lampworking glass

How to Make a Bead

How to Make a Bead

In this post, I will introduce a very basic method of making a simple round or donut shaped glass bead. A nicely shaped round bead is the very first technique a beginner lampworker needs to learn. It may look simple, but it is deceptively so. You will need to learn to control glass in and out of the flame to make it nice and donut round.

Safety and Disclaimer

Lampworking is dangerous! It involves manipulating very hot glass with an open flame. There are very real risks of fire. Please refer to my "Lampworking Safety" post for safety precautions and details. You resume all responsibility for your own safety! Do not lampwork without understanding all of the risks.

How to Make a Bead

Here's a step-by-step guide to a very simple round bead with no embellishments or patterns:

Preparations: Coat your mandrels with bead release the night before. I dip my mandrels so that about 4-5 inches on the end is coated. Some people like dipping mandrels in the middle so you can hold it with both hands. It is personal preference.

The bead release that I use is Fusion Bead Release. It is very very strong. I've never had a bead break the bead release while I am working on it, even when using bead presses and molds. It's even a little too strong, since it requires some force to get the beads off the mandrel after annealing.

Some bead releases are flame dry, so you can dip them and dry them in the torch flame as you need them. I always air dry mine, so I dip mandrels the night before.

It is a good idea to invest in good bead release from the start. It's a cheap thing, and will save you from lots of frustration. I previously had a cheapo bead release that came with my hothead kit, and I was constantly frustrated from beads breaking the release off the mandrel when I did so much as poke a plunged dot! I'd end up with a half made bead spinning on the mandrel, dangerously close to sliding down to my hand! Just get good bead release - you'll thank me!

Turn on torch. If you have a hothead, turn on your fuel and light the flame. If you run on propane/oxygen, remember POOP!

Assemble all of your glass and tools, and put them in an easily accessible location on your bench. You don't have a lot of time to be searching for tools when you have a hot bead on a mandrel in one hand, so it's best to have everything organized and ready to go before you start.

Step 1: Heat the glass rod. To do this safely, you have to move the rod in and out of the flame so it heats slowly. Also twirl the rod so gravity plays on it equally, never letting the end droop too far.

If you stick the rod in the flame too quickly, the glass rod is prone to shatter. Tip: start heating the glass rod by putting it in the very top of your flame where the fire is coolest. Then slowly bring the rod closer to the widest part of the flame. I usually work in the flame area about 3-4 inches from the torch. You should see the glass rod start to ball up as it melts. Don't let it get so hot that it melts.

Step 2:As the glass gets hot, start heating the coated mandrel as well. It should heat to an orange glow.

I am right handed, so at this point I usually have the glass rod in my right hand, and the coated mandrel in my left hand. Head up the bead release on the mandrel until it glows. This will allow glass to stick to the bead release. If your mandrel is not hot enough, your glass will not catch. Just heat it up a little more.

Step 3: As the glass becomes molten, start winding it around the heated mandrel. The glass and the mandrel should be in the flame as you do this.

I still have the glass in my right hand, mandrel in my left. I usually wind the glass a few times completely, until I get a size that I want.

Step 4: When the bead is the size you want, start pulling the glass rod away from the mandrel, continuing to rotate the mandrel the whole time. The glass will get thinner and thinner, and eventually break, a technique known as flame-cutting.

Rotate the bead on the mandrel around, and let gravity shape it. I rely on gravity to shape my beads quite a lot. I believe that you should never start using tools until you can consistently make good symmetrical beads using only fire and gravity.

Heat the bead in the flame to get it soft and movable, but not dripping! Take the bead out of the flame and rotate it along the axis of the mandrel, allowing gravity to shape it as it cools. Reintroduce the bead to the flame and repeat this step until the bead is nice and round. It is important to shape the bead outside of the flame when you are a beginner, until you learn flame characteristics. It is too easy for a beginner to heat their bead too hot, and have it drip off the mandrel into the bench. However, you must also be aware not to keep it outside the flame for too long, since if the bead gets too cold, it will crack! You want to keep the bead at the "just right" temperature.

Step 5: Take the bead out of the center of the flame to its cooler edge. Continue rotating the glass. This process is called flame annealing -- it makes sure the glass' temperature doesn't drop too quickly, which can cause it to break.

There is some controversy over whether "flame annealing" is really "annealing". It is definitely not good enough to "flame anneal" your beads without going into a real annealing cycle in the kiln. But it is better than nothing, especially if a beginner does not own a kiln.

That said, I will still typically flash my beads in the flame just before I put them in the kiln to garage. Just don't think that "flame annealing" will get you off the hook for buying a real kiln. It won't. A percentage of your beads will still crack if not properly kiln annealed. For further discussion on the science of annealing, see my "Science of Glass" post.

Step 6: Further anneal the beads using either vermiculite or fiber blankets, and then eventually a kiln.

I sound like a broken record but - kiln anneal if you can, fiber blanket or vermiculite if you don't have a kiln. To anneal the beads, you just put the bead (still on the mandrel) into a kiln. Usually you leave one end of the mandrel poking out so you can still move the bead around to make room for other beads if necessary. Run your annealing protocol (see my recommended protocols here), then wait several hours for your beads to anneal and the temperature to be brought back down to room temp.

Step 7: Once the beads are at room temperature, soak them in a bowl of water that is also at room temperature. Then you can more easily remove the bead from the mandrel.

This step is optional, but soaking the bead release in water helps in easing the beads off of the mandrel, especially if you are using extra strong bead release like Fusion Bead Release. If you have any persistently stuck beads, I have found that using a simple riveter works really well to remove beads stuck on mandrels. I recommend this one.

Step 8: Use a bead hole reamer to clean out the hole.

Once you have removed the bead from the mandrel, you will still have some leftover bead release inside the hole of the bead. You want to clean this out before you use it for any jewelry purposes. You can buy a bead reamer to remove the bead release manually. However, I have found it is faster to use a long diamond coated reamer as a dremel insert. You can use the dremel to clean out beads much faster than doing it one by one by hand.

And voila! You have a bead! I hope this short tutorial is helpful for beginners interested in getting into lampworking! If you have any questions or comments, please reply in the comments section below! Thanks

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!