Essential Elements Part I: Lampwork Bead Making
We've all seen the forum polls and posts about "the one tool you can't live without". But let's be serious, we need more than one, right? Rather than focus on tools per se, I'd like to list the top ten things I find essential to my lampwork bead making. Many of these things are no surprise.
1. A Torch. This is a no brainer. With all due respect to a handful of professional bead makers out there using HotHead torches, most lampwork artists use a dual-fuel torch, that is, one that uses a petroleum based fuel such as propane or natural gas, plus oxygen. You can get a Cricket for as low as about $130, or could spend a lot more. The type of torch you choose will impose some requirements for the Oxygen part of your set-up, so consider those two things in tandem when you're putting your studio together. I use a minor and a 5 lpm concentrator, and find that it does me pretty well most of the time. But I suspect my impatient side will soon want some extra heat, so I'll either get a Cricket (which is rumored to do better on the smaller concentrators) or figure something else out (see Trey Cornette note in the next item). I can make some pretty large beads right now, and am in no hurry to go bigger.
All this said, I happily used a HotHead on bulk fuel for several years (with a kiln, of course - see #3) and only felt the need to upgrade because I wanted to work faster. Patience is not my forte. The HotHead is a very capable torch and many appreciate their ability to work more slowly with it than they could on a hotter torch. Apparently not me.
2. Oxygen. One of the best purchases I ever made was my refurbished medical oxygen concentrator from Unlimited Oxygen, through Arrow Springs. Gone are the days when I had to wrangle the cylinders into and out of my car, and make special trips to the welding store to exchange them. It paid for itself in six months' time, back when I wasn't even making that many beads. I find it so liberating to be free from the O2 supply chain, regularly dedendent on some vendor for that part of my craft. My flame is not quite as hot as it could be with tanked O2, but in my mind it's worth it. Trey Cornette has a very cool tute on his site on how to tank your own O2 using some inexpensive supplies from the hardware store. You rock, Trey!
3. A Kiln. There is no debate about this one - you need to anneal your beads (cool them down slowly) and fiber blankets and vermiculite don't count if you want to sell your beads and keep your reputation intact. The best way is to put them directly from the flame into a kiln ramped to the right garaging temperature for the glass you work with. I got my kiln before I got my Minor burner - I was still happily on a Hothead, using bulk MAPP and Propylene fuel, but tired of seeing my beads break (even those which I had batch annealed). I found my AIM 84 kiln new on eBay, and very shortly after bought the bead door ring, making it an AIM 84BD. A close second to the kiln is a kiln controller, so you really know what temperature it is inside. A digital controller is essential to ensure that your beads are soaking at the right temperature, and certainly for implementing firing schedules should you decide to try fused glass. If all you use is the manual, analog control dial that came with the kiln, trust me, you don't really know how hot it is in there. Don't risk your beautiful beads to chance.
Something to consider if you're interested in Part II of this series (on Jewelry Making) is whether your kiln will allow you to fire metal clay. Some kilns are only good for annealing beads, but some can handle the high temperatures required to properly fire metal clay (1650 degrees F for PMC3). Do your homework and know your plans before buying a kiln, and your kiln can flex with you as your plans grow.
4. Safety Equipment. The ISGB website has a downloadable paper on safety that everyone should read. It covers safety in handling fuels, ventilation, eye protection, chemicals (e.g. etching solutions), ergonomics (proper torching posture), and more. Anyone making glass beads should definitely be wearing special eyewear designed to protect your eyes from harmful radiation. I got my $13 360 cfm range hood at a Bargainland scratch and dent sale on eBay, and it cost more for shipping than the hood. I need to modify the installation to get it closer to my work surface, or install some kind of cowling, but the hood is great. Check Andrea Guarino's blog for a very helpful ventilation tutorial. I hope to modify my set up to more closely approximate hers some day.
5. Tools for pushing glass around. The ones that I reach for most often are my grocery store paring knife, and my tungsten pick. Probably a close third is my Uncle Al's rod grabbers to squeeze the last bit of life out of all my shorts! Yeah, I'm probably what they call a press whore, but honestly, I don't use many of them lately. I should trade them for things I really can use. But if you're going to press, I highly recommend Zooziis - the built-in alignment pins on the presses are brilliant and effective, but there are several good brands out there. That said, I think it's good to shrug the tools and glass bending tricks occasionally, and just let the glass do its thing. For me, this means making gravity tubes that require no tools at all to make. Freeing, to say the least.
"Gravity Tubes" necklace. Beads made without tool intervention, and fine silver molded from fan coral (already dead). More on the silver in the next installment on jewelry.
6. Leather Apron and Fire Proof Work Surface. I know, I always feel like a dork wearing this to my classes at Arrow Springs when nobody else sports one. But I get distracted easily, and sometimes will put a cold rod into the flame (pointed at myself - how does this happen?), and end up being the bullseye for a flying hot glass projectile. That, or my mind will start to wander when I'm wrangling a huge blob for a striped cane, and the whole mess drips in my lamp. While I'm not known as a clothes horse, and it wouldn't be the end of the world to get some burn holes in some of my duds, it's the principle that bothers me. I'd just rather not. I know, you're thinking, "what will she be like when she gets to that 'forgetful' age", and well, I'm wondering that too. What was I talking about? Oh yeah, aprons. Right. The leather of the apron gives me a few seconds' worth of reaction time to either 1) scream loudly, 2) jump up and brush the molten bits off, or 3) curse like a sailor when these incidents happen. I feel lucky to have never suffered a serious burn because of my scatter brained tendencies.
About the Fire proof work surface. I can't count how many times I've dropped molten bits of glass, either through some or no fault of my own on my work surface. I have a piece of wonderboard (essentially concrete wallboard) on my table, painted black (for reasons I can't quite recall), and the nice part about it is the 1" squares impressed in it. Comes in very handy when I'm trying to make matched earring pairs of tubular beads. The bad part is the icky smell I get when dropping hot glass on it (from the paint). My new studio will either have concrete or some kind of natural stone work surfaces.
7. Mandrels, glass, and decorative elements. You just have to do your thing here. I've got every kind of mandrel from the teeny tiny ones that Sharon Peters embeds in her creatures for appendages, to a 3/4" whopper that I'm still trying to work into my repertoire. Puffy mandrels, cone shaped ones, 2-hole, you name it, I've got it, just not the ones for Pandora or Troll beads, which is a craze I just haven't joined.
As for glass, I'm presently just a COE 104 girl, though I've got some COE 96 Gaffer on my table from a custom spacer order that I must clear off (could not find that green in any other brand). I've also got a couple of clear boro rods (with electrical tape on the ends to mark them) to use as punties when pulling cane.
My decorative elements are my own handmade murrini and cane, reduction cane (loving iris gold and silver blue), silver leaf and foil, fine silver wire, and of course, raku. I've dabbled with cubic zirconia, frit, enamels and pixie dusts, but just don't use them much. A little ivory glass, some silver leaf, and I'm happy as a clam. It really is possible to learn a lot and do a lot with just a little in this art form, but it's also easy to get caught up in every craze coming down the pike and soon half your paycheck is going to a glass supplier for the fancy $100/lb silver-glass-color-of-the-week or the latest tool you just can't live without. I urge you to resist, and just get to know the glass you've got for a spell. You won't be sorry.
8. An investment that totally pays for itself is a membership in the International Society of Glass Beadmakers (ISGB). For $55 you can virtually and physically hobnob with some of the most experienced bead makers on the planet (yes! it's INTERNATIONAL), learn about new bead making techniques in the forums, participate in challenges and contests, and more. And they put on a kick ass conference called The Gathering every year that is a Gold Mine of information and opportunity. Don't miss out on this - join now!
9. Who knew I'd be pressed to come up with 10 things. Oh, YES! My Dremel. While they don't seem to last long for me, a cordless high speed rotary tool is indispensible for wet cleaning beads. I've got thick and thin diamond bits from Widget Supply, and clean my beads in a small tupperware container of water, wearing old clothes and eye protection. Yes, there are better bead cleaning tools out there that are less likely to draw blood, but it works pretty good for me. Others are extensively covered in the forums, so check it out if you're inclined. Oh, and for God's sake, don't dump your container of bead cleaning water down your drain, or your chances of connecting to the intertubes (next item) will be greatly diminished. Seriously, go dump it outside - it's really bad for your plumbing.
10. Number 10 is huge. I have to say that the Internet is an absolutely indispensible tool for modern glass beadmaking. If you live in an area where classes are not easily found, or can't afford the bucks they require, or are just naturally curious what is going on in the world of lampwork and who is doing what or how to to that thing you saw, you must be connected. There are several great forums where you can learn for free, share your own successes and failures, and make some great friends. One is Lampwork Etc., others are Wet Canvas, the ISGB forum, and yet another is Torch Bugs. Some very impressive bead artists have never taken a formal class and have learned everything they know from reading books, the internet, and from trial and error in their own studios. Many artists freely share their knowledge online in their blogs and in forums, and it's all there for you. And for the most part, bead makers in general are the nicest, generous and helpful folks I've ever met, so get out there and get connected with some, even if it's through the inter tubes. You won't be sorry.
I have to write in a #11. I can do that since it's my list, right? I think music is key. I love torching to music, the louder the better, and while seated only 3' from my iPod player, I do use the remote control to jack the volume up or down as the songs dictate. And yes, I do tend to sing at the top of my lungs on occasion, just ask the neighbors. I'm pretty sure they're getting tired of my current playlist, and are planning to get me an iTunes gift card for Christmas. What do I listen to? Well, most of it my husband and mother don't care for (but my teenage son does), but there is a surprising variety from folk, bluegrass, alternative, classical, and rap. Yeah. Hmmmm. What's up with that?
In the next edition I'll cover essential elements for making jewelry with lampwork beads. Until then, what are Your essential elements for bead making?