Glass Class 101:Making Lampwork Glass Beads

Soooo, how do you DO that???

This is the question I’m most frequently asked when i mention i make glass beads (after of course, we get past that initial stage of incomprehension where i explain that yes, a person can make their own glass beads if they so choose, and no, it’s not really like glassblowing). 

SO! in honour of that ever repeating question, i decided to make a video demonstrating that process.  Ha!  easier said than done.  Unfortunately life and the whims of a teenage schedule means that video never quite happened. 

Instead, thanks to the wonder of modern technology, the internet and lots of people with way more time and video talent than I will ever have, here are some YouTube videos (of other glass beadmakers) demonstrating how they make their glass beads.  I’ve explained the process and components on this page: My Glass Beads.  Any questions? let me know…

My beads are essentially made just like these – but bigger.  Enjoy!

Simple disc bead:

Encased floral:

Sculpted polar bear:

(Yes, someday i will get my own video made and posted… someday…)

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Glass Class 101: Annealing & Glass Beads

beads in annealing oven or kiln 

(Picture of my beads in the kiln just after the annealing process)

ANNEAL: Definition: The process of slowly cooling a completed glass object in a kiln or annealing oven. This is an integral part of glassmaking because if a hot glass object is allowed to cool too quickly, it will be highly strained by the time it reaches room temperature; indeed, it may break, either as it cools or at some later date. Highly strained glass breaks easily if subjected to mechanical or thermal shock.
(Source: adapted from the Glass Dictionary, Corning Museum of Glass)

Anneal, Annealing, Annealed Glass?
You might be thinking “huh?” but you’re already very familiar with annealed glass. From light bulbs to drinking glasses, wine bottles to windows, shower walls and windshields, you’re surrounded by annealed glass every, single day.

If you collect other forms of glass art like sculptures, vases and paperweights, they’re all annealed too. It’s such a standard part of glass manufacturing that we don’t even have to think or know much about it. Since glass isn’t randomly shattering or exploding all around us, we can just understand and assume that all professionally made glass has been properly annealed.

So why is annealing the topic of the day?
Because much like bead poop, it’s such a simple thing yet should be one of your key considerations when purchasing beads made by individual lampwork artists. Essentially, an annealed glass bead has had its interior stress removed and is therefore much stronger and more stable than an unannealed bead.

Now, it’s still glass of course (and subject to all the many ways glass can be broken, chipped, crushed or misused) but after annealing, it’s the most durable piece of glass that each glass artist can create. And considering the investment required to purchase many of the most spectacular glass beads on the market today, it’s becoming an increasingly important issue.

Ok, so how are beads annealed?
Beads are annealed by placing them in a kiln (or annealing oven) usually heated to between 900-1100°F and slowly running them through a controlled cooling cycle. During this cycle the kiln heat is maintained at a consistent temperature to ensure the interior of the bead cools at the same speed as the exterior, thus strengthening the glass by eliminating all interior stress.

Sometimes beads are placed in the heated kiln straight from the torch, while other times they are cooled in vermiculite (or some other insulating material) first and then run through the kiln annealing process at a later date. This latter process is called “batch annealing”.

Different types of glass require different cooling cycles.  The annealing schedule is calculated from technical information based on the type of glass, size and thickness of each glass bead. For my beads, the cycle typically takes about eight hours.

What happens when glass beads are not annealed?
Due to their much smaller size, unannealed/improperly annealed beads are more likely to just split in half rather than shatter or explode.  If it’s a sculptural bead, then it may eventually lose an appendage or two… or three.  Not from being dropped or banged, just while it’s sitting there minding its own business.

This could happen after a period of days, weeks or even months and is generally referred to as a “thermal crack” or “thermal shock”. Now, not all unannealed beads will break but many do. Here’s a picture of some of mine:

unannealed beads showing thermal shock

Come on, it’s just a bead. Is all this fuss really necessary?
Because the field of contemporary lampworking is still so new, there is still much debate regarding whether kiln annealing should be accepted as a standard part of the glass beadmaking process.

Commercial glass manufacturers, glassblowers and the makers of other larger scale glass art forms don’t debate this issue.  It’s a given.  Due to the larger scale of their creations, the impact of breakage due to improper/no annealing is much greater, often leading to quite explosive (and hence more dangerous) results. Can you imagine the effect of a large glass vessel or sculpture suddenly splitting into pieces?

There’s now a growing movement in the international glass beadmaking community to encourage all glass artists to anneal any beads made for sale. Ongoing efforts are also being made to educate and encourage new artists of the importance of adapting kiln annealing as a standard part of their beadmaking process.

Do you anneal your beads?
Yes, I do. When I first started collecting (and then making) glass beads I really didn’t know or understand what all the annealing fuss was all about. Then the beads I was making started to break – not all but some. I didn’t much care then because they were my newbie beads and really? …kinda fugly.

However, once my skills improved and I was spending 30-60 minutes or more on a single bead, I began to realize how much work is involved in creating a quality bead and my attitude changed. I went online and after exhaustive research found out enough to understand why my beads were breaking.  From there, it was an easy decision buy a kiln and begin annealing my beads. (If you’d like to see what my kiln looks like, check my Studio Page).

So, tell me again. Why exactly does a glass bead need to be annealed?
Glass has to be heated to a molten state before it can be manipulated into a piece of art. If the piece is allowed to cool at room temperature (or below its strain point) then the exterior of the glass cools at a faster rate than the interior creating a form of internal tension referred to as “stress”. Although stressed glass looks the same to the naked eye as annealed glass, it is neither as strong nor as stable and can be subject to breakage at any point.

Large scale glass pieces often must be annealed over a period of days, weeks or even months to remove the internal tension from the creation process. A typical glass bead can be annealed over a period of just a few hours.

I could try to give you the long, technical explanation but unfortunately I skipped most of my high school science classes. So instead, read this page on Annealing , then watch the two videos below from the experts at the Corning Museum of Glass. They’re trained glass art professionals (unlike me):

Annealing Glass: (shows the difference between annealed vs. unannealed and/or improperly annealed glass)

Prince Rupert Drop: (shows the effect of internal tension in even a small piece of unannealed  glass)

Get it?
Before today, you may never have heard nor cared about annealing. Now that you know more, you’ve moved one step closer to becoming an informed collector of artisan glass beads. Due to their beauty, intricacy and uniqueness, artist-made beads have raised little bits of glass from simple adornment to valuable representations of contemporary art glass.

People (like me) who were once happy with an inexpensive string of mass-market glass beads will now spend hundreds (or for some, thousands) of dollars to purchase a single bead from their favourite artist. And now, knowing that your artisan glass bead is not only beautiful but also professionally annealed to make it as strong, durable and stable as possible…?

Well, (as Martha would say) that’s a very, very good thing.

Questions? Leave a comment or send me an email at evelyn@shebamakeda.com.

Students, take your seats, please…

old school desks 

Glass Class 101 is back in session! 

After much research, the next class in the series will be posted this weekend.

(isn’t this pic fantastic? it’s from a photographer named Whitand on Flickr.  Click on the desks to go to their photostream…)

Next session of Glass Class 101 delayed…

AAAAARRRRGGGGHHHHH!!!!!! 

… for at least another week.  Looks like I’ll need more time to research as the planned subject is much more complex and controversial than I originally thought.

Update 12/15:  I think it’s probably safe to say that the Glass Class 101 sessions will be on hiatus until the new year.  I’m off to enjoy the best of the holiday season.

Glass Class 101: Bead Poop

Bead Poop 

 Photo:  Mass market, lampwork beads –  lightly dry-reamed
BEAD POOP: Definition: (1) the crumbly, dirty remnants of bead release left in a lampwork bead’s hole once it has cooled and the mandrel removed; (2) the powdery crap you’ve learned to clean out of mass market lampwork beads so it doesn’t leave a mess all over your design; (3) the chunks of clay inside your bead holes that you eventually learn should be reamed under water so you don’t inhale all that dust.

Bead poop.  Yup, that’s what you’re seeing.  Now if you’ve ever bought mass market, lampwork beads like these, then you know exactly what bead poop is and how much of a pain it is to remove.  The beads above are from my old glass bead collection, purchased about 12 years ago (long before i ever knew anything about artisan lampwork) and at the time, very popular with my customers. 

Until I discovered artist-made lampwork, I accepted these glass beads as among the best I could find, bead poop as a normal part of bead buying and had an assortment of reamers to clean it out on my own.

So why is bead poop the topic of the day?
Because it’s a such simple thing yet one of the key differences between beads made by individual lampwork artists and factory-made, mass market lampwork beads.  Yes, both are made of glass.  Sure, both are made by hand.  And of course, both came off the torch with their holes filled to the gills with chunks of powdery bead poop.

Well, what’s the difference?
Lampwork artists clean out their bead poop.  Reaming bead holes is a sucky job (even for us) so we don’t make you do it.

And we won’t use just any bead release.  We worry about it.  We discuss it.  We even argue about it.  We hound bead release makers about improving their product and expect them to follow up.  We constantly experiment with multiple bead release formulas and various types of diamond reamers to figure out the clearest path to a completely poop-free bead.

You may not know this but lampwork nirvana is a transparent bead with a completely clear (not frosted) hole.  It means we’ve found that perfect combination of a bead release strong enough to securely hold the bead on the mandrel while we’re making it yet smooth enough to leave a completely clear hole.  And it means that one of the many reamers we’ve tried has just the right grade of fine diamond grit to clean out every last scrap of bead poop without also scratching up the inside of the glass.

But why such effort?
Because we care.  Every sale is an affirmation that one more person out there has become informed enough to appreciate what each of us has worked so hard to create.  Because we know you could have bought any of the gazillions of inexpensive, mass market glass beads out there but instead you bought ours.

Each and every purchase makes it all worth it: the hundreds (or thousands) spent setting up and stocking our studios; the many hours bent over the torch mastering each lampwork technique and exploring the possibilities of each rod of glass; not to mention the time spent ducking exploding glass, nursing burns and blisters, calculating ventilation, oxygen and fuel requirements, and researching the latest developments in hot glass, equipment or a new source of design inspiration.

Get it?
When you buy artisan lampwork, you’re not just buying a poop-free bead.  What you have in your hand is the accumulated effort of everything that one lampwork artist has struggled to achieve since they first sat behind a torch.

And that my dear readers, is the significance of bead poop.