lampworked glass

Lampworking Tools

Lampworking Tools

Close up of the shaping tools I keep in my lampworking hood. Yes, I use lots of pokers and mashers! (Note my beautiful patchwork wood desk!)

Close up of the shaping tools I keep in my lampworking hood. Yes, I use lots of pokers and mashers! (Note my beautiful patchwork wood desk!)

The most basic tools necessary to make a glass bead are glass and a flame source. But because glass must be kept molten hot to manipulate it, we need special tools that can withstand the heat of the flame in order to shape and form glass as desired.

Often, tools are made of metal or graphite, since both of these materials can withstand the high temperatures in a torch flame. Graphite is unique because it does not stick to molten glass, so many marvers and pokers are made of graphite. Steel, tungsten, and brass are commonly used metals.

Required Tools

  • Torch/Bench burner - this is a fixed torch that creates the flame. Torches can be fueled by MAPP gas, or a mixture of propane and oxygen. (rarely, natural gas and oxygen is also used). I work on a GTT Lynx, but I previously started on a Hothead. I encourage beginners to start on a Hothead to make sure they like lampworking before diving into the more expensive options.

  • Fuel - the easiest fuel source is to get a Hothead torch that can run on small cans of MAPP gas or propane gas (buy this at Home depot or equivalent store); a hotter fuel source is propane/oxygen. I have a small BBQ tank of propane that lasts for several months of beading. Oxygen is used more rapidly, and rather than deal with the hassle of having large unwieldy oxygen tanks in my studio, I choose to purchase an oxygen concentrator which can purify oxygen directly from room air. An oxygen concentrator is a few hundred dollar cost, but will save money in the long run if you intend to bead for years to come.

  • Mandrels - basically a long metal rod that forms the "hole" of the bead. Glass is wound completely around the rod, and when the rod is removed after the bead is annealed, a hole going completely through the glass remains. Mandrels are also important so you can hold onto the bead without getting your hands too close to the flame.

  • Bead release - a clay like coating on the mandrel applied prior to winding glass around it. Bead release aids in removal of glass off of the metal mandrel. Without bead release (or with a crappy bead release) you end up with glass permanently stuck to the metal rod.

  • Glass - lampwork glass is usually sold in rods about 8mm in diameter. (Fusing glass that comes in flat sheets can also be used if you cut them into strips, but be careful of sharp edges!) Rods are just easier to manipulate and use for small scale lampworking.

    I recommend Effetre glass (COE 104) for beginners since it is relatively economical and comes in a wide variety of colors.

I do not recommend using bottle glass or window glass or any other "found glass" if you are just beginning. They tend to be "shocky," meaning they are prone to thermal shock when glass is first introduced into the flame, and are generally difficult to use. But found glass can be an interesting and fun to experiment with as you gain experience. However, you cannot mix glass from different bottles, even from the same manufacturer as different lots may have different COEs.

  • Fiber blanket, Vermiculite, Annealing Bubbles, or Kiln - Kilns are expensive (mine cost $745), but they are the best option. For those starting out, you can use a low cost alternative (fiber blanket or annealing bubbles). These are all methods to slow cool your glass beads back to room temperature. Kilns are the best because they slow cool the slowest and are infinitely programmable.

Kilns are used to anneal your glass pieces after they are produced. This means that a kiln will ramp the glass back to room temperature slowly to avoid thermal shock. The annealing process is required to relieve thermal stress and make glass more stable. Any glass you intend to sell or give to others should be kiln annealed to avoid eventual breakage.

Optional Tools

  • Kiln - I would consider a kiln to be practically required, unless you are a very new beginner, just testing the waters. If you find yourself getting frustrated losing your beautiful beads to thermal shock as I was, consider saving up for a good kiln.

  • Marver - A marver is a basically a flat piece of usually graphite material that you can use to shape your beads on. The marver draws heat out of the bead, so this can create interesting effects on special glass that have striking properties (change colors on heating and cooling). There are two basic types of marvers - a torch mounted marver that is fixed on top of your torch (this is nice to have to keep some smaller glass pieces like murrini warm) and a hand held marver, usually a block of graphite on a handle, useful for manipulating glass by hand.

  • Picks - usually either straight or with a 90 degree bend at the tip. These are useful in raking glass, poking bubbles into glass, or otherwise fine manipulations of molten glass. Do not use your tools directly in the flame, this will damage them over time.

  • Tweezers - useful for picking up small pieces of glass, removing amounts of glass from a hot bead, applying murrini or metal foil, etc.

  • Shapers, molds, and presses - These are all tools that will help you shape your glass to the desired form. You can purchase them in many shapes and sizes. They are nice if you have to make a set of consistently sized beads (for a bracelet or necklace set for example). However, do not rely too much on shapers and molds. In my opinion, you should be able to consistently make nice donut round beads without the help of any tools before you take the step to buy manufactured shapers.

  • Frit trays, glass shears, hot fingers, marble molds, bead reamers, bead coring machines...

    There are an endless amount of additional tools you can buy for your lampworking hobby! Please take the time to really learn the skills with the minimal amount of tools first before delving into everything else.

I have two magnetic strips installed on the side of my hood for holding even more tools! Tweezers and pokers are a necessity! There are lots of tools that I've re-purposed for lampwork use (pink nail file, painting spatula, dental tools, etc)

I have two magnetic strips installed on the side of my hood for holding even more tools! Tweezers and pokers are a necessity! There are lots of tools that I've re-purposed for lampwork use (pink nail file, painting spatula, dental tools, etc)

I hope you found this review of Lampworking Tools helpful. What tools have you found to be indispensable in your lampworking routines? Any tools you think I should add to the required and optional lists? Please feel free to comment!

What is Lampworking?

What is Lampworking?

Lampworking is:

  • an art
  • a form of glassworking
  • beautiful
  • a lot of Fun!
  • an expensive hobby
  • the process of using a flame torch to melt and mold glass

Lampworking is a process used in the forming of glass, typically smaller glass objects like beads, marbles, small sculptures, laboratory glassware, etc (usually less than 1-2 inches in diameter). You may be familiar with glassblowing, another glassforming technique that involves molten glass on a much larger scale (vases, vessels, plates, large sculptures).

Whereas glassblowing uses a very hot furnace (a glory hole) to heat the glass to white hot (around 2,400 F or 1320 C), lampworking uses a smaller torch to melt glass.

Brief History

Lampworking has started as early as the Egyptians over 5000 years ago. Many Egyptian decorative beads made in that era survive today, a testament to how durable and strong glass actually is! These original beads are thought to have been made in cone-shaped furnaces instead of the modern torch.

Lampworking became very popular in Murano, Italy in the 14th century. In the early days, glass was melted using the flame of an oil lamp (which is why it is called "lampworking"). They would blow air or use a bellows to direct flame from an oil lamp to heat pieces of glass. Lampworking in Italy was considered a very close guarded secret for about 400 years.

Eventually American artists began learning lampworking techniques, experimenting, and developing new styles. Today, most people use torches that burn propane and oxygen or portable MAPP gass.

Types of Glass

Soda-lime glass

  • the most common type of glass used in lampworking
  • "soft glass" because it melts at a lower temperature than boro
  • more brittle and prone to thermal shock than boro
  • has a much broader range of color than boro
  • can find unique colors including silver glass, metallics, opalinos, organics, webbing, etc
  • COE ~104

Borosilicate glass

  • "hard glass" because it requires higher temperatures (hotter, more expensive torches required) to melt than soft glass
  • more thermal stable, less resistant to thermal shock, less prone to cracking when cooled (therefore more forgiving to work with)
  • however, has a narrower working temperature
  • colors are more limited in range, but this is constantly expanding over time as boro gains popularity
  • some boro glass have very unique color properties not seen in soft glass (eg oxidizing or reducing glass)
  • more expensive than soft glass
  • COE ~33

(Other types of glass include Bullseye COE ~90, Spectrum COE ~96, Czech glass COE variable)

Beads, Marbles, Sculptures, and more...

When I say "lampworking," I usually refer to the process of making lampworked beads. However, lampworking is a versatile technique that can be used to make a variety of glass objects. Popular products include:

  • Glass beads for jewelry
  • Glass Marbles
  • Small glass sculptures and figurines
  • Hollow glass beads for storing small amounts of cremains, flower petals, dandelion seeds, small seed beads, sand, small shells, etc
  • Glass vessels with stopper, able to hold small amounts of liquid like perfume, holy water, etc

There are also a very large number of styles and techniques to be mastered in the art of lampworking. Examples of different techniques include:

  • Stringer application - for horizontal and vertical lines, scrollwork, surface decoration
  • Dots, plunged dots - for surface decoration, making flower petals, internal trapped bubbles
  • Raking - using a tool to manipulate and move surface glass
  • Encasing - covering a bead entirely in a layer of clear glass
  • Implosions - 3d flower, explosion, or vortex look inside clear glass, popular in marbles

Lampworking is a complex art, and one piece often requires mastery of many sets of skills.

Size Limitations

You can make many different types of glass objects using lampworking, but you are limited by size. Buying a larger and hotter torch can allow you to make larger glass objects, but there is an upper limit. You will never be able to make things as large as glass blowers with a furnace glory hole are able to (bowls, vases, paperweights, large sculptures).

On a Hothead torch, the maximum thickness is about 1 inch in diameter, assuming you have a digital kiln. Anything that big will need to be kiln annealed. A 1 inch marble is guaranteed to crack if cooled in a fiber blanket or vermiculite. Glass objects will be increasingly harder to melt on a Hothead as you approach the size limit. The hothead simply does not have enough heat to heat the glass completely through when it gets larger than about 1 inch diameter.

If you are interested in working larger, you must invest in a larger, hotter, and more expensive torch. You will also need to upgrade your fuel system to a propane and oxygen source. This comes with its own set of expenses (propane tank, fuel, propane regulator, fuel lines, check valves, flashback arrestors; oxygen tank and oxygen service if you want tanked oxygen, oxygen concentrator for an alternative, oxygen regulator, etc).

On this setup, you will be able to make glass objects up to about paperweight size <3 data-preserve-html-node="true" inches. I typically do not work so large. But if you decide to make large objects, understand that it will take longer to add glass and heat up to shape, so will require more and more patience the larger you go.

Additionally, larger objects must be carefully heated continuously. The parts of the object not directly in the flame will cool and be at risk of thermal shock if not evenly heated occasionally (insurance heat). For this reason, boro is typically favored for larger marbles and sculptures.

Larger sculptures can be created as long as no part of it exceeds 1-2 inches in diameter. However, legs or any long thin protruding parts are most at risk of thermal cracking and require insurance heating.

Lampworking is a very complex and intricate art, the mastery of which takes years of dedicated practice. However, it is very fun and rewarding, and soon you will have a beautiful collection of fine glass pieces of art!

What do you enjoy about lampworking? What techniques are you most interested in learning? Post links to your glass works of art below, I am interested in seeing everyone's work!

Additional Reading:

For more information on the Tools needed to begin lampworking, please continue on to my post "Lampworking Tools!"

For more information on the actual process of making a bead, please continue on to my post How to Make a Bead!

If you are interested in more chemistry and physics, look at "The Science of Glass!"