So I thought I'd write a little bit about making different shaped lampwork beads today. And for beginners, this includes making round beads, too. Round beads are the easiest to make. In the beginning it takes a lot of practice just to make them round. But it gets easier as you go and eventually you will forget the day when you made lop sided beads and others with jagged center holes.
Being right handed (I am actually ambidextrous-meaning I can use both hands equally as well), I hold the mandrel in my left hand. I hold the glass rod in my right hand. So to begin with I heat both mandrel and glass rod in the torch flame. (Next time I'll show you what the flame should look like.) You need to heat up the mandrel enough so that the molten glass will wrap around it, glass will not "stick" on a cold mandrel when trying to wrap the glass around it. Make sure you read my section about mandrels, first, including bead release.
Now once the tip of the glass rod looks molten, you'll know this if the glass starts to "ball up" or it begins to sag, it is time to begin to wrap it around the mandrel. So I put the glass on the mandrel about 1 1/2 inches from the tip of the mandrel. And with my left hand turning the mandrel around, like a rotisserie (hope you know what a rotisserie is, if not please look it up on google), I wind the glass around the mandrel. You must keep the mandrel turning or the glass will drip right off the mandrel. And by doing this, you will make a round bead. When adding glass to this bead to make it the size you want, add additional glass on top of the glass that is already applied. By doing this you keep the bead the same width from hole to hole and only increase the diameter size of the bead.
Of course one problem I discovered when first starting out; I would heat the mandrel so hot that it would bend, and that would ruin the mandrel! Also I would occasionally heat the glass too much and it would actually boil, which would ruin the bead too. So... while turning the mandrel in your left hand and working with the glass rod with your right hand, you must also move the mandrel with the bead on it, in and out of the fire occasionally so that the mandrel doesn't get too hot. This is a technique that you will get used to as you get better at making beads. Also if you notice the glass rod getting too hot, you must also remove it from the flame from time to time, or you can move it farther away from the tip of the torch, where the flame is the hottest. Later when working on more complicated beads, you will hold your mandrel with the bead on it, still turning, under the flame to keep it warm while working on designs.
Also another problem you can encounter when heating the glass rod, if heated too quickly, you can make the rod's tip pop off. That means that you have to gradually introduce your glass rod into the flame to keep it from breaking. You do this by holding the rod and quickly move it in and out of the flame until you see the very tip of the rod glowing. At this point you can begin to hold the rod continuously in the flame so that you can begin to wrap the glass around the mandrel. Since my studio is in a cold area, I must always be very careful when I begin to heat up my rods. Also when the glass "pops" off a rod it can be dangerous since it is hot. It can burn you or where ever it lands. Don't allow people to stand opposite of where you and your torch are set up, they could get hit by flying glass.
Now once this is done, your first bead is completed. It is ok to let the bead cool off now.
I am telling you to let it cool off because I didn't get into the kiln annealing part yet. But the bead needs to be annealed, eventually. So if you decided to let your beads cool before annealing, then you will have to "batch" anneal later. Batch annealing means that you take a lot of your completed beads and anneal them all at the same time. Otherwise, you would take your completed bead and put it in you kiln at this point so that it can anneal while on your mandrel.
I always put my larger beads, plus fancy round beads right into my kiln to anneal them immediately. If you leave the larger beads out to cool, even if they are placed between layers of fiber blanket, they will probably break because of cooling down too quickly.
Basically making beads is a little bit like a juggling act. You use both hands at the same time, doing different things. You do get used to this and it eventually becomes natural.
Now for people that know how to make a round bead but need help making other shapes!
You can use a variety of tools to create different bead shapes. Some of my favorite tools are presses. I use Zooziis and Catwalk presses. My favorite presses are the Zooziis. They have guide pins so that when pressing, the bead ends up a uniform shape. There are also tongs and marvers available. I have a nice large piece of graphite that I use a lot too.
So to use a press properly you will need some practice, first of all. In the beginning when I got my first press, I wondered if it was actually possible to make beads using it! I just couldn't get it to work. When I went to squeeze my molten bead into the press it would not get the correct shape. I also didn't know how much glass I needed to make the correct size bead I wanted.
I read how people made beads out of clay and pressed them into the mold to figure out the amount of glass needed. Also some people used a piece of wire that they wrapped around that clay bead as some sort of reference. All of those techniques didn't work for me. So this is what I ended up doing.
First of all, I would make two small beads on my mandrel. (That is something a beginner should get used to doing anyway! It is a great way to practice heat control plus it comes in handy for making pressed beads, AND it is an easy way to make many beads that are the same color, quickly. I can make up to five or six small sized beads on one mandrel, at one time.) These small beads should be close to the width of the pressed bead you want to make. So if using a bead press, the beads should be able to fit into the cavity made for the molten glass. Then I fill in the space between those beads and I add glass until I get enough to press the bead. Now this is were experience comes in handy. I just "know" how much glass I need to make certain pressed beads. But in the beginning you will have to experiment. If you press your molten bead into the press and it is not enough glass.... add more glass to that bead and re-press it! Don't press the glass when it is too red hot, wait a second or two before doing it.
And one more trick I do that works for me. I press one side at a time. I hold the top of my bead press in my left hand and the mandrel in my right. That means that I already put the glass rod down! :-) Once I put the mandrel into the groves on the press correctly I lightly press down on it to get the glass to flow into the press cavity. Then I remove the mandrel and quickly I smoosh down the sides of that same bead, gently, just to get a more compact shape.
Now I put the top of the press on to the base of the press. And after carefully heating up the bead once more, but not enough to lose the shape I just worked on, I press the bead between the top and bottom of the press, making sure that the mandrel is lined up in the mandrel grooves in the press itself. Now usually the bead is done at this point, but if after inspecting the pressed bead there is something not right, I repair it at this time. If the bead is still too small, I add more glass where glass is lacking and press again. If there is too much glass and it squeezed out from the sides of the press, I use my tweezers and heat the bead up and remove the excess glass. (Quickly dip the tweezers into a glass jar of water and the glass will come off the tweezer's tip.) After removing excess glass, heat up the bead carefully and re-press it. Look at the side of the bead where the mandrel enters and exits, make sure that area is smooth and flat. If it isn't, re-heat this area and lightly use a marver and flatten it out.
Above are some of my favorite lampwork presses. You can see the guide pins and the groove for the mandrel. These presses are brass. They do get hot after repeated use.