Lampwork beads are handmade beads that are crafted out of molten glass using a centuries old technique known as lampworking. The term “lampwork” is derived from the fact that oil lamps were once used as the heat source to heat the glass used in this process. These handcrafted beads may be either plain or decorative, depending upon how the artist chooses to create them. Many times multiple layers of glass are used, as well as multiple colors to create a desired result.
The Process of Making Lampwork Beads
In order to make lampwork beads, the artist will use a torch to melt narrow rods of glass. The hot molten glass is then wound around a thin length of stainless steel known as a mandrel. The hole in the bead is formed by the space taken up by the mandrel. To form the bead, the mandrel is turned and held in various positions. The shape of the bead is formed through this turning and positioning , as well as with the help from gravity. Tools can also be used during this process to push and pull the glass into proper shape.
The artist who makes lampwork beads has a very good understanding of exactly how hot the glass must become before it will begin to flow, and will learn with time and practice how much heat can be applied to a shaped bead before it will again become molten. The lampwork artist learns with much practice and patience over time and becomes a master of the glass and the torch which are the tools of his/her trade. They will also learn other aspects of working with molten glass, such as how various colors of glass will interact, and will learn exactly when to add decorative embellishments during the bead making process.
After the bead has been heated, once it is removed from the flame the glass will begin to shrink as it cools down. The exposure to the open air cools the outside of the bead while the center is still left blazing hot. This can result in the cracking of the bead, which creates stress on the glass due to the extreme temperature changes as the glass cools in air. The beadmaker can avoid this by cooling the beads in a kiln. The artist will place the beads in a heated kiln set at a high temperature to ensure all areas of the bead are being heated evenly. The kiln allows the beadmaker to regulate the temperature and perform this cooling process over a period of several hours, in which the heat is gradually and continuously reduced until it becomes standard room temperature. This process is known as kiln annealing.
As an alternative to kiln annealing, small glass beads can also be placed between layers of insulation to cool them down. Although not as effective as kiln annealing, this is a fairly successful cooling process which allows the glass beads to cool at an even rate, which typically prevents cracking.
Using the wound bead technique, the lampwork artist would dip the mandrel into a release agent such as a clay based material, or man made material such as boron nitride to allow the bead to release from the mandrel after it is formed. The beadmaker will then choose rods of glass to heat with the torch until both torch and glass are heated to the proper temperature. The artist will then rotate the mandrel, winding the glass around it in the process. Next comes the shaping process which can be done with the combination of gravity, heat, and tools of the trade such as mashers, tweezers, graphite paddles, and picks. The bead can then be decorated by using melted stringers of glass, and will require additional heating time if silver based colors have been used. After the bead has been completed, it can now be cooled in the kiln during the kiln annealing process.
Other techniques include sandblasting or faceting the beads. This is done using lapidary techniques which result in something known as “furnace glass,” an elaborate version of an old technique known as seed beading. Fuming can also be used by heating gold or silver in the flame to vaporize the metals, leaving thin layers of particles on the heated glass.
Materials Used and Supplies Needed for Lampworking
In order to perform the lampworking process, you must have several materials and supplies on hand. These include a bench burner, hand torch, kiln, marver, paddle, reamer, blowhouse/swivel assembly, tungsten pick, shears, hot fingers, and a lathe .Other materials needed include safety glasses, glass rods, gas equipment for the torch, and work surfaces and rod rests.
Lampwork beads are beautiful to use in jewelry making, and the process of making them is actually an art in itself.