There are many sources for beads out there. All beads that you will find in well known hobby outlets and most you find in online outlets are mass produced or hand-made and not properly finished examples – don’t get me wrong, there are some beautiful commercially available beads – after all, someone somewhere had the inspiration to design them in the first place!
In answer to a question posed to me recently regarding why hand-crafted lampwork beads are more expensive than those commercially available, I thought I would take you through the process of making a bead!
The term lampwork is an ancient description of how beads were made around 5000 years ago…but I will save the historical information for another time! Nowadays each lampworker will have a workspace where they have set up their specialised glass melting torch and associated equipment. They will also have a kiln and various other tools, so it is already obvious that a serious lampworker will have invested heavily in their set-up. It is possible to make beads using a less expensive set-up, but this route is mainly for the hobbyist.
So, how does a rod of glass get turned into a beautiful glassy creation? Firstly the mandrel is prepared. A mandrel is a stainless steel rod that has been dipped in bead release. Bead release is a special clay preparation, containing aluminium crystalline silicate.
The glass rod is then melted and wound onto the mandrel, where it is shaped. Sounds easy? Don’t forget we are dealing with molten glass, which takes a lot of practice and experience to control! In most cases, apart from spacer beads, the base bead process is only the beginning and depending on the shape and decoration, an individual bead can take up to half an hour to make – in the case of complicated seascapes, the bead can take much longer to make due to the layers that have to be built up and the preparation pieces that have to be made first!
So, we now have a bead……not quite yet. Making the bead is only a fraction of the process! Each bead is popped into the kiln, as when a bead is made, stresses are introduced into the glass which means that there is a strong likelyhood that the bead will crack or even shatter, for what would appear to be no reason. If the bead is allowed to cool down too quickly, stress is created inside of the bead by different rates of cooling, causing it to crack or break after hours, days, or weeks. The firing process prevents thermal shock from occurring by ‘soaking’ the bead at a certain temperature for a period of time to even out the stress and calm down the molecules. The kiln is set to slowly reduce the temperature so that the interior and exterior of the bead cools at the same rate, thus eliminating stress. The process does not change the appearance, but it does result in a stronger glass bead. Here is one I had a bit of fun with! Some say he was forged under immense natural pressure from grains of sand and found washed up on the shore… Some say that a golden-haired goddess shaped him by the sea… And some say that he was simply a happy accident. All we know is: they call him The Stig. (Thanks for the caption Ness!)
Once the bead is cool enough to handle, the bead release has to be removed. Aluminium crystalline silicates are known to be carcinogenic, so the cleaning process has to be carried out with care. Most commercially avaliable beads are not cleaned. Have a look next time you are in a hobby or craft shop, beads that have not been cleaned will contain a coating of white powdery material inside the hole. I clean my beads in water as there is a potential risk to health from inhaling the dust that is created. Cleaning can be undertaken a number of ways but I do it by hand using special tools.