
  • Propane tank
  • Oxygen tank OR Oxygen concentrator
  • Regulators for oxygen and propane
  • Flashback arrestors for oxygen and propane

Oxygen concentrators can be purchased refurbished from anywhere from a few hundred to closer to a thousand dollars. I found mine through a local classified goods site. I think the first one I bought was about $650, and the second one was around $400. Here is a good article about oxygen concentrators: http://www.daclarke.org/ArsBrevis/oxyBoxen.html

Annealing Equipment

AIM Bead Kiln

My opinion is that glass needs to be annealed if you are going to sell it, period. Annealing can work two ways – you can either do it to your beads hot, like right after you make them, or you can make your beads, cool them as best you can (ie, as slowly as you can), and batch anneal them later. I do the former because the latter method, you end up losing beads to cracking in the mean time.

When you heat glass in your torch, you are creating a lot of stress in it at a molecular level. What you need to do is eliminate that stress, because if you don’t, the bead will crack. This requires a kiln. I have a kiln with a little bead door (it’s made by AIM), and it has a Bartlett 3-key digital controller attached to it so it can monitor the temperature inside and make adjustments to run my program exactly. As I make my beads, I stick them in through the bead door and the kiln keeps them hot until I’m done working (this is my “garage” program). When I’m done for the day, I run the anneal program. It starts with a long “soak” at a high temperature. This “soaking” allows the molecules to re-align themselves in a more orderly fashion. Then, the kiln cools down at a slow, controlled rate, until the glass is well below its stress point. Because they have cooled slowly, no additional stress has been introduced. Voila, beautiful beads come out, and it feels like Christmas morning every time!

 

 

Fiber Blanket

The batch annealing method is similar, but with a few minor differences. First of all, you need a way to let the beads cool down relatively slowly or else they are going to just break. There are a few methods people use for this – one is sticking the hot beads in a fiber blanket than insulates them, keeping the heat in; another method is to stick the beads in a big bowl of vermiculite, which has the same insulating effect.

Unfortunately, especially if your beads are on the larger side, you will probably lose some to cracks before you can get them annealed. Once you are ready to batch anneal your beads, you would run a program in your kiln that would first very slowly heat the beads up to the soak temperature, and then the rest of the program would be the same as for annealing beads straight out of the torch. This might be a good option for you if you have limited access to a kiln, for example if you were renting kiln time. You could make your beads at home and then do a batch anneal on rented time I suppose.

 

 

 

Annealing shopping list:

  • Option 1: Fiber blanket or vermiculite, plus some form of annealing later if you intend to sell your beads
  • Option 2: Kiln with digital controller
    • You will also want a rack for beads to go inside kiln

Other stuff you need to buy

Here are some basics you really will need:

  • Didymium glasses (not only do these help protect your eyes from flying glass, but they also allow you to see what’s going on in the flame, and protect your eyes from the brightness of the flame too. They are not especially stylish)
  • Mandrels (what you make the beads on) – stainless steel, come in various thicknesses to make different sized bead holes.
  • Bead release (so you can get the beads off the mandrels)
  • Big jar of water to dunk any failures into
  • Graphite paddle or piece of graphite to marver beads on
  • Something to rest hot rods on – if you put them straight down on your work table they will burn the surface
  • Fire extinguisher nearby
  • Baking soda to put out small fires
  • Tools such as tweezers, pliers, rakes, razor blades
  • Striker to ignite torch
  • Something to hold your mandrels up while the bead release dries – a tray full of sand is one option
  • Materials for cleaning your beads – either a bead reamer you use by hand, or a dremel with a small diamond bit. Clean your bead holes out in a bowl of water so you aren’t inhaling the dust from the bead release – this dust is a carcinogen if inhaled.
  • Glass! (OK this is a huge topic in and of itself – there are SO many different kinds of glass… I’m not going to get into it here… I recommend starting with one COE of glass, usually 104, like Moretti/Effetre/Vetrofond, and start with a sampler pack or pick out a mix of colours you like… you will end up getting addicted to buying glass and have a ridiculous amount in future)

Didymium Glasses

Lampwork Rods

Mandrels

On the subject of what to wear:

  • Old pair of jeans, old t-shirt
  • You will get burn holes in clothing you wear at the torch. I like to torch in my pajamas and they are riddled with holes.
  • One note of caution – I once got a bad burn wearing a long sleeved shirt because a chunk of glass flew UP the sleeve and I couldn’t shake it out before it burned me pretty badly. If you are going to wear a long sleeved shirt, try to have one with good elastic cuffs!

Fun stuff you can think about adding to your studio as time goes on:

  • Variety of frits – I love Val Cox frits personally – http://valcoxfrit.com/
  • Enamels, powders, sparkly pixy dust
  • Shaping tools, presses – I love the tools at Zoozii’s and have several of her presses – http://www.zooziis.com/index.aspx – there are SO many tools out there – CGBeadrollers makes some pretty cool looking ones I haven’t tried out yet – http://www.cgbeads.com/bead_cgbeadrollers.html
  • Metal leaf (silver, copper, gold), fine silver wire, copper mesh…
  • Etching solution
  • Electroforming supplies
  • Ways to organize your glass – I use PVC piping cut into foot long tubes and stack them in my workbench area

Some final thoughts to keep in mind

Beadmaking can be a lot of fun. It can be a wonderful hobby and it can even pay for itself (and then some) if you get to the point where you can sell your work. It does take a lot of initial investment however, and it takes a lot of practice to get good at. It’s not for everybody. I hope that this guide has been helpful and please feel free to contact me if you have any questions!

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