Beaver Island Jewelry Studio Tour
The purpose of this tour is to show you how glass lampwork beads are actually made from a rod of glass and some fire. You probably also wonder why lampwork beads and the subsequent jewelry is more expensive than what you buy in a catalog or in a store. Lampwork beads are created from a piece of glass, usually in rod form, and some flame, combined with an oxygen source, and then made into a bead. During the flamework, while the glass is molten, you form the shape, decorate with stringers (small rods of glassthat let you “paint” on dots or designs), silver, gold, etc., frit (ground glass), enamels, pixie dust and whatever. After the beads spend about 8 hours basking in a kiln, or annealing as it is called, they come out and need to be cleaned out. They will have the bead release inside the mandrel holes. When they are cleaned up and are presentable, then you can sell the beads or make into your jewelry. As you will see, it is quite a process to make ONE little bead!
Studio Bench (prior to cleanup). Yeah, us creative types can get kind of messy! But please note the other pictures–I did clean it up a bit! It gets messy because you are using all these different pieces of glass, pulling the glass into little “stringers” (small, skinny pieces of glass for that fine detail work) and things get scattered around. But this photo shows my torch – a Minor brand name torch and my kiln on the table behind the bench. The kiln is digitally controlled so when I am finished making beads I press a few buttons and it does the annealing work for me (more about that later). A forum I belong had a contest for the messiest bench – we downloaded pictures of our studio workarea and then voted on them all. I think my picture was high up there on one of the messiest.
Inspiration. And that is why the piggy bank is here to show you one of my inspiration points! We collect these glass piggy banks so I decided to make my own little glass piggy bank bead. Then of course, you need a piggy head. Don’t ask where I got inspiration for my purple cows! One day I bought a tie dye skirt at Soft Surroundings (great catalog store!) and just had to make beads to match. So, inspirations are found anywhere!
Torch and Work Area. The first photo shows the gas hookup for my Minor torch. I am connected to our natural gas supply. The red hose runs to the torch and the green hose connects to my oxygen supply which is an oxygen concentrator. Many glass lampworkers use propane for the gas source and oxygen in tanks for their oxygen source. Those tanks have to be outside the home or studio and need to be periodically changed so I like my gas hookup in the house and the concentrator. At my Beaver Island studio (last photo) I am connected to our house gas supply which is propane but I also use an oxygen concentrator there.
The next photo shows my torch with a little marvering pad connected (very handy for rolling and shaping the hot glass). And yes, those are toilet paper rolls covered in *tin foil* for my armrests! Hey – they are re-useable!! You can buy commercially made armrests but I have found these work just fine for me. I have an extra light to help me see better as the work is very close and my eyes are getting old! The next picture shows the little “area” with my workbench, the kiln to my right where I can pop the bead into when it is ready to be annealed and the oxygen concentrator on the floor. Also, please note that I have a fire extinguisher handy for emergencies. I also have a jar of water on the table which I can (and have) splash on me if I catch on fire. Recently I did get quite burned when a piece of glass rod jumped out and back onto my lap and under the towel and through my pants, burning my leg. Also if the bead is just not doing anything right (or me) I can trash the bead in the jar of water.
Speaking of catching on fire. I also did catch on fire — the glass sometimes *pops* off when it is cold and it hits the torch flame. Sometimes it hits me. This one hit my flannel shirt and instantly caught on fire! I didn’t want to put down my bead (had spent time working on it) so I was splashing water from the jar onto my shirt, trying to keep my bead in the torch flame so it wouldn’t crack! That is why we wear cotton clothing, shoes, not sandals. Actually it would probably be good to have a leather apron–which now I have. Many of my beadmaker friends have scars!
The second to last picture is of the venting system in Ann Arbor studio. This hood vents to the outside with the fan pulling the fumes from the glass to the outside of the house. There is a flourescent light inside also. Venting is so very important in glass beadmaking. I also have the window open behind me providing the fresh air (winter and summer). More details at a later time regarding the importance of ventilation systems.
Glass Glass beads start out their life as glass rods. Glass comes in many, though not all, colors and mostly in this rod shape. I use Moretti (Italian) glass, Lauscha (German) glass and Bullseye. The rods have color names and numbers on them as sometimes different sources will call the colors by different names, but the numbers are standard for the brand of glass. You can mix and match the same brand glass to obtain different effects, as long at the COE is the same. Moretti has a COE of 104. This is a photo of my glass storage – PVC culverting cut in about 12 inch length so the 13 inch glass rods will nicely fit in the wine rack grooves. You have to buy the culverting in long tubes (12 feet or so) and my husband sawed them into the lengths I needed (hmmm, I still have some more in the garage; time to get him busy again!!) Aren’t the glass rods kind of pretty?
DipityDoo. Before you begin making a bead you have to ready your wire mandrels (this is what the beads are actually made on — that is why they have two holes). Oh, and again my husband cut wire into 12 inch lengths for me! My first photo shows several of the bead releases that I have. We are always striving to find that perfect release as you want the beads to easily come off after they are fired in the kiln. Next I dip the wire in the sludge like stuff two or three times. Then I place them in sand or kitty litter-filled cans to dry off. They sit on the floor under my workbench so that they are ready to pluck out when I need the next one!
Additions/Decorations to the bead. There are lots of different things we do to these little beads, besides forming them into different shapes and sizes. I have shown here some of those extras: silver foil, enamels in lots of nice colors and pixie dust (kind of sparkly) in the little tubes. Of course, each one has its techniques and variations to create different effects. Next shown is some frit (ground up glass which comes in different sizes). This is sitting on a raised marvering pad on my workbench with its jar. There are several frit sellers OR you can make your own – which is shown in the petri dish. For my own little frit making operation, I kept little pieces of my glass rods, ground it up in a blender (not the regular house blender but a special used blender for ONLY this operation!). Frit offers millions of different ways to spice up your beads.
In front of the kiln are a couple of jars of *stringers* or skinny glass pieces in the last photo (above). Looks like a bouquet of stringers! I pull off these stringers from the larger rods (with a pliers) so that I have kind of a fine tip paintbrush for certain applications like animal eyes, flowers, etc. I keep my stringers on the workbench in these little jars. Usually I end up making these stringers before I actually start making a bead as I will have something in mind and want certain colors of stringers. I will also have lined up the silver foil or frit or pixie dust, whatever, for the bead I have in mind. By the way, I do keep a journal of my better ideas. I will write down the colors and how I make a bead and if the bead turns out well after annealing, I keep that in my bead journal. Technically it would be great to keep a sample of the bead itself in there too but…..I haven’t gotten that advanced (or organized) yet!
Making the beads. With the torch and oxygen, mandrels dipped into bead release, I make my beads.
Take off mandrel stage. We are getting closer to the end…but there is still some work to do here. This I do in the morning (sorry I look kind of sleepy; I haven’t had my latte yet!). And my hair is always kind of wild!!) It is like Christmas when you take the beads out of the kiln and first look at them as you are taking them off the mandrels. Wonderful little works of art or….a blob of mistake! And hopefully you don’t break the bead taking it off the mandrel. Sometimes they stick – if the *bead release* didn’t do its job very well!
I use a plier and a scrubber pad to hold and pull the beads. You will notice that I put the beads that come right out of the kiln into my jar of water and bring it upstairs to my kitchen sink to remove the beads from the wire mandrels. One by one I try to pull them off the mandrel, putting them into a little bowl of water or holding tank! I use the pliers to hold the wire mandrel and the scrubby pad to pull the bead. Sometimes I have to put the whole wire with bead in the freezer for a while to get the bead off (I think the wire shrinks a little if it freezes). Below is a stuck bead – one bead is stuck and won’t move but the other bead is loose. It can’t slip off the other end of the wire mandrel as there is a raised end on the mandrel. So, it is sitting on my counter until I have the heart to smash it with a hammer so I can re-use the mandrel. While I’m doing all this, the dog waits – bored!
Cleaning Operation. Next I take all the beads in my little bowl and start cleaning the holes in each one to get the bead release sludge (or *bead poop*) out of the bead holes. I have a Dreml Minimite which is an electric reamer. You can ream out the hole with a hand held little wire scrapper too. Each bead needs the hole cleaned out very well, especially if you are selling the beads as loose beads on eBay or at a show. So this operation takes a while. After all the beads from this batch are cleaned out, they go back into my little holding tank and get rinsed out with warm water a few times. Then I take each bead out and carefully examine it to make sure it meets my quality standards. If they are broken or not very good or not what I was wanting to make, they go into either the “orphan” pile of beads or into another pile to be made into a mirror or put into a stepping stone or something. Here’s a photo of my tools for cleaning and removing: I even put a new scrubby out so you didn’t have to look at the old yucky scrubby! The Dreml is for cleaning the bead holes, the scrubby to hold the bead and the piers to hold the wire. Oh, there’s a picture of my bowl of water with the beads waiting to be cleaned out.
Here’s my table on Beaver Island where I put the beads into jewelry. Love this spot!
Show and sell (hopefully!). Much later, after making some jewelry with the beads I may sell it at an indoor show (see booth setup above) or in my canopy at an outside show. This is always a good way to meet your customers, make new friends and customers and visit with other artists who you see around on the “circuit.” Or I will sell the beads by themselves. These will be focals, pendants or sets and I sell some on ETSY under BrownDogBeads or at the Great Lakes Beadmakers Guild “Bead Bonanza” in the spring and fall. And on Beaver Island during the summer, at Art in the Harbor and at Livingstone Studio. See Find Me for more.
So, hopefully after seeing all the steps in the creation of a glass bead to a piece of jewelry, you have a better idea of the work, effort and creativity that goes into make one glass lampwork bead!
Learn more about the history of Glass Lampwork