Getting Started In Lampworking

Maybe you’ve taken an intro class or watched a friend do it, and now you’ve got the bug to melt some glass yourself. Lampworking is a great hobby in that most of the tools you need can be scavenged or created with a little ingenuity. Here, in no particular order, is a list of the stuff you need and some ideas on how to get it. (This article was a blog post, but I’ve been asked so often to link to it that I’m bumping it up so it’s more easily found.)

1. A torch. Don’t try a plumber’s torch or the like; they won’t work. Get one specifically marketed to lampworkers. I recommend the HotHead torch. It’s single fuel, affordable (~$40-50), and very forgiving. There are one or two other “beginner” torches out there in this price range, but they tend to break very quickly. My HotHeads have been my full time torches for 6 years now and still work fine. (I put the term “beginner” in quotes because a lot of lampworkers insist that the mixed gas torches are somehow more professional, but you can do a lot with a HotHead. The major drawback is that it doesn’t get as hot as a mixed gas torch and you don’t have as much control in changing the fuel/air ratio of the flame, which is necessary for to get the full effect of some of the specialty glasses.) In period, most beads were made with a charcoal-fuelled furnace or kiln.

2. Colored Safety Glasses. These are a must. You’re protecting your eyes not only from stray glass chips, but also from the high intensity UV and infrared light put off by the torch. A pair of standard safety glasses are okay if you’re sitting down at a torch for a few minutes a month (you’ll hurt your eyes more on a sunny day at the beach) but if this is something you are serious about, get a pair of didymium glasses or welding goggles. Didymium lenses are a specialty thing used in glassworking and metalworking to protect specifically from the radiation and light frequencies in a bright flame. Radiation-induced eye trauma used to be an occupational hazard of glassworkers – it even had a name: glassblower’s cataract. You can probably borrow a pair of welding goggles from a friend until you get your own, but make sure you get one of the lighter shades. The dark glass used for heavy welding is far too opaque for a lampworking torch, and you won’t be able to see what you’re doing!

3. Something to control your beads’ cooldown rate. I use a couple of pieces of ceramic fiber insulating blanket, but other folks swear by a crockpot full of vermiculite. The idea is to slow down your beads’ cooling rate to minimize the thermal shock. There are theories that in period basins filled with hot coals may have been placed in the back of the kiln or built into the side of the crucible, and hot beads were put there to cool as the heat source died. Ceramic fiber can sometimes be found inside old ovens, if you’re in a position to scavenge some. It’s cheaper and easier to buy some – you can get a couple feet for around $10. [EDIT: Ceramic fiber blanket is *not* the same as fiberglass! Make sure you’re getting the right stuff, or you’ll just have an itchy mess.]

4. Glass. Do yourself a favor and buy some glass to start with. If you want to play with recycled shards, that’s awesome, but it’s a steep learning curve. Modern bottle glass has been engineered for injection molding, meaning it is very stiff to work with and rehardens extremely quickly. It will waste a lot of your time, gas,  and patience to try to use it to learn upon. I recommend Effetre or Moretti glass (two names for the same thing). It’s commonly available and works well with the HotHead. Don’t get borosilicate glass or any of the fancy reducing glass while you’re just starting out – they won’t work on a HotHead torch. Glass is rated by its coefficient of expansion (COE), which refers to the amount the glass expands and contracts when heated. All glass for sale has a COE number to identify its hardness. The lower the number, the harder the glass. You want “soft glass,” which is COE 104. Harder glasses like COE 33 (borosilicate) won’t melt in a HotHead’s flame.

5. Kiln wash/bead release. It’s a mix of clay & graphite or other materials, used to prevent glass from sticking to your mandrels. If you don’t use it, you’re making hatpins. This is something you’ll have to buy (or look up a recipe online and mix yourself, but you’ll still have to buy the ingredients). I highly recommend Dip-n-Go Sludge from Arrow Springs. Unfortunately, Arrow Springs is the only distributor as far as I know, [EDIT: Mountain Glass Arts now carries it, too!] and their shipping can be costly, but this is the best bead release out there in my experience. Other brands are prone to cracking (turning your bead into a hat pin) or being difficult to work with.

6. Mandrels. These are sold at lampworking supply places, but you’ll save yourself some money by befriending a welder. Stainless steel TIG welding wire makes *great* mandrels, and most welding shops will sell you a handful for less than you’d pay from a glass place. Just make sure they’re straight – a bent mandrel is a pain in the butt, because the beads won’t come off it.

7. Gas. The HotHead runs on straight MAPP gas or propane. MAPP burns hotter and cleaner than propane, but is much more expensive. I use the little Coleman-style propane tanks for travelling classes and a BBQ tank at home. You can hook up a BBQ tank to a HotHead with an off the shelf hose available at pretty much any place that sells grills or portable heaters. The only downside to those hoses is that they collect oil and dust from inside the big tanks, and over time the rubber lining will degrade and leech oil into your fuel gas. That will leave soot and gunk on your beads and ruin your fun. You need to drain the pressure from the line at the end of each beadmaking session, and ideally take it off the tank and hang it up overnight once a week or so to drain the oil that accumulates. Even then the hose will deteriorate over time. I recommend replacing it once a year. Alternately, if you have a welding supply place near you, you can purchase a few feet of T-rated hose which will handle propane without deteriorating. Despite these things to remember, bulk propane is cheaper than the little canisters and immensely cheaper than MAPP gas.

Other tools:

Bead reamer – gets the kiln wash out of the beads when done and smooths out any sharp edges; a tiny file will do this well. For real improv credit, a piece of rock will grind off a sharp bead end, too.

Marver – a flat or shaped surface used to manipulate beads into different shapes. Aluminum heat sinks from appliances work great for this. You can use the back side for a flat surface, and the grooved top for a texturing option.

Something to hold your dipped mandrels – I use a block of wood with holes in it to keep the mandrels from touching each other. I’ve seen folks use bowls full of sand as well. Whatever works for you.

Rod rest – something to hold the glass rods you’re about to use or have recently used, that will keep the hot ends from touching your work surface. A piece of scrap metal will work for this.

The Worksurface itself – I use a piece of plywood covered with a piece of thin sheet metal as my workstation. It has a metal bracket to hold the torch in place. The whole thing is portable and can be put in place with C-clamps.

A kiln is awesome but not necessary for most beads. For larger work, you will need a kiln to control the cooling rate and properly anneal the beads. If you have a friend with a kiln, you can batch anneal a lot of smaller beads at the same time.

Suppliers:

  • Arrow Springs used to have everything I needed, but they’ve stopped carrying Effetre glass in favor of their own custom mixes.
  • I’ve used Frantz Art Glass several times this year with great success. They have decent prices and their random discount bin can be entertaining. They occasionally have free shipping deals.
  • Mountain Glass Arts has a drool-worthy print catalog and a good selection of glass and tools as well.
  • Wale Apparatus also carries a large variety of glass and equipment.
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