Bead Basics

by: Brian Kerkvliet copyright 1994

Whether you are a glass worker, stained glass retailer, instructor, jewelry designer, or a reincarnated Phoenician, beads seem to be the current topic of choice.

Why is it that recently people have become so attracted to these small art glass pieces with holes through them? This is a question that I have been thinking about since first making beads in 1984. Could it be as simple as a returning fad? I don’t think so. I believe the reason is deeper.

Historically Beads have been the basis of most primitive economies, as well as a strong root for culture and ritual of ancient Communities. Every important archaeological dig has proven this by uncovering beads and ornamentation of some sort. This sense of cultural richness is one thing I feel people are looking for today as they try to define their individuality within our contemporary society.

A lot has changed in our culture in the last several thousand years, however beads remain a obsession for many people. Perhaps it’s an ancient instinctive drive that makes us long for the comfort and pleasure that fondling a few nice beads offer. As it was in the past, so it is true in the present and likely to be in the future.

It is fitting that beads make a resurgence within the contemporary studio art glass movement. Many of the earliest glass artifacts were beads. In fact glass beads were made as early as 2450 B.C., the dawning of the glass age. These early glass items were highly praised by the royalty of the cultures that fostered their creation . In fact if given a choice a pharaohs would prefer a glass scarab rather than one made of gold or semiprecious stone.

OK that is enough history and esoteric stuff for now. The practical points of glass bead making today makes it easier than ever for the average person to get set up to make glass beads. With relatively little experience or financial outlay for equipment, people all over this country are winding glass around mandrels. In fact this is such an addictive activity I’m certain that in a short amount of time you will be able to find chapters of beadaholics anonymous in all the major cities.

With all the interest in this ancient profession, there also seems to be a lot of questions and some miss information being kicked around in the bead circles. What I hope to do in this column is provide a conduit of information for the beadaholics out there. This means that I will try to help with technical and esthetic tips so that you can insure that your beads will out live you for centuries to come. Who knows they may even be traded with extraterrestrials in the future!

I feel that it is important to give a little chronology of the contemporary glass bead movement in this country. For the purpose of simplifying this topic I will focus on the technique of ‘lamp-wound’ beads.

Basically the lamp-wound bead technique is something that was a closely guarded secret in Europe for the past several hundred years, so the information wasn’t really available to people the way it is today. When I became interested in the process I was forced to do the ‘how to’ research by the trial and error method. Which eventually worked. Fortunately I had a good understanding of glass and its strengths and limitations, so within a relatively short time I was having successes. At this time there was only two or three other folks making lamp beads in this country and I wasn’t aware of them then. Evidently they had either come from a bead maker lineage or took the same path that I did. At any rate the information was starting to become accessible to more and more people around 1986. There were workshops and apprenticeships that offered people the skills necessary to do lamp-wound beads.

It has been a long road in educating not only the crafts people but also the public and galleries on this miniature glass art form. Last year there was a landmark show of contemporary glass bead makers at the Bead Museum in Prescott Az. This show highlighted many talented glass artists who have focused some of there energies on making beads. Partially because of the show and the color catalog accompanied it, there is now a greater acceptance by galleries and the public to support the incredible art glass beads that are being made today. It’s about time!

Earlier this year there was a panel discussion at the Glass Art Society conference in Oakland. It was one of most the well attended discussion groups. People wanted to know everything. Why are beads so popular? How do I set up a studio? How do I price my work? And on and on. Needless to say we didn’t have enough time to cover everything on the multi faceted agenda. So hopefully in continuing the contemporary glass bead experience this column will provide an avenue of dialogue exchange on your pressing questions.

The basic shop set up and safety information is key to a long and productive glass and bead making career. This is information that everyone should know, it doesn’t matter if your a part time hobbyist “kitchen Bead maker” type or a full blown “Master beader” you still need to know the minimum shop and safety information. The best way to get this information is to take a class from someone that has been doing Flameworking for a while. I say this because there are a lot of people out there who are teaching bead making that have a very limited experience with the wider scope that flameworking has to offer. One can get the basic knowledge of how to wrap glass around a mandrel from this type of classes but often there is a lot of information that is breezed over or missed entirely.

The two areas that I believe that are neglected in many workshops are safety and the physics of glass. Let me touch briefly on these two subjects. I’m going to mainly address an oxygen /propane torch set up rather then the hardware Hot Head style torch because I feel that it is the most effective set up and needs to be better understood. Many of the same guidelines apply to the Hot Head torch set up.

Safety is the first thing to think about. Since you will be working with fire and compressed gases you will need to have a safe place to store your tanks of oxygen and propane. I prefer to chain my tanks to a wall or a very sturdy table. This is so that they can’t fall over and rupture, causing grave personal and property damage. One thing to also keep in mind is that propane is heaver then air and will settle on the floor if it gets out of its genie bottle. In many states code actually requires there to be a floor drain in the proximity of the tanks being used. For most practical purposes however good ventilation and caution is adequate. The best overall scenario is to have the tanks outside your workspace and have the hoses running in to the shop. Proper hook up and installation of the regulators and hoses are a whole chapter in them selves. It’s best to get advice from someone who is familiar with set up and operation of a gas cutting and welding torch. They are basically set up the same as your glass working torch. Someone at the welding shop where you get your gas at can usually help. Just don’t tell them that you are working glass it just confuses them. I strongly suggest to have check valves on both the gas and oxygen regulators. These are little brass fittings that are screwed onto the regulators and the hose will then screw onto them. What they do is allow the gases to flow only in one direction, out of the bottle, which means that the gas can’t burn back into the tank and explode. Nice cheep insurance policy.

The work surface that I recommend to use on the table is a piece of sheet metal which has been sprayed with flat black high temp stove paint which cuts down the glare and helps you see the glass colors better. I prefer stainless steel because it is easy to keep clean. Not that I do that kind of thing, I prefer a mild creative mess on my table to prime the pump.

Keep a updated fire extinguisher handy, preferably somewhere on your path out of the studio. You don’t want it where the fire might start because you may not be able to reach with flames there. In the 12 years that I’ve been flameworking I’ve never had to use a fire extinguisher but I have felt good knowing that they are there ready to use.

Ventilation is an something that is grossly under stressed in most situations. This is one of the most important safety issues in planning a studio space. There is a lot of speculation as to what the real ramifications of combustion are. From my research I have found that aside from various hydrocarbons and water, there is also a gradual build up of nitric oxide, ( not to be confused with nitrous, the stuff you get high on at the dentist) nitric oxide build up is a result of your torch burning off the oxygen in the room leaving the nitric oxide floating around your studio. What this means to you is that not only are you being oxygen deprived, but by breathing the nitric oxide it forms a mild nitric acid in your lungs making it harder to absorb the little oxygen that is left. So…. VENTILATE YOUR STUDIOS! I know that some of you are saying, ‘oh my studio is big enough it doesn’t matter’, I don’t believe it. I have taught workshops in large warehouses with 20-30 foot ceilings and I still felt the build up. The awful air build up is not something that you will notice if you don’t leave the room, but if someone comes into the room and says, ‘what is that sharp metallic odder in here’, you will know that you don’t have enough ventilation. Do you feel drowsy, short of breath or have a head ache after an hour or so of work? NOT ENOUGH VENTILATION! So, what’s the solution to this situation? Opening a window causes too much draft and can blow your flame around, and possibly thermo-shock your glass. The cheapest and simplest solution to deal with this is get a old kitchen range hood with a fan and a light installed in it. This can be mounted about three feet above your torch and vented via flexible exhaust pipe to the nearest window or chimney. Make sure that you have make-up air coming into the room from a location that won’t cause too much draft. After installing this type of system you may torch to your hearts content for hours and still be able to breath.

Dust in your studio can also present a health hazard. This dust originates from several different sources. In bead making there is a lot of dust that comes from the preparation and use of the bead release. This is mainly composed of Kaolin clay and alumna hydrate which can cause respiratory problems with prolonged exposure. The best way to minimize airborne particles is to do all your mixing, dipping and bead removal in one area, preferably by a sink where you can sponge things down. If the bead mandrels are soaked prier to removing the beads it not only cuts down on the dust problem but also makes it easier to get the bead off.

If you are someone who uses vermiculite, perlite or fiberfrax for slow cooling of your beads, (not to be confused with annealing which will be covered later), consider getting a kiln to put your beads directly into. This practice will do many things for you. First of all it will eliminate a major source of dust in your studio. I have heard that vermiculite has very similar fibers to asbestos which is reason enough to get it out of my work space. Once you eliminate these dust sources you will find that your beads will look better, meaning not as much scuzz on the glass. The dust has a way of getting on your glass and into your beads. The other benefits of putting them directly into a kiln is you have a lot less breakage and when you take them out of the kiln they’re finished. No more re annealing! There are many other benefits to having a kiln which I can cover in the future such as; healing beads, making parts and preheating rods etc.

Comfort is also important and I feel that it goes under the safety topic. In order to work for periods of time with out strain you need to have a chair that supports your lower back and is adjustable to the right height. I like to have my benches at a height that I feel comfortable to stand up and work at as well as sit down. For me that is about bellybutton height. You’ll have to see what is right for you. I also have built into my table elbow rests so that I don’t have to hold my arms up all day long, they really cut down on the shoulder tension that tends to build up after a long day. Add music, a cold drink and a foot massager and I can go at it all day. Now if I can only find some how to clear off all that paper that keeps appearing on my desk in the office!

From my experiences teaching over the last five years I have found that most people who take a flameworking class come from a stained glass background and some have fusing experience as well. This is a good start but there are some basic physical properties one needs to know in order to get a better grasp on working glass hot in the torch. The first two that pop into mind are, coefficient of expansion and annealing.

I have run into more then one person that believes by allowing their beads to cool off on a pan of vermiculite they have annealed the bead. This couldn’t be further from the truth, in fact it’s more likely to have been tempered, which is a process of setting up stress in the glass. It is probably true that the old Venetian beads were cooled in hot ashes on the edge of the furnace. But how many of those cracked and how many survived we shall never know. What I say to folks is: “We have the technology let’s use it!” That way the pieces we make will easily survive well into the next millennium. The technology that I speak of is a kiln capable of reaching 1100ûF preferably with a kiln controller. There are many different types of kilns and controllers out on the market which could be a topic for another issue. The main thing that I want to discuss now is the basic physical properties of annealing.

As we all know from high school physics as molecules heat up they start vibrating at faster and faster rates. As this vibration in increases the object expands based on its’ coefficient of expansion.

There are a number of books that cover these points and more. The one that I recommend most, which seams to be a well kept secret, is the edition of Bandhu Dunhams book Contemporary Lampworking. This book Covers many things from shop set up and safety to a current suppliers list and Mixing your own color in borosilicate glass . This is a must for any glass workers library. This Book covers in depth many of the things bead makers need to know in order to get properly set up and going.

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