Thursday, November 19, 2009

Essential Elements Part II: Making Lampwork Bead Jewelry

Green and Lavender Amulet with lampwork and fresh water pearls.

This is the second in my Essential Elements series, where I discuss things I couldn't live without for my small handcrafted bead and jewelry business. I would love to hear about your Essential jewelry making elements in the comments.

In this installment I'd like to talk about jewelry making. Clearly there are a number of design approaches you can take with lampwork beads. You can string them on thread, embellished with seed beads, gemstones, and what not. You can wire wrap them, or incorporate them into traditionally metalsmithed settings to make some very lovely jewelry. You can even use fiber in lots of creative ways to incorporate lampwork. I have created jewelry using all of these techniques except for traditional metalsmithing, however my collaborations with other artists have taken my beads down this path, with some really cool results.

Piece from my "Primitive Directions" collection, made with hammered fine silver components, wire wrapping, and lampwork.

My preferences lean toward making jewelry using components I make with fine silver wire. It simplifies the number of things I need to shop for, and makes my work unique.

Here are the elements I find essential for creating my jewelry, by category.


SoftFlex nylon coated wire rocks, period. Unless you make very tiny beads, and depending on the weight of the piece you're making, I'd recommend using the Medium or Heavy versions. I used other brands of wimpy stringing wire before and always had trouble with the crimps failing. No more. I found this article helpful on crimping, as was this one. I like to use fairly heavy weight sterling silver crimp tubes.

I keep beads I use a lot (e.g. sterling silver daisy spacer beads, small seamless sterling balls) in a shallow bowl on my jewelry design table for quick access. Others are kept in separate bins in compartmentalized plastic storage boxes. One thing I find essential for jewelry making are the stackable plastic 8 1/2" x 14 1/2" jewelry trays with velvet pads. I use these to transport jewelry to shows, to store jewelry, and to keep my unfinished projects in. They come in different depths, and I have several of them to fit my flatter and thicker jewelry pieces.

I have not found the grey fuzzy beading layout boards to be very useful for the way I work. When I have mine out it tends to get cluttered up with all kinds of flotsam, and I rarely seem to use it for its real purpose: laying out a piece before stringing. I can do this just fine in my stackable trays, which are much easier to store a partially completed project in.

Wire wrapping

I do a lot of wire wrapping, and love my small sized Swanstrom flat and round nosed pliers, and my regular sized Swanstrom flush cutters. Flush cutters are critical for removing sharp ends when wire wrapping, and for getting good clean joints for fusing fine silver.

I like to use fine or medium gauge (e.g. 24 or 20 ga) fine or sterling silver wire for wire wrapping, depending on how heavy the piece is. I have used a wide range of wire gauges for viking knit, and like the solid feel of some of the heavier gauge tubes I've made. For larger beads I use heavy sterling headpins (.027"), or fine silver ones embellished with metal clay. Smaller diameter ones work fine for crystal charms or very small beads, e.g. in charm/cha cha bracelets.

Metal Clay

Kate McKinnon is one of my Essential Elements! I took my first PMC class with Kate McKinnon about 4 years ago so I could learn how to make my own clasps, and it was one of the smartest investments I ever made. I learned so much, and continue to learn from her website and books. As such, I deeply respect her knowledge of this material, and her brilliant insight how to create functional, lasting pieces with it. I use my AIM-84 kiln to fire it (2 hours at 1650 for PMC3), and would not for a second consider torch firing any metal clay pieces. I have found Rio Grande's two part silicone molding compound to be very useful for making molds of interesting textures I find in nature.

Metal clay links (fine silver), impressed with the texture from fan coral I found in Mexico.

If you work with metal clay, you really need a tumbler with stainless steel shot to harden and finish your pieces. If you do any kind of metal work at all it's also great for shining up your work. When you take a class with Kate, you'll learn how fine silver wire is the perfect companion to metal clay - they are essentially the same material and will fuse together beautifully in your kiln. Since most fine silver wire is soft, the tumbler helps to make the wire harder and stronger. Other tools I use a lot include my chasing hammer, bench block, dapping block, and various sizes and shapes of forming mandrels.

I fuse fine silver wire to make rings, which I can use as is or hammered for interesting design elements, or folded to make loop in loop chain. My essential supplies for fusing fine silver include my flush cutters (mentioned previously), my butane torch, a solderite pad, tweezers, and a ramekin of water. These supplies also allow me to make my own head pins by balling up the end of the wire. For making sterling headpins or ear wires I also use a pickle pot - pickle removes the fire scale on the sterling. This isn't necessary for fusing or balling up fine silver. I've worked for years without using pickle, but recently added it to my studio because I've been making my own sterling silver ear wires.

Loop in Loop chain, made by fusing fine silver wire.

I've been making all of my jump rings by hand so far, using dowel rods and mandrels as the form, and either cutting each ring with my flush cutters or using a jeweler's saw. I recently bought a jump ring maker that works with a Dremel, but unfortunately it doesn't work with the Dremel model I have.


I don't do a lot of this, as I tend to make holes in metal clay using a cutter when the clay is wet, but when I do I use my Dremel tool and a tiny drill bit.

There you have it - my essential elements for making jewelry with my beads. It's probably a short list compared to some, but where possible in the kitchen and in the studio, I like to work with tools that do more than one thing.

What are your Essential Elements for making jewelry with your beads?


rosebud101 said...

Wow! There is so much crammed into that blog! No wonder your work is so beautiful and unique! You know your stuff!

Patty said...

Aww, thank you Mallory. It seemed like a lot of information when I was writing it, and now that it's done it looks like a pretty short list. I guess that's a good thing. :-)

Anonymous said...

Very nice work! Where can I find the items shown for sale?



Patty said...


Thank you. The amulet (first image) is in my Etsy shop, and the picture is linked to it.

The second and third pieces are not yet listed, but travel with me to certain shows (they are for sale). The earrings shown for the loop in loop chain example were sold.

Have a great day! Love your blog.



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