Hello, Cupcake! 8 Things I Learned About Glass Bead Making

Marcy’s lampwork gnome perched on a branch of wired lampwork glass bead leaves creates a charming and whimsical pendant.

Fresh off of lampwork glass bead-making lessons last week, I’m still fascinated and very hooked! I was lucky to be given one-on-one lessons by lampwork glass bead-maker and artist (and JMD subscriber) Marcy Lamberson. (So grateful to you, Marcy!)

After showing me around her glass studio and educating me about lampworking tools, Marcy fired up her torch and demonstrated how to make the traditional beginner’s bead: the donut shape. For me, making a round donut bead the first time I tried lampworking was akin to trying to draw a perfect circle the first time I attempted drawing. Impossible! So naturally, my first bead is wonky, asymmetrical, and uneven—but so dear to me!

Can you tell which perfect donut bead is Marcy’s and which wonky one is mine?

Marcy told me that we’d make some donut beads and then learn to make dots on beads, and then “see how it goes from there.” But even knowing the typical “beginner bead” is a standard donut-shaped bead and wanting to be a good and gracious student, I wanted to make a cupcake. With sprinkles (aka “dots on beads”). And before the day was over, I did!

My 8 Lampworking Discoveries While Making Glass Beads
From studio tour to wonky donut bead to cupcake with sprinkles, I learned lots of great lampworking information and glass bead-making tips. Here are some of my favorites.

Flame without (left) and with (right) didymium glasses.

1. You get to wear cool rose-colored glasses. Didymium glasses protect your eyes but they also help you watch the flame and see the temperature of your glass better, because they reduce the sodium flare of the flame. When looking through didymium glasses (they aren’t all rose, by the way), you can see the blue of the flame without the orange, as well as the glow of your glass as it gets hotter. Without the glasses, your eyes are in danger; you also see the orange flame, which makes it harder to see the glow of the glass and read its temperature.

2. When introducing a cold glass rod into the flame, do it perpendicularly—or think of Pinocchio. I have to admit that while timidly holding a glass rod in one hand and a bead mandrel in the other, with both tips in the hand-length large flame shooting out between the two right in front of my face, “perpendicular” was a temporarily confusing idea. Perpendicular to what? The flame? The table? The mandrel? So I decided to think of Pinocchio. Holding the rod so that it pointed from me forward (the same direction as the flame, like the famous nose), when first introducing it into the far bushy end of the flame, was the proper—and safe—technique.

3. Speaking of safety: The first time a shard of cold glass shot off the end of my rod and made me squeal, Marcy reminded me to “use the other end, that end has a remaining small gather on it that might explode.” Indeed! This is also a good argument for wearing a pure cotton shirt (synthetic fibers melt and can be very flammable) with long, close-fitting sleeves and a crew neck, along with a fireproof apron over that.

I applied my cupcake’s sprinkles last, as small protruding bits cool faster, making them more fragile.

4. Pointy ends and pokey bits cool faster, so do those last. When you’re making a bead with ears, a tail, fins, tendrils or dots (or sprinkles!), those protruding pieces of glass are most fragile. Apply them last, just before your bead takes refuge in the kiln to anneal for a few hours.

5. Graphite smoothes and brass moves. Marvers are flat forms made of graphite, brass, or other materials that serve as a base on which you roll and smooth a gather of molten glass on a mandrel. The motion feels a little like that of using a painter’s palette; hold the marver in one hand (or leave it on the bench) and roll the bead mandrel across it, back and forth, to smooth the bead. For pressing into molten glass (say, to make lines in a cupcake wrapper or to flatten a bead’s bottom) and for pushing or pulling swathes of molten glass, brass tools will do the trick without sticking.

6. The size of the mandrel determines the size of the glass bead’s hole. A 3/32 mandrel is ideal for beginners, and experienced lampworkers often use the thinner 1/16 mandrels for making beads with small holes. Pandora-style beads need a 1/8 mandrel. If you want to make beads to string on larger cord or knitted wire, remember that you’ll want a larger mandrel.

7. Lampworking tools are endless. Just like with metalsmithing, metal clay, and other crafts, there’s a lot of crossover with tools, and many everyday objects can be called over to lampwork duty. For lampworking, in addition to mandrels, marvers, tong-like presses, etc., common items like razor blades, hemostats, engravers, and even oyster shuckers can be used in lampworking. Just be sure that whatever metal tools you put to use don’t have coatings or fillers that will burn and emit toxic fumes. Stick to brass, stainless steel, and graphite whenever possible, and remember that copper conducts heat and can burn your hands.

8. Always remember the POOP. Aren’t acronyms fun? This one will help you remember that when working with your lampwork torch, turn on the propane (P) first and then the oxygen (O); then turn off the oxygen (O) first and then the propane (P).

My first day’s attempts at making lampwork glass beads.

If you’re experienced at lampworking and glass bead making, I hope these were good reminders for you. If you’re new to it, please take a class or find an introductory demonstration. I don’t recommend trying to learn lampworking on your own, but I highly recommend learning! And whether you’re experienced in lampworking or a complete newbie like I was just last week, you’ll find dozens of inspiring lampworking and glass bead jewelry-making projects in the Interweave store!

Tell us about your first lampworking experience or share your tips in the comments below. I’m now so hooked on lampworking, I’ve become a sponge for information and would love to hear!

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