Beadmaking Basics

There are many different techniques for making modern art glass beads, but mine are examples of flameworked (also known as lampworked) beads. The glass I use comes in rods about the diameter of a pencil and is called soft glass, or soda-lime glass. Each bead is made one at a time, though sometimes more than one bead can be formed side by side on the same mandrel, which is helpful when making multiple beads of the same size or design.

dipping mandrel in bead release A stainless steel mandrel is prepared by dipping the end in bead release, a ceramic-type material that allows the finished bead to break away and slide off the metal after it is completed. 
dipping mandrel in bead release The release is allowed to air dry, or can be dried in the flame, and the prepared mandrels are placed within easy reach during a work session.
dipping mandrel in bead release The torch is lit by igniting the propane first, then oxygen is added to the flame mix to get a cleaner flame that also burns hotter. The working temperature for the soda-lime glass that I use is approximately 1400 degrees Fahrenheit.
dipping mandrel in bead release A rod of glass is warmed by dipping the end in and out of the flame. Bits of glass sometimes fly off at this point, so the rod is pointed away and held perpendicular to my body. The mandrel (in my left hand) is simultaneously heated in preparation for the application of glass.
dipping mandrel in bead release A larger gather of molten glass accumulates by angling the rod up and working the flame along the length of it. Since the glass is now accustomed to the heat, it is not likely to pop and can be worked at an angle more parallel to the body for easier viewing.
dipping mandrel in bead release When the gather of glass is the appropriate size for the size of the bead being made and is evenly heated, it is touched to the mandrel which is then rotated in order to wrap the glass around it.
dipping mandrel in bead release The bead is put back in the flame to smooth the glass into shape. I am stabilizing the end of the mandrel with a tool as I rotate the bead to promote “centering”, meaning the glass is even on all sides of the hole, and I don’t end up with a lop-sided bead.
dipping mandrel in bead release The molten bead is taken out of the flame and allowed to cool slightly in order to firm the glass into shape. When it is at the stage of heat shown in the photo, it must still be carefully rotated so that it stays on center and does not droop.
dipping mandrel in bead release After the base bead is formed, decoration may be applied to the surface with stringers, very thin strands of glass that have been pulled ahead of time. This is the most common way to get detail into a very small area.
dipping mandrel in bead release Here you can see that the applied stringer is still raised, and it could be left this way if that is the effect desired.
dipping mandrel in bead release The bead is reheated to melt the decoration smoothly into the surface.
dipping mandrel in bead release Graphite hand tools are sometimes used to shape a bead, but this is just one of many tools available to flameworkers.
dipping mandrel in bead release After the bead is completely shaped and decorated, it goes straight from the flame into the annealing kiln, where it is held at a temperature of 940 degrees Fahrenheit during my work session. From there the temperature is ramped up to 1000 degrees and held for 30 minutes, then the digital controller slowly takes it down to room temperature. This is a process that usually takes overnight, so I don’t get to see the final product until the next morning when I unload the annealer.
dipping mandrel in bead release Many safety precautions must be observed while making beads. One of the most important is wearing the correct protective eye wear. Special lenses in my glasses block the bright orange sodium flare shown in the photo, preventing permanent eye damage, as well as allowing me to see what I’m doing! The second set of darker lenses which are flipped up are a stronger protection which would be used while working borosilicate glass.
dipping mandrel in bead release After the beads have cooled overnight, each one is removed from its mandrel by twisting and pulling until the bead release crumbles and the bead slides off. A bead is permanently stuck if the bead release is compromised while the bead is being formed, a problem which becomes less frequent with practice and experience.
dipping mandrel in bead release Different artists have different ways of removing residual bead release from the hole of the bead. I prefer to grind each bead hole down cleanly to the glass. I use a bead reamer with a diamond bit.
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