What is Lampwork and How Are Lampwork Beads Made?
Lampwork is the slightly confusing name for the technique of melting glass rods in a flame to make beads. The most important piece of equipment needed is a gas and oxygen fueled torch, which was originally called a lamp - hence the name.
The history of lampworking can be traced back to ancient times, with evidence of glass beads being made using this technique in Egypt as early as 1500 BC. Over the centuries, lampworking has evolved into a refined art form, with different regions around the world developing their own distinct styles and techniques.
Glass rods in every shade are produced specifically for bead making by glass manufacturers around the world. I mostly work with Italian glass from a producer based on the famous island of Murano in Venice, I also use glass from America, Germany and China. Sadly the last glass manufacturer in the UK ceased their glass rod production a few years ago.
The beads are made on stainless steel mandrels that are available in differing diameters, from approximately 1mm up to 12mm - the thicker the mandrel, the bigger the hole through the centre of the bead. In order to prevent the glass from permanently fusing to the mandrel it is first dipped in a clay-like liquid called bead release. The bead release needs to dry before the glass can be applied to it.
Special safety glasses must be worn when melting glass. They not only protect the eyes from the danger of spitting glass but they also filter out harmful ultra violet and the sodium flare that is produced when the glass is in the flame. Without these lenses it would be almost impossible to make beads as the flame just looks like an orange ball of fire. Another important safety consideration is ventilation. Harmful fumes are released when the glass is melted so it is important to not only work in a well ventilated area but also to extract and replace the air around you.
Once sufficient glass is melted in the torch flame and wound onto the mandrel it is shaped using heat, gravity and tools such as presses (shaping moulds) and rollers. Most shaping tools are made from brass or graphite. Other important lampwork tools are tungsten pliers, picks and sharp pokey tools, flat graphite pads for rolling the bead on and various other useful items that can even be found around the home or DIY shop and put to good use in the studio.
Beads can be decorated in the flame by adding dots and designs in different coloured glass, as well as incorporating various metals in wire or sheet form such as silver or gold leaf etc. Finely ground glass in contrasting colours, called frit, can produce lovely effects. Thin stringers of glass can easily be made by heating the end of a regular glass rod and pulling it out with pliers, stringers are really useful for making dots and other patterns on the glass. I love to use glass murrini chips to decorate my beads, most of which I make myself. They are made by building up layers of different coloured glass on the end of a mandrel. The mass of glass is heated through till quite soft and pulled out in the same way as a stringer, then once it cools, it's cut into small pieces and carefully applied onto the bead to give an urchin or flower effect. It's a bit like making a stick of seaside rock!
Lampwork beads need to be cooled very slowly or they will crack from thermal shock. The best way to cool the beads is by putting them straight into a hot kiln where they are all held until the end of the day when the kiln goes through a slow, controlled cooling process over a number of hours which anneals the glass, removing internal stress from the beads and ensuring their strength and durability.
After cooling the beads are soaked in water for a little while to soften the bead release then removed from the mandrels by hand - it helps to hold the mandrel tightly with strong pliers. The bead holes will be lined with a coating of bead release and this needs to be reamed out with a diamond file. Like many lampworkers, I like to use a diamond coated bit in a dremel drill for this job.
If a frosted finish is required on the bead surface this can be done at this stage either by tumbling with grit for many hours or with a quick soak in an acid etching fluid, which then needs to be neutralised with bicarbonate of soda and thoroughly washed and dried.
The beads are now ready to be made into jewellery, and the mandrels are washed, dried and dipped once again in bead release ready for the next glass melting session.
I am frequently asked how long it takes to make a bead and my answer tends to be "at least 24 hours" as much more work goes into a bead than the time I spend shaping and decorating it in the flame!