Studio Set Up Part 7 is a general discussion about advanced tools. I move beyond the first 60 hours of lampworking and explore the various types of tools on the market that help an artist refine or expand their style. I explored essential tools for the new lampworker in Part 6, along with my experiences of learning how to shape glass with gravity, heat and a marver. In this blog post I share my understanding of how certain tools are used and talk about the most popular types of tools, which are brass presses, tong presses, special mandrels and graphite shapers. These tools are popular because they’re affordable and provide options to lampworkers who sell their beads regularly. In exploring beyond basic tools, I hope to share an understanding for what you are buying, the reasons behind purchasing a tool and how tools can benefit you as an artist. This is a very long blog post, so I have decided not to include kilns, instead Kilns will be discussed Part 8. I have subtitled everything in this post to make it easier to skip to the parts useful to you. I’ve also been very sick with Bronchitis for the past few weeks, so the photos for this post will be updated at a later time.
Why tools rock!
For the bead maker who doesn’t like spending long periods of time shaping glass and wants to focus on decoration. Brass presses and graphite shapers are necessary. For the bead maker who loves to make sets of beads but doesn’t want to fiddle around calculating the exact amount of glass needed for each bead to perfectly match and just wants to get on with the job of decorating. You will want tools. Lots of them.
I’m not enabling your addiction, I’m merely reinforcing what every lampworker already knows. You can never have too many tools.
The logic behind choosing a tool
I don’t own all the tools that I have on my wish list, I would be very poor if I did. That means this isn’t a comprehensive guide to every tool on the market. I will explore and explain a bit about the tools that I have which can be grouped into four categories; brass presses, graphite shapers, specialised mandrels and tong presses. When I began buying tools I wasn’t thinking long term, my exact thoughts were “ooh pretty, I want that one”. I was not looking at bead making tools as a business investment, I was looking at them as a possession to own. For anyone living in the Southern Hemisphere (Australia and New Zealand, I’m speaking to you), any sort of tool that is not manufactured locally (just about all of them) should be treated as a business investment. The cost of buying the tool in a foreign currency and then the prohibitive shipping means that lampworkers in the Southern Hemisphere pay double per tool.
I bought 3 tools from Devardi two weeks ago, in US dollars the invoice for the tools was $48.93USD. If I lived in the USA the price of postage would be gratis, but I don’t. The postage charge to Australia was $28.00USD (39.90AUD), with the conversion rate my order worked out to be $109.90AUD. I was refunded $5.70AUD in overpaid postage and Devardi do not have a S&H fee. Which means that 3 tools cost someone living in the United States $48.93USD, cost me $104.20AUD. Gee, I better hope that I use those tools since they are such a big investment. Another thought strikes me, these tools need to pay for themselves. When I buy a tool I ponder on its usefulness. Is it a shape my customers would like? Will they buy beads made with this tool? Will this tool be worth the money invested in it? I bet you thought I was kidding about tools costing twice as much for people in the Southern Hemisphere?
Picking your Tools
You should always pick tools that appeal to your sense of style. Don’t buy a tool because some other artist uses it and you’ve noticed they get a lot of sales. Buy a tool that will expand your design possibilities, excite and inspire you to create more or lead your aspirations to achieve the most out of your bead making style. If you do that, you will naturally produce beads in shapes and designs that will appeal to a wide base of customers. If you’re only making beads for yourself, then you will be impressed with how much you can grow your creativity when challenged.
When you’ve decided on the tool to buy, you should think about what you want out of this tool and really, this goes back to the central reasons for why you bought a torch in the first place. Are you going to be selling these beads or is this a hobby that you’re going to indulge yourself in? If it’s the latter, just buy what whim takes you (oh, I wish I could). If it’s the former and you intend to sell beads as a business, I use this formula to work out the cost effectiveness of purchasing that new tool.
- What is the grand total cost of this tool?
- How many beads do I expect to make with this tool once I have mastered it, per year?
- How much would I charge for those beads?
- Then I do some simple mathematics, for a cost benefit analysis understanding of what I need this tool to do to make it worthwhile me purchasing it.
This isn’t really scientific or completely accurate, I don’t factor glass or time into the cost. All I’m trying to do is judge the rough length of time this tool will take before it pays for itself. From there I can work out if it’s a “need” tool or a “want” tool. Do I need it because fashion styles are changing? Do I need it because I have been struck with an amazing idea that I want to see translated into a shape I can’t make with gravity and my current tools? Do I want it because I’m bored and it will inspire me? All of these are good reasons for buying a tool.
- I bought the Devardi Graphite Double Ogee 3 Slot Shaper [$18.95USD]
Grand total for this tool is $38.47AUD
(tool = $27.07AUD) + (postage = $11.40) – I divided the total postage by 3 because I bought 3 items.
- This tool is a lot trickier than I expected and there’s a bit of a learning curve. I expect that I will make about 40 beads a year with this tool, but will probably only sell about 20 in that time frame.
- I estimate the beads to sell between $8.00 and $18.00 AUD a unit because the tool has three sizes on it. Averaging $12.50AUD a unit
- $12.50AUD x 20 = $250AUD per annum. Even without factoring the glass and time in, if I sell 20 mid size beads a year made with this tool, it’s a pretty good investment.
If I do end up purchasing the tool (which I did in the case of the Devardi tools) I keep this little cost benefit analysis on the back of the original invoice. At the end of the financial year I’ll look back on my taxable items (I’m a registered business) and see if the tool actually did pay for itself, if it was a good investment after all. If it wasn’t a good investment, but I still really like the tool I will recalculate (say I only sold 10 beads that year, and I have 30 lying around.) I’ll put the new formula down and review it next financial year. After 2 years if the tool still hasn’t paid for itself. I’ll make a decision on if I keep it or sell it to recoup some costs to buy a new tool. If I haven’t used it much and it’s just sitting around, it should go. So far, I haven’t sold any of my tools. I have a bunch of them earmarked for sale, but when I look at the original cost prices, sometimes, it’s just not worth reselling them!
Companies that sell various tools based on tool type
Pegasus Lampwork Tools
Carlo Dona Tools
Jim Moore Glass Tools
Mandrels, Mechanical Tools, Stamps & other stuff
Bearfoot Tools (not manufacturing tools at the moment)
Carlo Dona Tools
Jim Moore Glass Tools
I use the term “Brass Press” to denote a stamping type press with a handle. The press body is made entirely of brass and the handle is usually made from wood. The press may align itself with pins (Perlenpresse, Bavarian Beads and Zoozii’s) or be aligned due to a base (CattWalk). Why then, would I buy primarily CattWalk presses if I have to pay for the extra expense in both shipping and cost of a base? Actually, CattWalk never charges for shipping. So that was something I factored in when making my choices. But really, when it comes down to it; I find a press with a base a lot easier to use.
Differences between “pin” and “base” brass presses
No one now really speaks about the differences between pin presses and base presses. I think it was a hot topic several years back, but there are so many toolmakers around making pin style presses these days, the issue seems to have evaporated. Presses with pins will have two brass rods attached to the base of the tool, and two holes drilled into the top of the tool to line the press up. Presses with a base have the bottom part of the tool clamped into the base, and the top part is lined up with a guide pin on the base. The argument for pin style presses is that they line up better, and I think they do, there is certainly less room for error with the guide pins. However, I used to have real trouble dropping the press down onto pins and lining the top and bottom up properly. Which is why I still have so few pin style presses. I wear prescription glasses and one of the things I’ve never done is wear my prescription glasses for lampworking. I find clip on didy’s very annoying; so, I do my lampworking not wearing my prescription lenses. (Talk about making it hard on myself). I cracked so many Kalera beads because I was not quick enough to line up the pins. Brass presses really chill your bead, so you need to reheat it properly and press fairly quickly otherwise it will get too cold and crack. The obvious solution is to wear glasses, but it was more than just having a bit of blurry vision for not using pin presses much. It was the handling of them. It actually took me a long time to get the knack for using a pin press, but once I got the hang of it, I went out and bought a few more.
Benefits of Brass Presses
You should be able to use the top part (with the handle) of any brass press for shaping. For instance, the top of a CattWalk #3 Wide Crunch press becomes the perfect thing to shape plump olive beads. I can use the top part of my Zoozii’s Kalera Long & Lean press to shape square beads, but, a press without pins, has another bonus. The bottom part of some CattWalk presses can be flipped over for a different press option. So you’re getting more flexibility out of this style of press. However, pin presses are by and far more popular and they come in a ridiculously enormous range of styles. Ridiculously.Enormous. I have 10 presses from the European manufacturers on my wish lists and because they have so many cool new styles, I keep adding to this list.
Versatility of Brass Stamp Presses
Brass stamp presses are fairly versatile, there are presses available that don’t require a set amount of glass to make a shape. I tend to buy presses that allow for flexibility. Either I choose a press with a few different sizes in it, or I choose a press that has many design options. For instance the Kalera press doesn’t have to just make long beads, it can make little stubby pillow shaped beads too. Although you can buy presses that are limited in their structure but offer something to a bead maker that they can’t easily achieve with a marver, such as faceted edges, amorphous shapes, thin and flat rectangles and embossed patterns.
Skill Sets of Brass Stamp Presses
Brass stamp presses require practice to use properly. They also require refinement of skill, you will find some presses easier to use than others. You will also need to learn how to fill the cavity properly so that your pressed bead looks as intended. The good news is that most brass stamp press manufacturers have instructions on their website to use their products and most presses are really easy to use. Some press styles take a little while to master properly, particularly the type that have bits that stick out such as the Butterfly presses by Perlenpresse. These presses can be very frustrating to use, unless you have really good heat control I wouldn’t attempt a complex press. Other press styles look easy, but require some fiddling to get right, such as the very popular Cleopatra shape from Bavarian Beads. You should consider that no matter what press type you pick, there is a bit of a learning curve to them all. The book “Hot off the press” by Lori Greenberg is fantastic if you’re struggling to use presses.
Why do my beads crack after I use a brass press?
Because brass presses really chill the bead after being pressed it is essential that you develop the habit of bathing your bead in heat immediately after pressing and as you’re decorating. Once the bead has been pressed, up your propane just a tiny bit to make a slightly hotter flame and roll your bead at the very tip of your flame for thirty seconds or more to avoid potential cracking. The larger the pressed bead the longer you will have to soak heat, for instance the Cattwalk Focal Marquis press requires a good minute of gentle reheating once it has been pressed into shape.
If you have pressed a thin flat bead and you intend to decorate the sides, ensure that you stop decorating periodically and bathe heat through your bead as you work. Beads that crack a lot after being pressed is entirely due to being too cold. Some torches have much more ambient heat than others and so you don’t have to heat soak as much, however if you’re on a Minor Burner or a Hot Head you must heat soak regularly. This adds a lot of time to actually making a bead, but it’s worth it because they won’t crack.
The power of a brass press is that you can produce exactly the same shape bead again and again. Jewellery designers love “sets” of beads. If you’re making beads for a living, you can actually cost out your precise materials for each pressed bead based on glass volume, rod cost and time taken. This might be very important to you if you need to turn a profit or work out your hourly rate for commissions.
In 2016 I procured a gorgeous “puffy” heart press and a pentacle stamp from Ray Skene who makes high quality brass stamping tools. Ray has extended his services to make custom presses, as far as I’m aware he is the only tool maker doing this for artists directly. That means, if you have a shape you have dreamed up Ray is the man to make it happen. His business “Lampwork Tools” is located in the United Kingdom. Visit his page, you won’t be disappointed.
I didn’t buy a graphite shaper until two years ago. Although I don’t use them much, when I’m having a bad day and nothing is going right, it is so nice to reach over, grab one and get that bead shaped without hassle. Overwhelmingly my shapers are from CGBeads, I purchased one recently from Devardi because I wanted to see what the difference was. Graphite shapers such as those from CGBeads have a defined bead shape, unlike presses which squash the shape into a bead, shapers rely on spinning hot molten glass in a cavity or across a grooved surface to acquire the shape. They take a certain amount of glass to shape the bead, too little and it won’t have a nice smooth shape. Too much, and the bead will develop wrinkles.
Differences between “cavity” and “profile” graphite shapers
I find CGBeads shapers very easy to use because of their cavity style. They have a beautiful smooth quality finish. The trick is to shape the basic bead, add the right amount of glass, heat until just soft and spin the bead into the cavity to get a perfect shaped bead. Its a very small learning curve. If you already know how to make beads, a CGBead “roller” just cuts down the time to make them.
I’m not fond of the blocky handles, I find them a bit cumbersome, but I’m not fond of the handle on Devardi shapers either. I think I’m very used to the slim handle on my paddle marver. The Devardi tools, most of which are forming or profile marvers (you roll the bead along the length of the forming tray or grooved profile) have a definite learning curve to get the nice sharp definition that you can get very easily from CGBeads cavity bead rollers.
I really love the shape of the Devardi tool I have and they seem pretty good. I think overall, I prefer the way CGBeads design their tools because I find the cavity much easier and quicker to get the shape right. Then there is the price difference, Devardi shapers are a fraction of the cost of CGBead shapers. My guess is the price difference is due to the type of graphite used and the difference in finishing the graphite, perhaps the labour costs in creating the tools as well. Either way, if you’re in the US a Devardi tool is very inexpensive and a good entry point into this style of tool.
The most famous of all tong presses have to be the ones produced by Carlo Dona. They are a huge investment, so I have never purchased one. However they make the most exquisite bell shaped flower presses. Interestingly Devardi also make bell shaped flower presses. Since I don’t have a bell press from Devardi either, I can’t do a comparison on which one is better. Although at the price Devardi charges for their tools, it’s a low cost risk to see what they’re like. Based on the two tong presses I already have from Devardi I will say that they make pretty nice beads, but for really tiny mandrels. The tongs line up well and whilst there is a seam mark visible in one of the beads pressed from a tong its easily smoothed out.
A good mid range priced tool are the Jim Moore tong presses he has a small but very select range of tongs for lentils and cushion shaped beads, along with some embossing tongs which are exquisite. I keep thinking that I should buy one, but the logical business side of me cannot justify the cost. I need to sell more beads.
Comparison between “tong” and “brass stamp” presses
The interesting thing to note is that tong tools work in much the same way as brass presses. You need to know how to gravity shape a bead in order to fit it into the tong and press it correctly. So in that sense, I think tong presses have a higher learning curve than brass pressses, because a brass press is more forgiving. If you have too much glass in your bead, your brass press probably has another cavity and you can add glass to make a bigger bead, but your tong press only has the one size. You can pull glass off a bead carefully to reduce the size, but it takes practice at spot heating on a chilled bead, so that you don’t pull the entire bead off the mandrel. Tongs travel well because they are lightweight and make an excellent choice for artists who teach and do demonstrations. Unlike a brass stamp press which needs to sit flat on a table you can lift the tong up to demonstrate bead shaping to an audience. I remember a debate on Lampwork Etc Forum about what was the “best” lentil shape and overwhelmingly the Jim Moore Lentil tongs were the favourite for the overall shape.
Brass texture Stamps and Pads
There are a lot of tools on the market. Let me rephrase that, you won’t ever own or use all the tools on the market. You will wish you did at times when you see someone use a tool in an unexpected way and fall in love with that design. I wish I owned some texture pads, such as the ones that Karen Leonardo (she calls her tools “imprint” tools) or Jim Moore sell. These are small brass stamps with wooden handles that can be used to stamp a design into glass. I could really see these sorts of texture stamps fitting in well with my organic designs and that is what a lot of artists use them for. EDIT: I actually bought a Jim Moore spiral texture stamp and I love it. It offers a very different look to the Spiral Plank that Cattwalk make (which I have) and it is as easy as stamping it into your bead whilst the glass is hot, but not too molten to distort the shape. The Leonardo texture stamps have a much wider range with some very cool patterns, I have a few stamps on my “wishlist” from this supplier as well. I still wish that I had a good quality pair of parallel mashers for the rare occasions I think a bead would look better squashed, graphite marver pressing can be wonky if you use uneven pressure and once it’s flat, it ain’t going back.
Do your research, look at all the tool makers and see if you can borrow some to use. If you are in an area where you can borrow tools from a studio tool library, go and do that to see if you love the tool enough to buy it. If you don’t and you’re not sure between one brand or another, go with your gut instinct. You’re an artist after all.
The Big Hole Mandrel/Ring Topper
I originally wasn’t going to talk about these types of tools, but they’re right up there for popularity. Big hole mandrels make big hole beads and rings. They come in a variety of shapes, sizes and styles. The Ring Topper Mandrel is a special tool that allows for a cabochon top with a threaded bottom for switching ring tops out on a ring base. You can also buy Cabochon Mandrels to make cabochons in the flame rather than in a kiln. I’ve got the big hole mandrels and they’re never disappointing to use. They challenge you in a whole other way when it comes to heat control. I think they’re awesome to use after the 60 hour mark to really refine your “bead-under-the-flame-warming” habit. I don’t own any ring topper mandrels yet, I would need to dedicate some serious time to mastering how to make a cabochon in a flame. Then the cleaning of them would probably drive me loopy. You do need to get silicone carbide grit to clean the base of cabochons and ring toppers made in the flame.
I hope this post has been interesting and gave you some insight and perspective that you might not have considered before buying a tool. If you are looking at becoming a registered business, all of your tools can be considered tax deductible. (they are in Australia). Now if that isn’t incentive to go out and buy tools, I don’t know what is!