The process of working with glass is a journey. I have made countless mistakes along my journey. It is those ‘mistakes’ that bring out the creative side in me.
- To begin…
- Connecting to the Gas & Safety
- Lighting the Torch
- Melting the Glass
- Shaping and Tools
- Cooling: Kiln or Vermiculite?
- Final Touches
To begin …
I always start by clearing up my workspace. I have a bad habit of finishing my work and simply heading to bed. Before I make more mess, I start by clearing away the tools I won’t need and organising the colours of glass I will use for each piece.
Organising my workspace allows me room to grow.
Connecting to the Gas & Safety
Safety is always number one – after all, I am working with fire and temperatures reaching up to 2925 °C with MAPP gas.
I mention MAPP gas, as it is one of the fuel types you can use for lampworking. I tend towards MAPP gas over propane gas as it has a higher burning temperature, so the glass melts faster. However, this does come with the downside of increased fuel costs. MAPP gas generally costs £10 a 400g bottle, compared to around £8 for propane gas. It is something worth considering if you spend a lot of time at the torch – the costs do add up!
There are other types of fuel you can use depending on the type of torch you use. I use a hothead torch, which is safety rated for use with MAPP/propane gas. Other torches work on dual fuel, which is a combination of oxygen and propane gas. These torches are more expensive and require more safety understanding around the use and storage of oxygen gas.
It is super important to eye protection. This is not only to protect your eyes from high-speed pieces of glass, but also to protect your eyes from the sodium flare produced by the flame. Sodium flare is a bright orange light produced by the presence of glass in the flame. Over long periods of exposure this can permanently damage your eyes. Fortunately, you can buy didymium glasses which protect your eyes and filter out the sodium flare. They look especially cool too.
Lighting the Torch
I tend to use matches to light my torch, but a lot of people use a regular lighter. To light my hothead torch, I turn the nozzle to allow the gas to flow through. Then I light a match and allow it to burn just underneath the outlet of the hothead. This way, it allows the heat from the match to rise which gives a better chance of igniting the fuel. It is also the safest way, as when then torch does light, your hands are well out of the way of the flame.
Once the torch is lit, we are ready to begin melting the glass.
Melting the Glass
Next step, I pick up my mandrel and get to work with the glass.
It is important to slowly introduce the glass to the flame to prevent thermal shock. If not, pieces of hot glass can come flying towards you. I find that yellow and orange soft glass tend to do this the worst.
When making beads, I begin by melting a small ball of glass in the base colour I want. Simultaneously I heat my mandrel in the other hand.
Once enough glass is molten I gently press the glass against the mandrel and turn it away from me to gather more mass. Once I have enough glass, I use the hot flame to ‘flame-cut’ the glass from the mandrel. I am now left with a bead of molten glass on my mandrel, ready for decoration.
If I choose to add more colour, I repeat the previous steps. Slowly heating the glass and winding it around the mandrel to gather mass.
Shaping and Tools
Now comes the fun. At this point I have a donut-shaped bead of molten glass on my mandrel, but this can be easily transformed into any shape I fancy. My personal favourites are donut and bicone.
There are many tools available to lampworkers but often the very basics are the best. A lot of my shaping is done with a tool called a ‘marver’. The marver is essentially a flat surface which can either be mounted or held and used to define curves, edges and patterns in molten glass.
Raking tools can be used to add intricate patterns to the glass, although it is not my preferred way of decorating the bead. I often use tweezers to tweak the design as I find it gives me way more control over the glass.
There are many ways to decorate the bead further. I’ll list a few of my personal favourites here:
- Silvered ivory stringer (SIS)
- Baking Soda
Silvered ivory stringer (SIS) has GOT to be my favourite technique by a long shot. It gives a black on ivory webbed pattern that reminds me of rolling waves as the tide comes in. It reminds me an awful lot of home. It takes silver foil wrapped around molten ivory glass, then pulled into a thin string of glass. This ‘stringer’ can be used to intricately decorate the structure of the bead, adding depth and beauty to what often turns out to be a ‘seaside’ themed piece.
In very close second place of my favourite techniques is ‘dotting’ patterns onto the surface of the bead. I think it’s best to explain this one with pictures.
I love using baking soda on my beads. It gives a super rustic and aged feel and look to every bead. To achieve the effect I roll the bead in baking soda and return it to the flame where I cook it until the surface begins to bubble and ‘pop’. Admittedly this does appear quite alarming on first glance as the molten glass is literally exploding, but the aesthetic it achieves is irresistible.
I very commonly use frit to decorate the surface of my beads. There are endless types of frit and frit blends, but my favourites are raku frit and literally any reduction frit. Raku is a striking frit, so needs working very hot and then cooling quickly. The one I like to use produces gorgeous blue tones depending on the amount of striking used. Reduction frits are capable of producing a lovely metallic sheen when exposed to an reduction (oxygen-deprived) flame.
Cooling: Kiln or Vermiculite?
Once the bead is finished, it must be cooled in a controlled manner to prevent stress from building in the glass, causing it to shatter.
When I first started up, I didn’t have the means to have a kiln of my own, so I cooled my beads in a Quality Street tin filled with vermiculite (can be bought at any garden centre!).
This method works really well for beginners, but does not fully remove the stress from the beads, so they are still liable to breakage. The only way to fully remove internal stress is to kiln-anneal the beads – A slow cooling method with a controlled temperature decrease.
Annealing the beads in the kiln is important if you wish to sell your beads, as they are less likely to break, the will be more durable and will likely have a longer lifespan.
From here, the beads can be removed from the mandrel and cleaned to remove any excess bead release that may be stuck inside the hole.
I often like to etch my beads to give them an organic, matte finish. I think they look more appealing this way. I simply dip them into an etching solution for 15 minutes and then wash them thoroughly to remove any traces of the dip. Always remember to wear gloves!
This brings us to the finished article. A magnificent little piece of glass, shaped and decorated by hand. If you made it to this point, thank you for reading about my work. The process of lampworking is not easy, neither is it quick. But one thing is for sure, it is so damn fun and dangerously addictive!