Friday, April 07, 2006

Lampworking FAQ's

Frequently Asked Questions:

1. What is "lampworking"?
Glass beads are often formed by a process known as lampworking, or flameworking. Rods of colored glass are heated in the flame of a torch and are wrapped around a metal mandrel. Multiple colors may be added to achieve different visual effects, and the molten glass may also be manipulated by the artist with graphite and tungsten tools. After the artist is satisfied with the bead's final form, it is annealed in a kiln to prevent shattering. Additional kiln firings may be needed in order to fuse additional elements or paints, or the glass may be chemically treated in other ways.

2. What's the best way to learn lampworking?
It's probably best to take an introductory class or learn from a practicing friend~~there are a lot of mistakes that you can avoid by having a qualified teacher walk you through the steps the first few times. But it's not always possible to find a local class, although they are certainly becoming more widely available. It is possible to teach yourself through reading some of the sources listed below (#3), and through trial and error.

3. What should I read?
Start with Making Glass Beads by Cindy Jenkins. Despite a few technical inaccuracies (discussed below under #5, annealing), this is one of the best how to books, and certainly one of the most inspirational. Yes!! You can do it!

Also take a look at Brian Kerkvliet's fine articles that he generously reprints on his website. Gossamer Glass.

You should also take a look at the About.Com family of websites. The Jewelry Making site has articles and discussions pertaining to lampworking.

4. What do I need to get started?
My choice is to buy Moretti or Effetre glass rods, because they have a relatively low melt point and a wide color pallette, but this is just personal. You need a torch that will fit either a propylene gas container, or a propane/oxygen system. Propylene is cheaper, but eventually most (not all) glass artists move on to propane/oxygen since it burns hotter. You will definitely need a propane/oxygen system if you want to work with borosilicate (pyrex) glass instead of Moretti.

As soon as you decide that it's not a passing fancy, buy a ton of glass! Use the type of glass and the equipment that will allow you to do what interests you and not what someone else tells you is the "best" to have. Best for whom? learn the substance from all of the classes you take and the books you read, but don't be locked in by anybody else's style.

You will also need a kiln. It's the only way to anneal beads properly so that they won't break somewhere down the line. A kiln is an expensive piece of equipment, but many can also be used for fusing (which uses up your leftover scraps!).

5. How do I anneal my beads?
Annealing can only be done in a kiln. I know that a few of the bead-making books say otherwise, but they are incorrect on this. All that a fiber blanket or vermiculite does is slow down the cooling process. True annealing keeps the glass at a constant temperature (for Moretti, around 950-980 degrees F) for a length of time that is proportionate to the size of the beads. Small beads really only need to "soak" at this temperature for 20 minutes or so. A bead up to an inch in diameter needs to soak for 30 minutes to an hour. I prefer to err on the side of longer. Then the temp must be ramped down s-l-o-w-l-y to around 750 degrees. At that point the kiln can be turned off, or at least turned down more rapidly. I usually lower the temp to 750 over the course of an hour. A little overkill perhaps with smaller beads, but the time and patience required goes up as the bead size increases.

The reason for annealing is the physical properties of the glass. Since glass cools from the outside in, the molecules in the central core are still moving around (even though they're no longer molten) long after the outer surface has cooled and hardened. The temperatures listed above have been calculated based on the glass COE (coefficient of expansion) to allow the molecular movement to slowly halt all at the same time, reducing the surface stress. That's why non-annealed beads will eventually crack, even if not right away.

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Copyright 2006 Cyndi Lavin. Not to be reprinted, resold, or redistributed for profit. May be printed out for personal use or distributed electronically provided that entire file, including this notice, remains intact.

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