Studio Set up – Part 3 – Ventilation & Ergonomic Lampworking

Studio Set Up – Part 2 discusses adequate light and how to pick a torch. In Part 3 of the Studio Set Up blogs, I assume that your torch is chosen (but maybe not purchased yet) and you’re looking for information about the importance of ventilation. You may also be considering torch and ventilation placement. In this blog post I attempt to clarify some points about torch set up and answer some big questions about adequate ventilation.

Firstly, I talk about the most important aspect of lampworking; ergonomic comfort. Working comfortably is important to factor in when organising yourself. The aim of this blog post is to give advice that will help you create good work habits and set up comfortably. This blog post also gives my impression of expensive addons like wrist and arm rests. Lampworkers sit (or stand) for long periods of time using repetitive movements, quite often with their arms held out. Over time, artists develop stiff muscles and soreness, particularly in neck, shoulders, elbows and wrists. Setting up your workspace correctly will limit these strains on your body.

Alchemistress :: COE 104 Glass Testing :: Blog :: Studio Set Up - Part 3 - Ventilation
A table destined for the rubbish pile became my lampworking station with a few modifications.

Picking a desk

I found my lampworking table on the side of the road, well not literally but kind of. A friend told me that his place of work was updating all their office furniture and they were throwing out bits and pieces. I asked if they happened to have any big desks or tables they were getting rid of. He described a table that seemed to fit what I was looking for. He said that it was mine for free if I wanted to pick it up and save his boss paying for someone to remove it. I said yes without even looking at it.

When I got there, I was glad I did. The desk looked battered with its scarred wooden top and scratched but strong metal frame, but it was near perfect. The legs were a bit on the short side but it was big and sturdy and best of all, it was free. I saw the potential in it, even though I nearly regretted saying yes when an hour later I was struggling to get it into my first studio. When you work at a torch; your comfort and how you like to work is your main priority, followed closely by what size desk your space will let you fit. Some checkpoints to think about when getting your first torch set up.

  • Think about how you like to sit (or stand) and work
    • Your body is important and lampworkers are prone to stiff backs, necks and sore shoulders from sitting in bad posture for too long. Always get up and stretch after you make a bead.
    • Don’t pick a table that is too low, your forearms will be very sore if they lean against the edge of the desk.
    • Pick a chair and desk height that allow you to rest your elbows comfortably and to look through the flame (not down on it)
    • If you’re a forward leaner (or edge sitter) that is a sign that your chair is too far away, to low or the seat is causing you to shift forward to work. (More on chairs in a bit)
    • Another sign your body is telling you it is not comfortable is if your arms and shoulders are getting tired quickly. This means that you should look at ergonomic wrist supports to add onto your bench (we’ll talk about that later too) and to stretch more often, or not hunch when you’re working.
  • Make adjustments to desks or tables you already have to save money
    • I covered the wooden desk with a sheet of aluminium from a hardware store and bolted it down with screws to make a molten glass resistant desk top.
    • I’ve seen artists who have tiled the surface of their table. You can also get tables that are made of composite stone or lay a piece of composite stone in your immediate work zone.
    • The table I had was too low (I like to work sitting on stools), a carpenter friend made me leg risers out of untreated pine to lift the bench height up to accommodate my stool. We measured the leg width and built risers which slid over the end of the legs to lift and support the table more.
    • I bought C clamps to clamp my hoses to the bench and I bolted important safety devices (like a fire extinguisher and blanket) within arm reach to the legs of my table. (I’m right handed so I’ve bolted these to the right hand side of the desk)
    • If you’re sitting a lot of heavy things on your desk (maybe a kiln or pounds of glass, think about reinforcing your table from underneath by hammering a support beam in to the frame)
    • Use tiered shelving to store tools, stringer and glass rods on your table if you have a lot of space on it. The wire racks I use were all being thrown out by my university, they’re old test tube racks.
  • Choose a chair or stool that suits your needs. It doesn’t have to be new or fancy, just comfortable.
    • Search thrift and junk shops. I found my draftsman’s stool outside of a thrift shop for $40.00 in 2007. It has adjustable height, swivels and is well sprung. Although I’ve since covered it with lambswool to make it softer.
    • Alchemistress :: COE 104 Glass Testing :: Blog :: Studio Set Up - Part 4 - Flame On
      I like to work on a swivel stool, at a height that allows me to look both above and below my flame when I’m making a bead. I’ve raised the desk using pine leg risers to get everything to the height I want for comfort.

      Wheels on chairs can be a hazard, some cheap computer desk chairs can unexpectedly shift under you as you work.

    • If you want wheels on a chair choose chairs that have non slip wheels (particularly if you’re on concrete or tiles).
    • Arm rests on chairs are not necessary if they don’t rise to the same height as your table. You won’t use them if they’re lower than the table.
    • If this is your first set up and you’re not sure, or still trying to get comfortable; get a chair that is height adjustable and lean your arms on the edge of the table. Or try different chairs that you already have to get a feel for the right height.
    • Don’t underestimate the power of a swivel chair, if you’re working in a big desk (my desk is 1.2m long by 1m wide) then the swivel allows you to reach around quickly.
    • For years I worked up very high looking down on the flame, I changed the height on my stool and now sit a lot lower than when I first started, it gives me the advantage of looking through the flame better and my shoulders hurt a lot less.

Modifying ergonomic comfort with “Add On’s”
There are several quality add on items that you can buy, which have been designed specifically to address the ergonomic issues unique to working in front of a table mounted torch and I don’t own them. That’s right, I’ve tried several times over the years to buy a nifty gadget called the “Creation Station” but never managed to get my hands on one. EDIT: 2016 (I have Creation Station now, it is awesome. It really stabilises my wrists a lot). Whenever they’re imported to Australia they sell out too quickly and I’ve missed out, or the shipment of them has gone missing or some other drama. Importing one directly from America seemed like a great idea, but I’m all out of children to sell, so I can’t afford the shipping fees to do that. 

Alchemistress :: COE 104 Glass Testing :: Blog :: Studio Set Up - Part 3 - Ventilation
Behold, the gel wrist rest. Not as great as a Creation Station, but it’s doing for now.

Some people swear by Creation Stations and they look really handy (I’m saying this wistfully, because I do want one.) I like how the contraption has extended elbow rests and those two bike handle type thingys (wrist rests) to support your forearms. That support becomes a lot more important the older (and shakier) your hands get. The Creation Station helps to stabilise your arms whilst working. All important for precise detail placement on your bead. But is this the only modification available? No, not at all. A company in the US called Arrow Springs has it’s own version, obviously titled The Arrow Springs Hand and Arm Rest. Yes, it looks very different to the Creation Station. If you’re looking at my desk and the links to the two different add ons and you’re thinking quietly to yourself that it all looks a bit much. Err on the side of less is more and torch for a few hours and listen to your body.

08/01/16 Edit: I actually got my hands on a Creation Station and set it all up. It didn’t take much work to get it attached to my desk. I had to reposition my torch back a little to accommodate it. I chose to drill into my desk and attach it that way rather than use clamps. At first I was skeptical about the torch bracket, but it firmly clamps the torch in place.

Alchemistress :: COE 104 Glass Testing :: Blog :: Studio Set Up - Part 4 - Flame On
The Creation Station set up compared to the picture above of my original set up there is a lot more room on my bench now. I’ve also consolidated my stringer by using two test tube racks and moving everything around.

I torched for about four hours today getting used to it. The first difference is that the Creation Station raises the burner up by about a quarter inch and it took me a bit to get adjusted to not having to lean over my flame and to reposition my hands slightly. The next thing I encountered was the “bike handles” or stabilisers. I fiddled around with those a lot trying to get them into a comfortable spot. By about the fourth hour I had a feel for how I liked them, but I was still shifting them around a lot depending on my handgrip. I also moved them out of the way a lot relying on old habits, particularly when adding glass to the mandrel and shaping the bead. So did it actually make any difference to my bead making? I’d say yes, it did. I found they stabilised my shaky hands quite a lot particularly when decorating and finishing the bead.

Alchemistress :: COE 104 Glass Testing :: Blog :: Studio Set Up - Part 4 - Flame On
Handy little contraption that really helps with posture getting hands and wrists stabilised. I felt that I had a lot more stringer control after using it.

I’ve never been particularly good with applying stringer to my beads because my hands shake, but the stabilisers gave me leverage to hold the bead steady. I chose to work with Effetre Opalino Periwinkle as it needs slow even heating to melt it properly. I used the stabilisers consistently when it came to rounding beads out and applying designs.

The hand stabilisers really helped my stringer work and I was so pleased with my stringer work for the first time in years. I kept a small wrench near me on the bench to adjust the tension in the stabilisers every so often until I got comfortable with them. I think it will take a little while longer to get used to using it, but I can’t see myself not using it in the future as I’ve always had trouble stabilising my hands. EDIT 2017: I’ve used the Creation Station for a year now and I love it. It matches with my work practices beautifully. I don’t shift the handles out of the way much anymore, actually hardly at all. I find this gadget absolutely necessary now, my bead decorating has really improved a lot since purchasing the Creation Station (I’m not endorsed, I don’t get any kick backs and I paid the very expensive full price for this unit. I find it is a great tool for me.) This is a great addon particularly if you need wrist and forearm stabilising.

If your arms start to ache after making beads for a while perhaps the Arrow Springs Hand and Arm Rest  (scroll half way down the page to see it) is might be for you (no, I’ve never tried it, but it does look like a good option for people who look like flying chickens when making beads). If your hands and wrists are primarily experiencing soreness then perhaps the Creation Station is the obvious choice since the focus of the product seems to be on wrist stability. And if it’s just sore elbows, get yourself down to a stationary store and buy some gel wrist rests for computer users, they’re about $10.00 each and last for a really long time. My first pair lasted for 5 years, but be mindful hot glass melts them and they can ooze out everywhere.

Alchemistress :: COE 104 Glass Testing :: Blog :: Studio Set Up - Part 2 - Ventilation
The ventilation pipe dropping down from the false ceiling. The unit is sitting up between two beams in the roof. It expels air outside and away from my source of fresh air (the door to my studio, none of those windows open). I do have a grate for the front of the ventilation unit, but I haven’t put it on because it’s plastic. I’m trying to find a metal grate that will raise the pipe a little as well.

Positioning your workstation
If your desk and chair are all sorted out, think about the positioning of these important parts of your studio in relationship to your light source and reasonable point of ventilation. In my second studio set up, the electrician and I discussed where the best placement for the desk would be. I was keen to have it directly in front of the windows and he was keen to have it against the far wall because it was easier to install the ventilation unit. When I explained to him the importance of light he suggested the spot the desk is in now. The torch faces the brick pillar with windows on either side. It’s been there for four years now, and whilst it’s not my first preference for the desk, it’s the safest and most logical from a ventilation point of view. In addition, I get the right kind of light that I need.

Everyone does this differently. “Fume and Dust” ventilation is how lampworking fumes are classed. I’m not even going to pretend it’s not expensive, the extraction unit will be the priciest thing you purchase. Because my studio is in rental space and subject to OH&S safety standards, I had a laundry list of precautions to check off before I could even work in there. Ventilation needs to be in front of your flame preferably. Do not install it over your head, the fumes will pass by your face on their way up.

Every country and even different states within a single country have different rules regarding fume and dust extraction. You will need to speak to a qualified and registered electrician who can install extraction units to find out estimated costs in your area. What you want to ask for is an expert who installs small scale fume and dust extraction units to discuss your set up. It’s no point going to a company that only does large scale industrial extraction units for big glass blowing studios. Some countries use the word ventilation and some countries use the word extraction. In Australia ventilation means something different to extraction, extraction is the pricier and proper way of removing air impurities. Use the yellow pages online or google for companies in your area that will install these units, have them come out and quote you (thankfully that is free) and talk to you about your space (you can learn a lot by talking to different companies about what you need).

The steps to getting an extraction unit installed
Firstly, a measure of how many cubic squares of air in my studio had to be taken. Then, a record of any draughts, breezes or air exchanges was made to get the standing air purity level (not too pure; it’s an old tyre factory after all, but my studio is surprisingly air tight for such an old building). Then, I had to run the torch and the carbon dioxide levels were tested at different time intervals without an extraction fan or ventilation running. Then, I had to have a swab test for heavy metal residue and have an air purity test after the torch was off to test the fume and dust level.

When all of this was measured the EPA told me how many particles were in the air after a typical lampworking session and what sort of ventilation I would need for the room to be safe. I ended up with a great unit for about $2000.00 AUD all installed, I can’t smell any hint of fumes when I torch. The only downside to this is that it’s so powerful it can suck up silver leaf and enamels, so I need to be careful where I place my graphite pads. Sounds like heavy stuff? Well, yes, you don’t want to mess around with your health.

You’re also probably thinking, oh wow, please tell me there is a cheaper option that isn’t going to clock up big dollar signs? Yes, there is, but it works like this;

If you’re going to be torching for up to 8 hours a day for five days a week, working with silver laden glass or lots of metal inclusions get the super duper deluxe extraction unit installed after having chemical residue testing done. Your lungs will thank you.

If you’re not going to be doing this much torching each day (hell, maybe not even in a week) then there are other options that won’t hurt your pocket (as much) and will save your health. Although the important thing to note with these cheaper units is that they will not suck up those minute heavy metal particles very well, they’re not strong enough. So balance this into your set up equation.

An open door with a fan propped up near a window is not adequate ventilation for a lampworker. A “Spinaway” with a pipe over your torch looks like good ventilation, but it’s not enough either. You are risking your health and others around you if you do not ventilate or extract dust and fumes properly.

So what can I get if I won’t be torching more than a few hours a week?

  • A good quality ventilation system used in your average commercial kitchen

Yep, that’s right, a rangehood. This will work well for most small studio set ups and the added bonus is you can get a powerful ventilation unit at scratch and dent sales quite cheaply. Any electrician can install them quickly and with less expense than a serious extraction system (In Australia you must employ the services of a registered electrician).

  • Get a commercial canopy rangehood if you’re going to be using a lot of silver glass (these thingys have multi speed powerful exhaust fans that are made for sucking up fumes and often come with overhead lights).
    • Also get this type if you have space in your roof to have the unit as they are very noisy (they sound like 747s taking off)
  • Get a canopy or pull/slide out rangehood if you’re not going to be working much with glass that has a high metal content or not for long periods. They are less powerful than commerical kitchen hoods.
    • This type is handy if you don’t have roof cavity space, it can be mounted against a wall with the unit outside covered on the ground.

Make sure that your regularly wipe surfaces down if you do not have really strong ventilation, one of the things the EPA noted was that the heavy metals adhered to surfaces when I did not have the ventilation running. Also, if you do use a kitchen ventilation system you should be cleaning out the screens (you can run most through dishwashers these days) regularly too. Wiping down once a week (I use disposable “scrub” wipes) will limit chemical residue build up. If you touch surfaces with heavy residue build up;  your skin will absorb the metals. So keep your work station as tidy as you can. Remember bead release is also toxic, so make sure you keep flaky release under control so you’re not breathing it in, over time it will affect your lungs.

Lastly, a word of caution; If you feel light headed, are constantly yawning (this is the first effects of lack of oxygen) and/or when you inhale it feels like a burning or scratchy sensation and/or your chest is suddenly tight. Stop immediately!! Turn off your torch and ventilate the room by opening all doors and windows. Keep your fans running and go outside into fresh air and do not go back and torch.  If this is happening to you then you need to get a better extraction unit in and no skimping (and no torching, because you are putting yourself at serious risk).

Zoozii’s used to have a page on their website that discussed how they had their studio tested (in the way that I did). Unfortunately that page is no longer on that website. There is this interesting discussion here about lampworking and pregnancy. What this author writes about is really interesting and an important reality check.

My advice is not set in solid gold. It’s only advice, I can’t tell you what you should have or shouldn’t have. I have an extraction unit based on scientific measurements of the pollutants in the atmosphere whilst I melt glass, my health is my number one priority. You should get an extraction unit and not just a kitchen rangehood if you intend to make beads very regularly.

Author’s Note:
I didn’t include details or links in my blog about how to make your own ventilation system. It is cheaper to build your own if you are in the US or Canada, but not here in Australia because a registered electrician has to install the unit. The cheapest option is buying a kitchen canopy hood and having that installed over your workbench. There are instructions around online if you are curious. I didn’t include instructions because in Australia you cannot do any wiring or electrical modifications without the use of a registered electrician. Also, in some older buildings electrical wiring in Australia is not red, yellow and green, the cable is actually black, red and brown or you may get yellow, brown and red cable. So any instructions I do post may be confusing anyway.


One thought on “Studio Set up – Part 3 – Ventilation & Ergonomic Lampworking

  1. Pingback: Studio Set Up – Part 1 – Choosing your space | THE ALCHEMISTRESS

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s