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LAMPWORKING BEADS The following article is by Robert Mickelson is (c)1993.  Visit his website at for more articles about lampworking and other information about Robert and his products. Illustrations here are taken from Robert's uploads to the Handcrafts forum and from various forum ornaments and bookmarks in which glass beads were used.

The Soft Touch      

Robert A. Mickelsen

Part two : Beadmaking

Lampworking beads is a tradition that dates back thousands of years, probably as far back as lampworking itself. It is worth the effort to study or at least try to understand this ancient artform because in beadmaking lie the very roots of lampworking itself. I find it thrilling to realize as I wind a bead that eons ago some ancient artisan crouched over an oil lamp flame and did exactly the same thing. The appeal then must have been the same as it is today. Beadmaking is fun.

It is also a terrific way to learn about lampworking soft glass. A bead does not take long to make and does not use a lot of material. Mistakes are not costly. A great deal can be learned about colors, decorations, shaping, and annealing that are applicable to larger and more complex work. Although beads can be made from borosilicate glass, the vastly superior color selection available in soft glass makes it the better material for the job. There is little advantage in using hard glass for such small work and, in many cases, soft glass is actually easier and quicker to use.

In this article, I will describe techniques required to make three different kinds of beads : the wound bead, the blown bead, and the "laser" bead (Fred Birkhill's term).

To make a wound bead, molten glass is wrapped around a steel rod which is removed when cool leaving a hole. I use 1/8" stainless steel welders rod cut into 12" lengths. One end of the rod should be ground or belt-sanded to a noticeable taper to aid in the removal of the finished bead. The rod must then be coated in a kaolin-based bead separater. There are many different formulas used by bead makers for bead separater and the debate rages on over whose is best. I and others have used Ed Hoy's kiln wash with a dash of gum arabic with reasonable success. Fred Birkhill prefers a mix of 50% kaolin, 50% flint, and swears that a few drops of sodium silicate works better than gum arabic as a fluxing agent. The beginning beadmaker is advisedto start simple and revise as you go.

Mix your chosen formula with water until it is the consistancy of heavy cream. Dip the tapered end of the bead rod and allow to dry. If desired, drying time can be hastened by passing the dipped end through a pure gas flame a few times. Once dry, dip the rod again. The desired coating should be about half-again as thick as the steel rod.

The glass used for making wound beads is soft glass cane from 4mm to 8mm in diameter. In my previous article, I desribed pulling cane from heavy rods of Kugler or Zimmerman colored glass. This cane is fine for winding beads. A less expensive alternative that I would recommend for a real beginner is to wind your first dozen or so beads out of clear lead glass cane until you get the hang of winding. Another kind of glass that is great for bead making is the Italian Moretti glass. Moretti comes in cane form from 6mm to 8mm in many bright colors. It is good for bead making because the colors are vivid, consistant and stable, meaning they don't strike or change appreciably when heated. Moretti also makes millifiore, which can be use to make mosaic beads. Note however, that you cannot use Moretti with many of the other soft glasses because its COE is 104 (x10 -7) as opposed to 85 - 90 (x10 -7) (for Kugler and Zimmerman).If you use Moretti, keep it separated from your other glass.

O.K., let's make a bead. Begin by using a small oxidizing flame. Pre-heat the coated bead rod until it just begins to glow. Heat the tip of the glass until it is soft and then simply wind it onto the rod by rotating the rod away from you at a rate that equals the rate at which the glass is melting. The glass cane should be kept in the flame and the bead just out of the flame. This is a delicate balance that requires a beginner many hours to master, but should be second nature to any experienced lampworker. A small bead will only need one or two turns. A larger bead may require more than a dozen turns and often two or even three layers of glass.

Once you have wound on enough glass to make the bead you want, heat the bead until it is smooth and contracts into an ovular shape. You can control the shape using the same skills and cooperation with gravity every lampworker is familiar with, except that the glass is so soft, like honey.

Decorating the bead begins with the background color, which is usually the color you wound the bead with. There are alternatives. If you wound the bead with clear lead glass, you can roll the bead in powdered colored glass, building up successive layers until the desired color intensity is achieved. Using a powdered transparent color is a good way to make a transparent colored bead. Interesting effects can also be achieved by layering one color over another such as white over black. Once your background is determined, you can proceed with your choice of hundreds of different types of decorations including spin-trailing, festooning, feathering, shards, eyes, dots, stripes, and murinis. There are too many possibilities to even begin to describe them here. Buy a book on beads or attend a bead show, or just experiment to learn about them.

When decorating is complete, the bead should be re-heated until it becomes smooth and contracts into an ovular shape. Now you can give the bead its final shape. The most common shaping technique is marvering. Since soft glass gets so soft, a delicate touch is required. You must start off very lightly and increase pressure as the glass sets up. It is usually better to use a paddle or a knife for marvering beads rather than a flat board on your bench because the bead is so small. Ed Hoy sells a nifty set of small paddles he calls "micro tools" that are ideal for bead shaping. Other techniques for shaping include "knifing" to give the bead a segmented or lobed appearance, and "cutting" and "poking" (these are my terms) to add grooves or indentations. There are an endless number of shapes that can be created. Just pick one that pleases you.

The final step is to anneal the bead. Wait until the bead is no longer glowing. Shut off the oxygen and bathe the bead in a fairly vigorous pure gas flame. How long you must anneal a bead is strictly a seat-of-the-pants affair. Small beads can usually be annealed in a minute or less while larger beads must be annealed longer, sometimes for six or seven minutes. Every bead is different so trial and error is the only way to develop a feel for when a bead is annealed. Once annealing is complete, bury the bead on the rod in vermiculite to prevent it from cooling too fast. Beads can also be oven-annealed while still on the bead rod, but knowing how to flame anneal is an important skill in all aspects of soft glass lampworking. So don't be lazy. Learn to flame anneal your beads.

Once the bead has cooled, it can be removed from the bead rod. Grip the rod with a pliers and gently twist the bead until it slides off. If it doesn't come loose, soak it in water for ten minutes or place it in the freezer for fifteen minutes and try again. Really stubborn beads can be clamped in a padded vise and the rod tapped out with a hammer.

A more modern method of making lampworked beads is by blowing them from tubing. This method is a bit more difficult than winding, but it is a great way to learn the skills necessary to work soft glass tubing.

The first basic skill you will have to know is how to pull points. Pulling points in soft glass is done the same way as with hard glass, but the timing is different. The rhythm can vary somewhat for each lampworker. It takes me about ten seconds to heat and about seven seconds to pull a point. Try counting seconds to yourself until you are comfortable with your own rhythm. You will notice that you must rely more on feeling what is happening rather than seeing. Soft glass does not glow when hot nearly as much as hard glass does. I sometimes suggest that beginners remove their didiniums to pull their first 20 or so points to help them get familiar with how the glass behaves. Remember, timing is the key and practice is the only way to learn.

For blown beads, two to three inches of 20mm or 25mm clear lead glass tubing is required. To begin, open up one end of the point and warm it up in a fairly vigorous pure gas flame for 15 or 20 seconds. Then, dial in a medium oxidizing flame and continue to heat the point by spinning it in the flame. A steady, regular spin is the key to controlling tubing. Every lampworker has their own method for keeping the spin regular. Some go back and forth; some spin in one direction only. I use a combination of the two depending on how hot I have the point. The important thing is to distribute the heat evenly at every stage of the procedure. Continue heating the point until it begins to shrink, thus reducing the diameter while increasing the wall thickness. The trick here is to keep the point on center and symmetrical while you do this.

If you desire a colored background, color casing should be done during this stage. Roll the heated point in powdered colored glass on a ceramic dish. You don't want the point to be too soft when you roll it or it will buckle or become misshapen. You should be able to apply enough pressure when rolling so that you can spin the point in a somewhat stationary position creating a cylidrical depression in the powder or even pushing the powder ahead of the point like a tiny bulldozer. Continue to spin the point in the powder until the newly picked up layer of powder is as even as possible, usually three or four rotations. Continue to add and melt on layers of powder until the desired color intensity is achieved.

As you add the layers of color, continue to shrink the point. If the point starts to buckle, a quick, light puff into the open end will restore roundness. If the point becomes lop-sided, a slight pull will usually restore concentricity. Sagging can be corrected by halting rotation out of the flame and letting gravity pull the point back into its proper shape. When you are finished with this step, the point should be less that half its original size with a wall thickness that is 25% or so of the point's diameter. It should be round and concentric, and have a vaguely ellipsoid shape.

There are as many ways to decorate blown beads as wound beads. In fact, many of the same decorations are applicable. The bead maker is limited only by his own imagination. For example, the bead may be decorated by trailing on parallel bands of contrasting color and then twisting in opposite directions. Invariably, the decoration will mar the symmetry of the bead which must then be restored. The bead must be shrunk, then expanded (by blowing) and then shrunk again to melt in the decoration and even out the wall thickness. This is one stage in the procedure that is much easier to accomplish in soft glass than hard glass because the glass flows so readily.

Once the bead is decorated and restored to symmetry, the final shape of the bead is formed. Blown beads are generally simpler in shape than complex wound beads ranging from oblate spheres to elongated ellipsoids. The shrunken point is heated, blown, and manipulated into the desired shape.

Now finish the first end by burning off the closed point, heating the closed end to a flat disc, and blowing it out into a thin bubble. Break off the bubble as cleanly as possible and fire polish the end. You will need a flaring tool and a paddle to keep the opening round and the end flat and conforming to the shape of the rest of the bead. Then, shut off your oxygen and soak the bead in a pure gas flame for thirty seconds.

To finish the other end you must attach a handle to the first end. Use the point you just burned off. Heat the end of the point until it is solid and attach it by a tiny seal right on the lip of the finished end. Bend the handle to center it (see figure 2). Then, burn off the other point with a sudden pull, leaving a thin weak point. Break off that point with a pliers and pick the end open with a pyrex rod. Finish the second end as you did the first. Then soak the bead in a pure gas flame for thirty seconds, but this time, also heat up the tips of a pair of tweezers. Dial in a pinpoint flame and, holding the bead at the second finshed end with the heated tweezers, burn off the handle. Paddle out the resulting tiny dimple. Anneal the bead in a vigorous pure gas flame for two to three minutes and bury it in vermiculite to cool.

The last kind of bead I will describe is what Fred Birkhill calls a "laser bead". This is simply a bead whose hole is made by lancing it with a sharpened tungsten rod. This method is perfect if you want to make a bead that is sculptural in nature, or if you want to make a bead with more than one hole.

To make the tungsten tool, use 1/16" tungsten rod, available at any welder's supply, cut into 6" lengths. Drill a 1/16" concentric hole in the end of a 1/2" wooden dowel and glue the tungsten rod into the dowel. Use a grinder or a belt-sander to sharpen the tip of the rod to a point. If you don't want to bother making the tool, I understand Ed Hoy now carries one.

Using the tool is a simple matter. The glass to be bored should be heated to just above the annealing temperature, but not soft. Place the point of the tungsten tool on the spot where you want the hole to be. Using a small oxidizing flame, heat the tungsten as near to the glass as you can without hitting the glass. The rod will begin to glow brightly (hence the name "laser"). Using a back and forth twisting movement, push the tip of the tool into tha glass. The tool will penetrate the glass surprisingly easily and will bore through 1/2" of glass without much effort. For thicker pieces, bore as far as you can from one side, then bore from the other, meeting in the middle.

It is very important to keep your tungsten tool clean. Any tiny impurities could cost you your bead. I recommend cleaning your tungsten tool with emory paper before each use. "Laser" beading works as well with hard glass as it does with soft glass. I won't bother trying to suggest what kinds of sculptural forms you should be creating for laser beads. Just use your imagination.

I cannot begin to describe the extent of the fun and satisfaction I have derived from making beads, not to mention the skills and techniques in soft glass I have learned. I urge anyone with an interest in lampworking or in beads to light up a torch and give it a try. At the least, you will have a lot of fun melting glass and come away with a greater appreciation for the highly skilled beadmaker. At the most, you could find yourself transformed, totally addicted to beads, a full-fledged "beadaholic", unable to sleep until you learn every technique and try every new design you see. What is certain, is that you will learn a great deal about soft glass and the relativity of color.

So give it a try. It doesn't take a long time to learn and the materials are not expensive. Who knows, maybe you too will become a "master-beader"!


The History of Beads
Lois Sherr Dubin
Harry N. Abrams Inc. Publishers
100 5th Ave.
New York, NY. 10011
(available from

Ornament Magazine
P.O. Box 2349
San Marcos, CA. 92079-9807
coming soon on the web:

The Bead Society of Greater Washington
P.O. Box 70036
Chevy Chase MD. 20088-0036
(301) 656-9255

Rings & Things
Wholesale Beads & Supplies
P.O. Box 450
Spokane, WA 99210-0450

Shipwreck Beads
2500 Mottman Road SW
Olympia, WA

Uploaded: 2/21/2004