Studio Set Up – Part 8 – Choosing a Kiln

Alchemistress :: Blog :: Setting Up a Studio :: Kilns
My huge Ge’&Ge’ kiln, this kiln is batch anneal only. I can get the kiln modified to add a bead door and a shelf, but it means I need to upgrade the controller. The digital controller is sitting below the kiln. This controller can only store one program in it at a time. The more programs a controller can store, the more expensive that controller (and therefore the kiln) is.

Kilns deserve a blog post on their own which is why I’ve devoted Part 8 of the Studio Set Up blogs to the topic of  “choosing a kiln”. I have finally updated all the photos for this blog post (as at 5 October, ’15). In part 7  I discussed the different tools you will likely purchase as your bead making skills improve and evolve.
There will come a time where the beads you make suddenly start to look so good that you will want to wear them and when you do, the compliments and queries about where to buy your jewellery will start to roll in.

Sure, everyone is proud of their first efforts but it wasn’t until my 70th even nearing up to my 100th bead that my artistic style really developed and talking with other artists, this was about right for them too. About that stage of your bead making career you should consider purchasing a kiln to ensure the longevity and saleability of your beads. For some people it might be three months into bead making, for others three years. Yes, you can get away with not annealing your beads, ancient beads are popping up everywhere thousands of years old and they weren’t properly annealed and are still in tact. Whilst a round or stubby cylinder bead is less likely to crack than any other shape and you can wear these beads without much fear of them cracking, other bead shapes require annealing. Glass is a fragile product and annealing takes away some of the fragility.

Why annealed beads are important for jewellery makers
So what’s with the whole annealing thing anyway? Why do glass workers need to fire their beads if they want to sell them? That question has been answered in detail through this wonderful blog by Everlyn Durberry.

If you are going to sell your beads, anneal them properly in a kiln to guarantee your work.

In short, if beads are butted up against other glass beads or the beads are in a bracelet which gets a lot of knocks, the chances of glass beads chipping and cracking are pretty high if the beads are not kiln annealed. Most mass produced beads from China and India are not kiln annealed, which is why you’ll often see broken and chipped beads in jars and containers in bead shops. When you raise glass beyond it’s stress point and hold it at a set temperature for about an hour, something magical happens; glass becomes stronger and more durable. Round glass beads will bounce off concrete without a chip, scratch or fracture line. I’ve got a necklace full of raised dot beads that I accidentally dropped, they bounced off the concrete and scattered all over the floor. That was five years ago and the necklace is still going strong. However, glass is glass and whilst round beads are more durable than any other shape if you aren’t careful with your beads they will break if dropped no matter how well annealed they are.

If you’re intending to sell your glass beads to other jewellery makers, you want to guarantee your work and they want to be able to guarantee theirs. If you’re making jewellery to sell, the same principle applies, kiln annealing properly is important because it’s your quality guarantee.

Alchemistress :: Blog :: Setting Up a Studio :: Choosing a Kiln
This is a basic controller, it’s about ten years old so this model has been superseded. At the moment it is switched off, when it’s running the current kiln temperature shows in red, and the ramp rate, hold temperature, cool temperature shows in green. Most controllers have this colour configuration.

What is the difference between annealing and flame annealing?
Annealing is a term used in both metal and glass industries. When you anneal an object you are slowly raising the object in temperature to just beyond it’s “stress point” – which is a type of melt point that removes any internal stresses within the object. The idea is to hold the object at just beyond this stress point for a period of time to remove any pressure inside the object. Then the item is left to cool down very slowly and this action will strengthen the object and provide it with long term durability.

Flame annealing is the technique of heating the bead at the end of your flame (increasing the propane slightly for a hotter flame) until it is lightly glowing red to remove any stress put into the bead, it is a type of annealing but it is not as good as putting the bead into the kiln.
If you have a kiln with a bead door, you would pop the bead straight into your kiln (which will be standing by at a hot holding temperature) when you’re done working for the day, you will set the kiln into it’s ramp up to anneal temperature and ramp down mode.
If you are batch annealing, you will rotate the bead out of the flame until it loses it’s glow and then place it in a fibre blanket or heated vermiculite to cool down slowly. After which it will go through a more strenuous annealing cycle once it has cooled down. When you have made a lot of beads and they’re all cooled down slowly in vermiculite you will run your kiln through an annealing cycle.

Overview
Here’s the thing with kilns, like torches, you have to find one that fits you. Kilns can be made from fire brick and/or fibre blanket and lampworkers need to get one with a digital thermostat controller otherwise you have to spend all day babysitting the kiln temperature. Try and get a kiln with a bead door to save yourself having to batch anneal. I bought a “batch anneal” kiln because at the time they were much cheaper than those with a bead door. I don’t mind having this sort of kiln. I can use it for multiple purposes like slumping cabs and fusing.
At the end of the day you’re going to buy something that fits your budget. In the back of your mind you should be looking to buy a kiln in a size that suits your needs with a quality digital controller that can be programmed. That may mean you get a kiln with a bead door and a fancy controller that can be programmed in a number of ways. However, if you don’t have the money and you cannot afford the bead door luxury and you think you will be buying a kiln for batch annealing with a simple controller, read on. I talk about my experiences batch annealing.

Alchemistress :: Blog :: Setting Up a Studio :: Kilns
My kiln is made of firebrick, I haven’t bothered to kiln wash it because I haven’t been slumping anything in it. The bricks are “glued” with a special type of cement and the door is heavy reinforced steel and firebrick. You can put a rod rest and a shelf into big kilns to pack in the beads. But my usual trick is to do this.

To buy or not to buy a kiln
If you flame anneal and cool down your beads slowly they shouldn’t break and you can wear them (I wouldn’t sell beads that aren’t fully annealed). If you have been given a kiln or you bought one with your torch, the best thing you can do is follow the digital controller manufacturer’s instructions to set the ramp up, hold and ramp down program (if you can’t find the instructions, google the brand; a lot of manufacturers have their instructions available for download in a .pdf format).

If you have a pottery kiln that doesn’t have a digital controller, don’t risk firing your beads, you could slump them, or not actually anneal them properly. You can get pottery kilns altered with a programmable digital controller (links to the bottom for Harco controllers in Australia). There are kiln firing schedules for glass beads available on the internet. I have a basic one listed below, which you can modify to your needs. When I say modify, what I mean is, different types of glass require different annealing schedules. For instance, my schedule is for COE104 glass, but you will need a different ramp and anneal schedule for Bullseye COE93, Satake (Soda Lime) COE113, Satake (lead) COE120, Gaffer COE96 and etc. To read more about different brands of glass, check out this detailed blog post by Robin Snuttjer.

Alchemistress :: Blog :: Setting Up a Studio :: Choosing a Kiln
This kiln is fitted with a kill switch, if the door is raised the kiln will stop heating. (Which is what the warning sticker says). The kiln has just been switched on and is full of beads, the internal temperature is 13 degrees Celsius. It will slowly raise the temperature over the course of three hours. With an annealer, you need to make sure your kiln is at the correct holding temperature before beginning your bead making session, you can ramp your annealer up really fast, but you can’t do that in a “batch” annealing kiln; your beads will crack.

Is my annealing good enough?
Kilns are used to raise the temperature of a bead and hold it for a length of time beyond it’s stress point to eliminate any hidden stress fractures. All glass kilns do this, no matter the type. Firing your beads in a kiln to a proper firing schedule guarantees long life of your beads. The general consensus by lampworkers is that the best way to make sure beads are strong is to go from “flame to kiln”. I don’t necessarily agree that it is the best way to fire your beads, but it’s the easy hassle free way. “Flame to kiln” certainly eliminates the risk of breakage from improper flame annealing.

“Batch” annealing means you have to flame anneal properly because you will be cooling your beads down slowly first. Then you need to be careful about putting your beads into a fibre blanket or pot of vermiculite. “Flame to kiln” means you are less likely to crack beads from cooling down too fast in vermiculite or a blanket. Both “flame to kiln” and “batch” annealing methods will anneal your beads properly. “Flame to kiln” eliminates the cool-down step which is where most errors are made. If you are careful and patient, “batch” annealing will be fine for you. Don’t think that if you can’t afford the super duper expensive kiln your beads will somehow be less than wonderful. If you have a lampworker friend nearby you can always send your beads to them for batch annealing whilst you save up for the kiln of your dreams. That way your bead sales can help fund your new kiln purchase.

Alchemistress :: Blog :: Setting Up a Studio :: Kilns
The groovy 1970s era crockpot filled with vermiculite helps cool hot beads down before batch annealing.

What is “strain”  or “stress” point temperature and why is it important?
I work primarily in Soda Lime glass COE104. If you are working with lower coefficient glass, annealing temperature will be higher.

As a general rule of thumb COE104 glass will anneal at 515 degrees celcisus (960F), this means that if you are using a kiln with a bead door you will want to “garage” the glass between 30-40 degrees lower than your anneal temperature to remove any stress in the glass. So anywhere between 920-930F and about 485-495C should be your garage (strain) point. Bear in mind that I make beads up to 4in long and up to an 1in wide so I do work at the higher end of the firing scale, also my kiln is huge.

If you are batch annealing, depending on your controller you will be able to ramp up, stop at the garage temperature (strain point), then ramp up to the annealing temperature for an anneal cycle. (My kiln controller cannot do this, so I must flame anneal carefully before putting my beads into a straight ramp to annealing temperature).

Copyright Desi Rentos, 2015
These beads on mandrels are between 2 and 4in long and up to 1/2in thick. These go in my “2 day” cycle. That means, they cooled down in vermiculite overnight then into the kiln completely cold the next day for the 10 hour cycle. A ramp up of 4 hours, hold for 3 and ramp down of 3 hours and I take them out the following morning.

Soda Lime glass is usually annealed for an hour at 515c, but you can raise the anneal temperature slightly and drop or increase hold times depending on your kiln size and bead size. If you make large beads, it’s always better to slightly increase the anneal temperature to accommodate the thickness of them. Or you can go the other way and increase the annealing time. (I prefer to go slightly hotter and anneal for a little longer – only an extra 10 minutes). You don’t want to go beyond 545 degrees celcius for COE104, because raised designs, faceted and pressed beads will lose their crisp edges as Soda Lime will begin melting beyond that temperature range, if you are using Satake glass pay particular attention to annealing temperatures as it is much softer than Effetre.

For those of you that have kilns with controllers that can cope with stepped programs, one other trick is to bring the kiln out of anneal and stop it for an hour at the strain point before full ramp down. The idea is that with larger pieces of glass art, the second stop at the strain point puts the kiln into a position where the heat is evenly distributed and allows for any stress put into the glass that was not removed the first time (before annealing) to be removed.

But I heard that you can’t encase this glass?
For temperamental glass (glass in the 104 palette that appears “incompatible” when encasing it) the advice from glass manufacturers is to raise your anneal temperature by a few degrees and increase the anneal time by 5 minute intervals. For instance, so many people tell me that they can’t encase CiM colours and I find that to be not quite accurate. Some CiM glass cannot be encased at all, just like some Effetre and some Vetrofond (and so on). However, most of it can be encased just fine when you increase your temperature and soak times. I never have the issues that others have with CiM because my kiln runs a bit hotter and longer than is necessary to anneal glass.

There is no “set and forget” scheduling if you’re mixing up brands of glass and changing your style around. There does need to be a bit of flexibility on your behalf to be ready to fiddle with your kiln controller settings if you decide to go suddenly from making very small beads to large ones, or to encasing beads when you didn’t encase previously. Like baking a cake, each oven is different, each cake is different so you will need to adjust your firing schedule to suit your purposes.

img_4674
Batch Annealing on one side and Flame to Kiln annealing on the other side. I bought a second hand Paragon Bluebird XL kiln with bead doors in December 2016

What is “flame annealing” ?
Flame annealing is the practice of heating the bead up evenly at the very tip of your flame to distribute heat evenly through it before putting the bead away into a kiln, fibre-blanket, pot of vermiculite or pot of annealing bubbles. Some artists like to turn up their propane slightly to do so. I am in the habit of keeping the flame neutral so that I do not have any unintended reactions occurring in my finished design. It is extremely important to flame anneal for those of you who are “batch” annealing. Missing this step means that you will get beads cracking in your cool-down phase. I rotate large beads for up to five minutes at the tip of my flame before garaging them in vermiculite. If I forget or think I can wing it on a small bead or do not flame anneal a large bead for at least five minutes, its a certain guarantee that I will develop cracks in my beads.

Alchemistress :: Blog :: Setting Up a Studio :: Choosing a Kiln
If you are using vermiculite, it is extremely important to heat it up first; vermiculite stores water. If you live in a humid environment over time your vermiculite will absorb water from the air around, this in turn will impact the beads that you bury in there to cool down slowly. You can see all the condensation forming on the glass lid of the crock pot. It turned out to be two tablespoons of water. I usually heat my vermiculite up for a few hours when I’m torching without the lid on, but once a week I put the lid on to see if any moisture is still in there.

My kiln firing schedule
After my beads have been flame annealed then cooled down slowly in vermiculite. I pop a big batch of them all into the kiln ready for kiln annealing. My kiln has a ramp up schedule of 5.5 degrees celsius a minute (330C an hour), holding at 45-60 minutes (depending on the bead sizes, I run big beads longer) at 535 degrees celsius (995F) before ramping down at 2.5C a minute (144C an hour). This isn’t a programmed ramp down as my controller cannot do that. Once the anneal temperature is reached my kiln will stop heating and cool down very, very slowly. I usually just let it run overnight and then turn the kiln off in the morning. I run my kiln slightly hotter because my kiln is so large, I found that a 515 annealing temperature was too cool for both the beads that I make (usually really big beads) and the size of the kiln.

Problem shooting beads breaking from stress fracture
One day I sat around and measured the rate the kiln lost heat because I was trying to figure out why a lot of my beads were cracking. I worked out that one reason was because I was not flame annealing properly, I roll my bead at the end of the flame for a good 2-5 minutes before putting it into a pot of heated vermiculite now. Flame annealing is my guarantee of reducing stress fractures in long and thin beads, pressed beads and shaped beads (like “Goddess” beads). The other part of the reason for my bead breaks was the kiln schedule I was using. I had programmed a stock standard schedule that I found on the internet, but what I didn’t take into consideration was the fact that my kiln is SO HUGE that the firing schedule was not annealing my beads hot enough or long enough. So now, I run my kiln slightly hotter than most bead firing schedules you will find online to accommodate the quirks and size of my kiln. I’ve drop tested a lot of beads since changing my program to the one specified above and I’ve had no breaks since. If you have a big kiln (the inside of my kiln is 40cm x 40cm x 40cm) go with a slightly hotter anneal temperature and soak for 45-60 minutes for every inch of thickness in your bead. For example, my four inch long by one inch wide barrel beads anneal for about four hours. You cannot “over anneal” your beads, so it doesn’t matter if you also have half inch round beads in with the big four inch beads. If you want more information about glass annealing, I recommend reading Bandhu Dunman’s Contemporary Lampworking books.

If you are having problems with beads cracking when you accidentally drop them or even after a few months of wear, look at how you work before going out and buying a new kiln, or blaming a particular brand of glass. The artist puts stress into the glass, we can remove the stress if we change some elements about how we work. The kiln schedule can remove a lot of stress if you are stopping at the strain point for long enough before going into an anneal cycle. Annealing cannot remove the inherent stresses in badly constructed beads, beads with bubbles along the length of the mandrel hole (a poorly made first wind), beads that have been allowed to cool down too quickly outside of the flame, beads that are too thin on one end, beads that you have let the ends go cold on, will all have a lot of internal stress. Any of these severe internal stressors will eventually crack the bead.

Things to consider if you are getting a lot of cracked beads

1. Am I putting my bead away too cold (even if you are going flame to kiln, putting beads away too cold will result in a lot of stress which means cracks down the track). Beads should slightly lose their glow before being put into a kiln, vermiculite or blanket. (I put the bead under the desk in the dark to see if the surface is still glowing, if you put a bead into vermiculite (or fibre blanket/bubbles) too hot, these products will stick to the surface, distort or imprint on the bead.

2. Am I flame annealing and keeping the bead warm as I work?  Beads heat from the centre outward, the edges of beads get cold before the middle (yes, even on a round bead) Beads with ends that are rapidly colder than the rest of the bead will crack if they go into a pot of vermiculite. So be mindful to roll heat through a bead as you’re working on a design. If you’re going flame to kiln, you can probably get away with having cold ends.

3. Is my kiln temperature right for the beads I’m making? Most of my beads range between 1in and 3in. I make big beads and big beads need a slightly higher anneal temperature and anneal soak length. I still make mistakes though, recently a very big bead came out of the kiln cracked and I know that it was because it cooled to quickly coming out of the program. This is a limitation with my kiln, I cannot hold at a second strain point.

4. Experiment with your controller and get to know your kiln. Keep notes and test your kiln regularly, you may get cold spots in it.

Alchemistress :: Blog :: Setting Up a Studio :: Choosing a Kiln
The bead on the end was pressed, but not heated enough after pressing. When it was placed into the vermiculite to cool down it developed a crack. This is one of the pitfalls of batch annealing.

Batch Annealing Overview
Batch annealing offers the same durability as flame to kiln annealing. Round beads that are flame annealed and cooled down properly will last a long time as they are. If you have purchased a kiln with no bead door (like I have) you will be batch annealing your beads because you cannot go from flame to kiln. This means you will need to purchase a fibre blanket or crockpot and vermiculite. Vermiculite is a natural insulator and it’s very cheap. It’s great for slowly cooling beads down in. I prefer vermiculite to a fibre blanket and I don’t use annealing bubbles because they’re hard to get in Australia, but my understanding is that they work in the same way that vermiculite does, with less dust. I also prefer to have my vermiculite heated up as I am less likely to have beads cracking in warmed vermiculite.

The stuff is mostly sold in 100litre bags, whatever you don’t use can be mixed into your potting mixes or used for hydroponic cultivation (it also absorbs water and can be used to keep plants hydrated). Some companies sell vermiculite in a small size bag, always purchase a small grade size of vermiculite (its too hard to bury beads in big chunky vermiculite) and find out if your bag has been sieved, to ensure minimal dust. I put the crockpot onto high before I start my torch session (vermiculite absorbs moisture, so heating it up will remove moisture).

After the torch session is done from high I’ll turn it to medium for an hour and from medium to the off position. It takes about 4 hours to go cold. I then store my cooled beads in my kiln, when it’s full I’ll run the annealing schedule. Vermiculite is a natural product and isn’t hazardous to your health if used sensibly, just make sure you get a small size with low dust. DO NOT peek at your beads once they’re in the vermiculite until it is completely cooled down. Peeking at “warm” temperatures to us, will almost certainly put stress into the bead and lead to cracks. (I used to peek, but now I don’t too many beads have cracked on me due to impatience).

The very blunt (but truthful) pro’s & con’s list of “batch” annealing

  • I usually run my kiln at the end of a week with 30 or 40 beads, this saves on a lot of electricity. Pro.
  • I didn’t buy a fibre blanket, but that is one method of cooling beads down slowly. Kilns usually have fibre blanket or fire brick in them, fibre blanket and vermiculite is inexpensive. Pro.
  • Another method is the crockpot full of vermiculite. I can set the crockpot to heat the vermiculite, guaranteeing a slow cooldown for my beads. I found a new (old) crockpot in a junk store for about $10.00. Pro.
  • Flame annealing beads and cooling beads down slowly in a crockpot or fibre blanket offers some durability and for round beads, this is actually enough for them to last, well, indefinitely. (Ancient people didn’t use sophisticated kilns and archaeologists are pulling up glass beads all over the place. Food for thought!) Maybe Pro?
  • Batch annealing means you have to actually wait until there is enough beads to warrant running the kiln. This also means you have a silly amount of beads to clean at once when it’s done. (ugh, I hate bead cleaning). Con.
  • Multi program controllers and kiln annealers are expensive, a good quality second hand one will set you back at the least $800.00 AUD (that is if you’re lucky enough to find one with a controller and a bead door). You’re more likely to be paying upwards of $1800 AUD for a kiln with a multi program controller and bead door. Con.
  • Fibre Blankets and Crockpots rely on the bead having a lot of internal heat. Long or thin beads crack more easily because the heat is not centred in one place, so they must be flame annealed carefully (which can alter the composition of  some glass types, that is, you’ll see noticeable colour changes or reactions happening some times). Maybe Con?
  • If you don’t flame anneal properly and then put the bead away in the blanket or vermiculite a cold spot could develop a crack and ruin your bead. Con. 
  • You can’t disturb beads once they’ve been put away into a fibre blanket or vermiculite. Jostling them about to fit more in, will more than likely introduce a cold spot. When I’ve made a lot of beads and I’m running out of space in my crockpot, I forget this basic rule and always, I’ll get a bead with a crack (bugger my impatience). Con.

If you read through that list and thought the fuss of batch annealing is not worth saving a few hundred dollars, then I recommend getting a kiln with a bead door. I will always keep my big batch anneal kiln, but I certainly do want a small kiln with a bead door to sit on top of it for the days that I make hugely elaborate beads and want them to survive. Hugely elaborate beads, like large “Goddess” beads don’t have a good life expectancy in a fibre blanket or vermiculite if you don’t flame anneal well. The uneven heat within a bead like that means it is very likely going to develop a stress fracture, you really must be consistent with flame annealing.

Alchemistress :: Blog :: Setting Up a Studio :: Choosing a Kiln
I use an insulated power board with safety switch for expensive electrical equipment, such as the oxycon and kiln. If you get your kiln from the US, make sure it’s been converted to 240v and the plug changed over. If the plug has a US pin, grab a plug converter. (My oxycon is on 240v, but the plug wasn’t switched over).

Kiln electricity usage
Kilns are expensive to run, they use up a lot of power. This might be very important to you if you’re an “off grid” person. Most bead makers distinguish between a true kiln (one that can anneal, slump, fuse and tack glass) and annealers (can anneal only, that is; bring glass up to it’s stress point and then cool down) If you have an “annealer” running for a long torch session whilst you “garage” your beads in it, then set it through an annealing session you will see a big spike in your electricity bill. The other rule is, the bigger the kiln the bigger the electricity bill. When I had my studio in my home. Running the kiln a few times each month saw my electricity bill doubled. I was a bit surprised actually at how much power a kiln uses, so I make sure that baby is full before I run it these days. There are some kilns that operate like an annealer (that is, they have a bead door on them and will hold for long periods of time at a predetermined temperature) but can also slump, fuse and do all the other things a bigger kiln does. These are the most desirable kilns on the market because of their compact size and versatility.

Alchemistress :: Blog :: Setting Up a Studio :: Choosing a Kiln
This is an example of Double Helix glass testing. I’ve made notes on how much flame strike happened on these beads and what colours I used. Then I’ve taken a photo with my phone so that I recall what the beads looked like before I put them in the kiln, so that I can see if the glass strikes in the kiln.

How to stop glass “kiln striking” in an annealer type kiln.
One other difference between batch annealing and flame to kiln annealing is that you can overstrike certain colours (particularly silver glasses) in annealers that are garaging beads for a while. The only way to get around this happening is to make test beads up to check how much flame striking is needed before going into the kiln. Just make a few small beads in the colour you want to experiment with and try them out at different strike ranges, then pop them all in the kiln. Try to keep track of how much flame strike was on each bead. Make a chart or use a permanent marker on the end of the mandrel to colour code the beads to identify how much a bead was struck before being put into the kiln. With this way, you can guarantee the colours you want in your silver glass beads.

Silver glass manufacturers Double Helix, Striking Colour (Unfortunately the owner and manufacturer of Striking Colour was in a terrible motorcycle accident and has not been able to produce glass for some time) and R4 or Precision104 as it’s now known suggest doing this exact technique on their respective websites and they also offer tips and advice on different annealing cycles to try for certain glasses.

Kiln Manufacturers (kilns with bead doors)
Devardi Annealer
(Devardi annealers only anneal beads. Several people have them and the warning is to get it’s heat range tested by an electrician. Mark the dial with the anneal point so that you do not accidentally melt all your beads flat).
EvenHeat

Jen Ken
Karma Design Studio
Paragon
Prometheus

Skutt

Kiln Manufacturers in Australia (made to order)
Ge’&Ge’ Kilns
Woodrow
Kilnwest
Tetlow

…and if you just need a controller, in Australia you can purchase a controller to suit pottery kilns here or here. Controllers made in Australia are usually manufactured by Harco.

Lastly, think about what you make. If you’re mostly a bead maker getting a kiln with a bead door is probably the best option and its better to save up for it. If you want to slump and fuse, find a kiln that can do that and maybe forgo the bead door. If you’ve been given an old ceramic kiln, it’s salvageable by getting a controller fitted to it. If you bought a kiln years and years ago and are thinking of an upgrade, then I hope you found what you needed here.

Alchemistress :: Blog :: Setting Up a Studio :: Beyond Basic Tools

Studio Set Up – Part 7 – Beyond Basic Tools

Alchemistress :: Blog :: Setting Up a Studio :: Beyond Basic Tools
Tools lined up on my bench within easy reach. The racks are old wire test tube holders from my uni days. The magnetic spice rack holds reduction frit and “raku” frit. Behold my awesome view.

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.

Alchemistress :: Blog :: Setting Up a Studio :: Beyond Basic Tools
These beads are all made even and round using a graphite shaper. Less time making the base bead means more time decorating and if you’re not thrilled about the shaping of glass and more interested in the decorative part of making a bead, you will love your 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.

  1. What is the grand total cost of this tool?
  2. How many beads do I expect to make with this tool once I have mastered it, per year?
  3. How much would I charge for those beads?
  4. 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.

Example:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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
  4. $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

Brass Presses
Bavarian Beads
Beadpress
Cattwalk
Perlenpresse
Zoozii’s
Ray Skene Lampwork Tools (custom tool maker)

Graphite Shapers
CG Beads
CorinaBeads
Devardi
Pegasus Lampwork Tools

Brass Tongs

Carlo Dona Tools
CorinaBeads
Devardi
Jim Moore Glass Tools
Graceful Customs

Mandrels, Mechanical Tools, Stamps & other stuff
Bearfoot Tools (not manufacturing tools at the moment)
Carlo Dona Tools
Leondardo Lampwork

Jim Moore Glass Tools
Zoozii’s

Brass Presses
Overview
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.

Alchemistress :: Blog :: Setting Up a Studio :: Essential Tools
Most of my presses are from CattWalk. You can see that they are sitting in a brown metal base. The tool with the brown handle and the tool directly in front are pin presses. You can see that CattWalk presses use a different technique to line up the top and bottom. I prefer this press style.

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.

Alchemistress :: Blog :: Setting Up a Studio :: Beyond Basic Tools
As you can see graphite marvers come in all shapes. The CattWalk #3 Wide Crunch press can be used like a forming tray to shape beads. The brass disc forming tray sitting on top of my torch marver is another such style of brass tool.

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.

Alchemistress :: Blog :: Setting Up a Studio :: Beyond Basic Tools
“Jewelbox” brass press by Cattwalk. I love this press but it has a steep learning curve to achieve that beautiful faceted look. I haven’t used it in quite some time and I forgot that the best look is to use a transparent glass to show off the facets. These beads have more rounded edges because I decorated the surface with raised dots, losing the defined edge I got from the initial press.

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.

Graphite Shapers
Overview
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.

Alchemistress :: Blog :: Setting Up a Studio :: Beyond Basic Tools
My collection of CGBeads Shapers and my lone Devardi graphite forming tray. I started out with the mixed cavity shapers because I wanted to see if I actually liked this style of tool. When I’m having an “off” day, these tools are lifesaving.

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.

Alchemistress :: Blog :: Setting Up a Studio :: Beyond Basic Tools
This is the melon bead press by Devardi. Absolutely a pain in the bum to get a bead to press perfect in it as one side of the press is more defined than the other. I hate lopsided looking beads. I end up flipping the bead over and pressing twice into the bottom cavity which is more defined to get a uniform look. (But I love the shape) I might machine out the top cavity one day to match the bottom.

Tong Presses
Overview

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.

Alchemistress :: Blog :: Setting Up a Studio :: Beyond Basic Tools
These beads were all made on the same mandrel, with the cracked bead made last. Brass presses chill your bead very quickly. If you don’t reheat your glass gently at the top of your flame to soak heat through (without losing the pressed shape) your bead will crack down the middle.

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.

Alchemistress :: COE 104 Glass Testing :: Blog :: Creation is Messy :: Cirrus
The top bead was made using two marvers to turn it into a flat tab like bead. I then stamped it with the Jim Moore Spiral Texture Pad and added enamels to highlight the design.

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.

Alchemistress :: Blog :: Setting Up a Studio :: Beyond Basic Tools
An assortment of big hole mandrels in different shapes and styles. The flat one is a “ribbon” mandrel. It makes beads with a slot rather than a hole for threading onto flat ribbon or leather. Specialised mandrels are a relatively inexpensive tool, but they require a lot of practice to get looking right.

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.

Suppliers of Ring Topper Mandrels & other speciality mandrels
Art Glass East (USA)
ArtyCo (Netherlands)
DeBeads (Aust)
JetAge Studio (USA)
MangoBeads (UK)
Zoozii’s (USA)

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!

Alchemistress :: Blog :: Setting Up a Studio :: Essential Tools

Studio Set Up – Part 6 – Essential Tools

Alchemistress :: Blog :: Setting Up a Studio :: Essential Tools
I keep my stringer in glassware, although it’s not the best storage solution. I think I’ll be changing it over soon. I was lucky enough to get a bunch of old wire test tube racks from my university days and I store all my tools on them. My crockpot full of vermiculite to cool beads down slowly. The little round thing next to it is a magnetic spice rack where reduction frit lives. The big batch annealing kiln is in the background. It’s huge and takes three people to lift it.

In Part 5 of the studio set up blogs I discussed bead release and mandrel preparation in exhaustive detail (I know I’m exhausted from proof reading it), but bead release is one of those things that if it’s going wrong can be most frustrating. This post turned into such a long-winded discussion about all the different tools and suppliers and what tool to get when, that I had to break it in two separate blog posts. In the sixth installation of this blog series I tackle the discussion of what tools to buy on start up, very specifically, what tools to get within the first 60 hours of making beads. I have included a lot of links to different suppliers so that you can do some price comparing. In the first 60 hours I don’t think it is necessary to buy a kiln. Although I will talk about kilns in the next post on tools. At the end of this blog post is a list of tool manufacturers and suppliers for Australian residents.

Alchemistress :: Blog :: Setting Up a Studio :: Essential Tools
Most of my presses and tools were bought in 2007. I didn’t buy any tools for six years. Recently I’ve purchased a few tools second hand and new to inspire me to take my bead making in new directions.

It was an overcast Sunday in 2006, I’d spent the entire day learning how to be ambidextrous, my left hand sometimes still doesn’t know what it wants to do. I had to learn how to spin a mandrel, apply glass, apply heat, use stringer, keep the bead round and well, none of that was working out right. I was exhausted and irritated with my slow progress. I couldn’t get the shapes I saw in my head to happen on my mandrel. A question by another student summed up my train of thought. “Should I use a press to get the shape that I want instead of making beads the slow way?” I listened eagerly to the answer and was at first disappointed. The teacher, Pauline Delaney paused for a moment and then said “later maybe, you should learn to get basic shapes with gravity and a marver first.” I can’t recall the conversation beyond that point, I was excited there were tools that could do the shaping for me and I was also busy feeling guilty about not wanting to follow teacher recommendations.

Alchemistress :: Blog :: Setting Up a Studio :: Essential Tools
The Jim Kervin and Corina Tettinger booklets that were instrumental in getting the lightbulb moment with heat control. I bought Hot Off The Press by Lori Greenberg to learn how to use my presses properly, it ended up being a great book to help me understand shaping and forming beads using gravity.

What I did in the next few weeks was to completely ignore Pauline’s advice and go on a tool-spending spree. Brass presses were really having their moment in the sun, and I was in love with all the fancy shapes I saw in beads for sale on eBay that were impossible to get (or truly difficult to achieve) with gravity and a marver. I went out and bought some Cattwalk presses; a lentil trio, a tile trio and a marquise shape. I’ve used the lentil the most (all my first lentils cracked). I used the smaller cavity in the tile trio once (turned out pretty well, but I never felt the urge to use it again) and the marquise shape once – in disgust I put the marquise press away because what I did make, exploded off the mandrel. I still have all my presses, and I’m slightly biased to the Cattwalk brand, all my presses bar one come from that company, but I realised that I wasn’t going to make anything better with a press until I figured out heat control and gravity forming beads.

Alchemistress :: Blog :: Setting Up a Studio :: Essential Tools
Foreground, ACE Didymium glasses, background regular Didymium glasses. The ACE glass is darker and supposedly offers better protection.

TLDR;
Before 60 hours of lampworking
If you don’t want to read the full and detailed list of tools below, here’s a quick version of what is recommended for a new lampworker to use in the first 30-60 hours of lampworking.

  • Didymium or ACE Didymium glasses
  • Glass Nippers or Mosaic Glass Cutters
  • Paddle marver
  • Flat benchtop marver
  • Tweezers
  • Razor tool or knife
  • Tungsten rake or poke
  • If you are leaning toward sculptural beads (e.g animals, aliens or robots) you should also get a Stump Shaper
  • If you like flat beads then get a pair of parallel mashers, although keeping a flat bead warm all over whilst doing a design on one surface is tricky, but as a beginner this is a great style to practice heat control on.
  • Fun marvers, such as the holey roller, grooved marver or flower frog
  • Crockpot full of vermiculite or Fibre Blanket
Alchemistress :: Blog :: Setting Up a Studio :: Essential Tools
Passing the Flame by Corina Tettinger is a bible of useful information, particularly from a decorating perspective. Making Glass Beads and Beads of Glass by Cindy Jenkins are useful for grasping basics. The complete book of Glass Beadmaking by Kimberly Adams is by far the most useful for heat and gravity shaped beads. Glass Bead Workshop by Jeri H. Warhaftig is well photographed and provided alternative ways to making beads I was already familiar with. Creating Lampwork Beads for Jewellery by Karen Leonardo is a gorgeous read and I bought it because I love her beads.

THE FIRST 60 HOURS
Books to build skills

I looked at my marvers and realised that using them was the only way I was going to learn heat control. So, back to marvering and gravity to shape beads. I couldn’t use presses until I understood and mastered the basic heating and manoeuvring of glass for myself. I made a lot of hollow beads to practice heat control. I shaped a lot of rounds and donuts,  then figured out how to make tapered tubes, cylinders, barrels and bicones only using gravity and a marver. I got the hang of making a perfectly round bead (Larry Scott’s trick in Cindy Jenkin’s book Beads of Glass helped me “get it”). A lot of the beads I made with gravity and a marver cracked as well but I persevered and started reading more into heat control. I read Bhandu Dunham’s epic glass saga and got a greater understanding of the characteristics of molten glass.

Alchemistress :: Blog :: Setting Up a Studio :: Essential Tools
The Art of Beadmaking : Dots isn’t called the “definitive guide” for nothing! This one is a must have.

I learned how to create perfect puckered ends, rounded ends and straight ends through Jim Kervin’s little books about Jim (James) Smirchich’s heat and gravity shaped beads. I learned how to get bicones and triangles and discs by reading about Heather Trimlett’s techniques, such as the “40 bead challenge”. I had a copy of Corina Tettinger’s book (bible) and it didn’t leave my side for the next six months. These artists use gravity and simple tools to get all the shapes they need, if it was good enough for the masters, it was good enough for me. Pauline is right, the information coming out in publications from the most influential teachers were all saying the same thing. Heat, gravity and a marver are the most essential tools for learning how to make beads.

Alchemistress :: Blog :: Setting Up a Studio :: Essential Tools
Assorted heat and gravity beads that I have made over the years and never got around to using or selling.

If you learn how to heat glass and move it with gravity first then you will encounter fewer problems when using presses or making beads outside of your comfort zone (like, long flat beads or thin tubes). By the end of those thirty hours my heat control was better and my understanding of how glass moves was significantly increased. After six months I could use the lentil press with much more success, although I’m still very cautious around that marquise shape. The first sixty hours of bead making took me about 12 weeks to reach. I didn’t feel confident enough to sell beads until a full year later and only after friends asked me. You can probably tell where I’m going with my list of tools that are essential on start up, can’t you?

Alchemistress :: Blog :: Setting Up a Studio :: Essential Tools
An assortment of marvers, my favourites are the two paddles. The one with the wooden handle has been modified into a mandrel stabiliser. The spiky thing is a vintage flower frog which is a fun marver to use. The grooved marver has become an essential tool for certain bead designs.

Marvers (Yep, plural, you probably need at least two)
I love my marvers. I’d say I make more than 70% of my beads with a marver and gravity only. I love them so much that I have four of them. I’ll explain why a marver should be your first “shaping” tool. Marvers are made from hardened graphite. Some have handles and look like a paddle, you can get torch mounted marvers, raised marvers and some are just a flat block. Graphite is also used to make bead, marble, paperweight, murrine and vessel shaping tools.

My lampworking starter kit came with two marvers;

  • A flat benchtop marver
    The benchtop marver was great for laying out leaf and frit to roll my bead on, but it hurt my wrist to bend at the angle needed to do any serious shaping with.
  • and A tiny little paddle marver.
    I found the little paddle marver more useful for actual shaping of a bead, but it was too small and my beads were getting bigger. So I bought a bigger paddle marver and put the little one away.
  • Graphite paddle marvers are available in a variety of lengths and widths, some with rubber handles and some with wood. Choose one by taking note of how you work. If you keep “running out of space” you should get a longer marver. If your beads are falling off the edge, get a wider one.
  • Modifying a marver into a stabiliser
    Although as my beads got bigger and longer I began having trouble stabilising my mandrel and my beads were losing shape because my hands shook. I’d read about stabilising mandrels in a glass paddle (Bhandu Durham) and that didn’t appeal, but then I recalled Jim Smirchich’s technique of modifying a marver – a tailstock (read here about a lampworker who has blogged about this specific marver). I measured a corner that matched back and front on the little marver, then cut a corner off it with the grinding wheel of my Dremel, sanded it flat, then drilled a hole in that flat corner, voila, a mandrel stabiliser.
  • Torch Mounted marver
    I only purchased one a few years ago and my primary reason for buying it was to keep murrini warm. I don’t do any shaping with it. Although some people find them very handy for this. I keep a small brass disc shaping tool on my torch mounted marver for easy access.

“Fun” Marvers
There are a few “fun” marvers on the market and one you can pick up from a thrift/junk shop that will give your beads a different look. These are a good tool for beginners, you can play with texture on a bead and learn some nifty tricks with these tools.

  • Grooved aluminium marvering pad (Aluminium Ridge Shaper)
    This tool leaves ridges and grooves in your bead, which can be left on it’s own or encased for some cool effects.
  • Holey Roller marvering pad
    This tool leaves circular impressions in your bead, particularly cool for organic designs. You can knock your own up by buying off-cut perforated stainless steel sheet.
  • Vintage Flower Frog
    These flat back steel blocks have upright spikey nails embedded into them. If your roll a hot glass bead over, they will leave a whole bunch of tiny holes that you can encase for a bead filled with little decorative air bubbles.
  • Carving your own design into graphite pads
    You can buy plain graphite and have a go carving your own design (such as spirals or wiggly lines)
Alchemistress :: Blog :: Setting Up a Studio :: Essential Tools
A small selection of all the tweezers I’ve accumulated. These are the ones that I use the most. I’ve bent the large paddle tweezers to make it easier to shape hearts.

Tweezers (You’ll need at least one pair of tweezers to start with)
My basic starter kit came with a whole bunch of tweezers. Tweezers are handy for gripping the end of glass to pull a stringer or twisty. They’re also good for pinching things out of glass (such as scum or inclusions) and are useful to push, pinch and manipulate glass with. Paddle tweezers are also good for flattening out petals and leaves without making any imprints. My favourites are the smaller sizes that I use for pulling and applying stringer, pinching out designs or inclusions. It’s good to have at least one pair on hand. I went on to buy a few more different kinds of tweezers to see what I liked.

  • Needle nose tweezers
    These are good for pinching out things from a bead without distorting the design (such as a flake of bead release)
  • Flat paddle tweezers/Petal Puller Tweezers
    Very small flat paddle tweezers can help thin the walls of disc beads (useful when making wound hollow beads. Petal Puller tweezers do what they say, they help you shape glass on the rod to create petals for dimensional work.
  • Large paddle tweezers
    These are handy for creating square beads. I modified my pair by carefully bending back the arms to form a V which helps to form the base of free-form heart shaped beads.
  • Standard (snub nose) tweezers come in two styles, ridged grips and smooth grips.
    • Ridged ends are really handy for making ruffles in glass, they also grip better which is handy for stringer pulling
    • Smooth ends are slipperier (I’ve sometimes lose grip on the edge of a stringer) but because they don’t leave an impression in glass are useful for manipulating sculptural designs.

Cross Lock tweezers are mostly used in bead knotting as the tweezers lock into place and can slide a knot down nicely. They can also be useful for getting a strong hold on Murrini. I find that they’re very useful for pulling out inclusions from glass rods as the lock means you can heat and pull in one motion. Tungsten Pick tweezers have the added bonus of not heating up easily, and having really pointed ends that are useful for poking holes and dragging glass into designs.

Lastly, consider a pair of pliers with spring form handles (you can get a lot of different kinds). Whilst they’re not exactly a pair of tweezers they perform the same function and you can save yourself money by raiding the toolbox.

Knives, Blades and Stump Shapers
Another useful shaping and design tool is a knife or blade edge, like a razor tool. These come in a huge range of types. From your every day stainless steel knifes picked up in a variety/junk shop to specialised brass tools that are so expensive you will scream like a banshee when significant other “borrows” them for a purpose not intended and ruins the edge. (True story, I haven’t forgiven him. Keep expensive tools away from thieving handymen).

Alchemistress :: Blog :: Setting Up a Studio :: Essential Tools
Various blades, dental tools, Corina’s Magic wand, Sharon Shaper and large flat spoon thing that I found in a junk shop.

Knives, blades and stump shapers are useful for cutting lines into dots to form petal creases, moving, shifting and smoothing glass down for textural and sculptural designs. Before I found a set of dental tools I used an ordinary craft knife with removable blade. For sharp creases and lines look for tools that come in brass and stainless steel primarily, such as:

The second shaping tool with an edge is a stump shaper, whilst not as sharp as a knife or a blade these tools have a handle and a blunt edge that can be used for shaping, they come in all different widths, dimensions and styles.

  • Stumpchuck Stump Shapers (Loren Stump’s brand of tools)
  • Graphite Stump Shaper
  • Brass Stump Shaper
  • Stainless Steel Stump Shaper
Alchemistress :: Blog :: Setting Up a Studio :: Essential Tools
Tungsten Poker and rake at the top, a paper embosser, two tiny crochet hooks and a stainless steel poke and rake. I really like found tools for poking and raking. I use them just as much as the Tungsten tools.

Pokers and Rakes (either or, but most people get both)
Pokers and rakes are mostly made from Tungsten because these tools are used in glass when it is very hot and soft. Tungsten can absorb a lot of heat and cools down quickly, which means it doesn’t stick to glass easily. You can get stainless steel pokes and rakes, but you will need to chill them after prolonged use as stainless steel sticks to glass when it’s hot. These tools are primarily used for design purposes, such as poking holes for trapped air bubbles and raking dots and lines for effects.

Poker: A long thin rod with a sharpened end and a wooden handle. Does exactly what it is named for. Use it to poke holes in dots then slather a transparent glass on top to trap an air bubble for a pretty design. Can also be used as a rake to drag or push dots and lines around.

Rakes: These are Tungsten pokers that have a 90 degree bend in them, making it easier to hold your mandrel and drag the surface of your bead to feather, or rake dots and lines into shapes. Can be used as a poker as well

Alchemistress :: Blog :: Setting Up a Studio :: Essential Tools
This is the only pair of mashers I have and I don’t use them very much because I don’t like how they squeeze glass.

Mashers – BBQ, Tweezer style and parallel (if you like flat beads)
I’m not sure why these were popular as some made an absolute hash out of your bead. BBQ mashers were everywhere about ten years back. I think tab style presses have largely relegated this tool to the storage cupboard. They basically mash your bead flat. The BBQ and Tweezer style presses by their very design mean there is a lot of fiddling to get a perfectly flat bead. Parallel Mashers are much better to use if you want a flattened bead. I’ve never bought a pair of these, as I flatten my beads between my paddle marver and my bench marver. Parallel mashers give a more even finish though. There is a comprehensive review here of TP Mashers, probably the best parallel mashers around.

Alchemistress :: Blog :: Setting Up a Studio :: Essential Tools
Tile Nippers (left) Mosaic Glass Cutters (right). I find the nippers much more useful and easier to use. However the wheel cutters are useful for 8mm and larger rods.

The not very fun, but very necessary essential tools
– Rod rest (I ended up with three of them, two for glass rods and one for tools.)
– Glass cutters (Get the nipper kind, you can cut your murrini as well)
– Didymium Glasses – don’t use welding glasses it isn’t enough to protect your eyes from soda flare (I started off with regular didy’s, but wanted a lighter frame and ended up with a pair of ACE didy’s, which have darker lenses and supposedly offer better retina protection. I’m not an expert, I just bought what was comfortable.)

…and those are the best tools you can purchase for the first 60 hours on your torch. Now what to do? I highly recommend doing Heather Trimlett’s 40 bead challenge.

A specialised mandrel toolmaker known as “Inspirational Toolworks” now sells through Zoozii’s. Some of your local suppliers will stock tools by these companies, also try Etsy and eBay for these tools as many of these suppliers sell through there or you can pick up second hand ones.

Local tool importers and suppliers serving Australia and New Zealand are:
Beadglass
Chockadoo
Peter Minson Art Glass

Things to consider when buying metal or graphite tools
When choosing a tool decide what it will be for, shaping or moving glass?
1. Graphite is slippery, glass will slip over the surface of it. Its useful for shaping the base bead shape.
2. Metal is grippy, glass will grip to the surface of a metal marver. Its useful for dragging glass across the surface of a bead. (Brass tools are handy for smoothing encasements without distorting the base bead).
3. A bead roller or forming tray uses gentle heat and a spinning motion to shape the bead, because these tools are graphite the bead will slide across the surface and get a nice smooth finish (if you are using the correct amount of glass in the tool).
4. Brass presses push and mould glass into shape, the press will leave distinctive “chill” marks or ripples and the bead has to be reheated to gently smooth them out.

Most marvers are made of either brass or graphite. 
1. Graphite heats up quickly and holds heat for a long time if used continually, although a cold graphite marver will chill your bead.
2. Brass heats up quickly but does not hold heat as easily as graphite, brass really chills beads. Although brass can stick to glass if you’re not being careful to space your working time out with a particular tool (like a small brass poke).
3. You will need to slowly roll heat through your bead at the top of your flame to make sure your bead hasn’t chilled all the way through (which will cause it to crack in half).
4. You can keep a jar of water next to you and a cloth to “cool” your small brass tools down.

Alchemistress :: Blog :: Setting Up a Studio :: Bead Release

Studio Set Up – Part 5 – Bead Release & Mandrels

Alchemistress :: Blog :: Setting Up a Studio :: Bead Release
Bead Release storage, hidden under the kiln out of direct sunlight.

In Part 5 of the Studio Set Up blogs I discuss tips and tricks for getting your mandrels prepared. This blog focuses on three main areas, making bead release, dipping your mandrels and cleaning your mandrels. Now that the torch is set up and the studio is looking more like a work space the invitation to melt glass is calling. If you’re beginning this craft, don’t underestimate how important good mandrel preparation is. Mandrel prep is the first step to do before you can make beads. There are a lot of different brands of bead release on the market, more than likely a pre-made blend will suit your needs. If you’re in Australia and you’re not satisfied with the local stuff that may mean spending some large sums of money to get a mix from the US. I’ll let you in on a bit of a secret, if you get to understand how bead release is made, making your own is pretty awesome.
In Part 4 of the Studio Set Up blogs I discussed turning on the torch safely and where to get the fuel needed, however having a torch and studio is useless if you cannot get your bead release correct. One of the greatest pains in the backside for any bead-maker is bead release that doesn’t do what you want it to do. This blog should help you create good habits for either making your own bead release, preparing your mandrels and, or keeping them in tip top shape to make sure you’re getting the most out of your gear.

Alchemistress :: Blog :: Setting Up a Studio :: Bead Release
An assortment of mandrels. Plain stainless steel to fancy shapes and big hole mandrels (you can tell from how shiny it is that there is one there I’ve never used)

What are Mandrels?
Mandrels are rigid stainless steel wires used to put the hole in the bead. They are coated with a clay and silica mixture, called “bead release”, which is a temporary clay agent used to extract the bead from the wire mandrel. You can make your own mandrels and bead release or buy these products ready to use. I don’t cut my own mandrels because I find it really time consuming. If you’re in Australia you can get Stainless Steel 316L rod from BOC. 316L rod is the specific kind of stainless steel that you need for mandrels.
The size most lampworkers use is 1.6mm and up (by far the most popular size is (3/32) 2.4mm). I really like the (1/8) 3.2mm for making bigger holed beads that fit round leather cord. These mandrel sizes will be roughly the hole size of your bead. If you have the tools lying around to cut your own mandrels, you may find it cathartic or handy to cut whatever size you want. If you’re like me and really can’t be bothered; mandrels are available at most glass retail outlets online and they’re inexpensive. Mandrels that are sitting in an annealer for long periods of time go softer quicker and bend easier, so you will replace them more frequently, because I batch anneal, my mandrels last longer.

Alchemistress :: Blog :: Setting Up a Studio :: Bead Release
Never clean mandrels in the sink directly. Bead Release is 50% clay and it will clog your sink. Clean everything in buckets, then tip the water outside into the garden.

New mandrels are shiny and smooth and look lovely. You don’t want them like that at all. Bead release won’t stick well to a slick surface. The easiest thing to do is pull on some rubber gloves and give them a scrub with some steel wire and soap to rough up the surface a little and clean off any oils from being handled. If you have picked up some mandrels second hand you’ll notice they’re a nice brown colour. They turn this way after being fired a few times in a kiln.

An introduction to Bead Release.
There are so many different types and brands of bead release on the market today. There are two basic types “flame dry” and “air dry”. Some air dry release can also be dried in the flame. What this means is that for some releases your mandrel must be dipped and left to dry and other releases can be dipped on the fly and your mandrel can be dried in the top part of your flame slowly. Flame dry release needs to be dried very slowly at the top of your flame, otherwise it will explode off. Artists will advocate for their personal preference, but I’m not bothered by which type of release I use. I tend to dip my mandrels in the evening after I finish a bead making session as a sort of wind down activity. This means that I have dried mandrels ready for the next bead making session. Regardless of which type of release you end up going for they all contain about the same ingredients. Crucial ingredients are water, kaolin and alumina hydrate. When I first wrote this blog post I wasn’t a big maker of my own bead release. I had most of the ingredients lying around to “fix” up batches that had gone wonky. These days though I rotate around between premixed pots from a variety of different sellers or I make my own.

Alchemistress :: Blog :: Setting Up a Studio :: Bead Release
All the raw materials and different types of bead releases I own. I tend to accumulate bead release stuff.

I have read a heap about bead release, I have experimented a lot with different ingredients and recipes. Subsequently I have a lot of notes from a long time ago (the notebook has yellowed from age) when I was so frustrated by failing release. This blog post is so very, very long because I explore some of what I have learned over the last 10 years.

One of the things I’ve read is that alumina hydrate must be calcined for it to produce the best quality bead release. This means that if you’re buying alumina hydrate from a pottery craft supplier, you need to heat the alumina up to about 1200 degrees centigrade then let it cool before use. That’s a fair amount of effort and it requires a kiln. Whilst I believe that calcined Alumina Hydrate stops hairline cracks appearing in your bead release, at the end of the day it doesn’t particularly matter if it’s calcined or not. So long as you adequately dry your mandrels and heat them up properly before you wind glass onto them, you will be less likely to develop hairline cracks across your release.

Alchemistress :: Blog :: Setting Up a Studio :: Bead Release
Thick and gluggy bead release looks like this.

Why are there so many different types of Bead Release?
There are a lot of different theories and recipes about bead release. It’s a beadmaker holy grail quest, in a sense. Finding that one perfect release that holds, never cracks, never flakes, where beads just come off mandrels easily and cleans out of holes perfectly. It doesn’t seem like such a big ask does it? Well… These days it is pretty easy to just buy good quality bead release. As the saying goes “you need to kiss a lot of frogs to find your prince”. Bead Release is a bit like that. You may find a brand that does all of that, or your brand used to do all of that and now something is wrong and you need a quick fix.

One thing that is universal about bead release is that there are all different types and brands because humidity and heat effect it. You need to get one that suits your humidity levels, what someone recommends in Texas, might not work in Tasmania. The other thing about bead release is that it needs to have a good suspension of all its ingredients in the mix. Sometimes bead release that is pre-made can have batch runs that don’t suit your environmental circumstances and the dreaded cracking, breaking and “spinning beads” happen. One thing I try and do in this blog is to help you understand what might be causing the problems with existing releases as well as learning how to fix them, and making your own release if you can’t find a commercial one that suits you.

Something else bead makers should be aware of is seasonal changes effect your bead release. Bead release that I have no trouble with in winter, is problematic for me in summer because the searing temperatures bakes my release and makes it go flaky, and I’m not just talking about what it does in the jar sitting on the shelf. For the new bead maker, you will work this out as you go and will more than likely have a few different pots of stuff lying around for different seasons. So don’t think that the first thing you buy just has to work because someone else says it does.

Alchemistress :: Blog :: Setting Up a Studio :: Bead Release
The consistency of bead release should be like perfect pancake batter. See the photo above to see what this jar looked like before distilled water was added.

Making your own Bead Release
Should you be motivated to make your own bead release, here’s some of the more popular theories. Some people use Kiln Wash all on its own (kiln wash can be a mix of alumina hydrate and kaolin, but it could also be a mix of alumina oxide and kaolin). Some people add Bentonite Clay (available from health food shops) to pure Kaolin then mix with pure Alumina Hydrate. Then there are a few “optional extras” such as Graphite and Diatomaceous Earth that can be thrown in to stabilise the blend.
There is a lot of sifting to make sure all the lumps are out and you haven’t even added the water yet. Then there are conflicting arguments about the perfect ingredients. Bead release is part clay and part other stuff. (Fancy technical term there) that holds under high heat but also can wash out of your bead in water. We’re asking it to do a lot, but that explains why it is mostly clay.

There are other conflicting pieces of information online about bead release, such as you don’t have to calcine your alumina hydrate (you don’t). Kiln wash on it’s own is strong enough (it’s not), measurements are pointless (they’re  not), tap water is fine, no – tap water is bad; only use distilled water. Distilled water is a variable you can control, if you’re using rainwater or tap water and you suddenly have problems with your release, after adding more water. That’s your problem there.

I gave up trying to figure out how to make my own bead release after a few false starts (Edit: April 2015. I always give up, but then I go back and try things again). If you want to experiment, the ingredients I listed above are what you need or you can try this recipe below as a base line then increase or decrease the percentage of things as you go to suit you. All of the ingredients for bead release are very fine powders so wear a good respirator when making bead release otherwise those tiny particles will find their way down into your lungs. I’ve personally tried a simple mix of  50/50 Kiln Wash (Kaolin and Alumina Oxide based kiln wash) and added Alumina Hydrate with a good chunk of graphite. This isn’t a bad mixture, but it won’t work in presses or if you’re tugging at the glass. You can just use Kiln Wash 80% + Diatomaceous Earth 15% + Graphite 5% as a very stable release that will work in presses as well.

Alchemistress :: COE 104 Glass Testing :: Blog :: Desi Rentos
The narrow beads that I made with the “Lampwork Etc” Air Dry Bead Release Recipe. These beads are cigarette (or slightly longer) length. I still use this release regularly.

The last Bead Release recipe I had in my notebook is one I found online. The general consensus on the Lampwork Etc forums was that this recipe was a good all rounder that did well in presses and cleaned off easily (this notebook dates to 2007, so I’m pretty sure the recipe isn’t on the forum anymore). The reason for the extra Kaolin and Alumina Hydrate in the recipe is to counteract generic Kiln/Batt Wash that might not have enough of either for stabilising beads.

EDIT April 2015: I did make the Lampwork Etc recipe bead release recipe below when I ran out of Foster Fire this year and it works perfectly, it does not budge or crack when used in a press. I was making a lot of long narrow beads at the time and added a little more Diatomaceous Earth for hold. I found it the perfect release for the extended shaping and marvering I was doing. This release does not like to be heated up and cooled down too much as it will release as you’re working on a bead. This recipe is great for long beads or where your mandrel is not being flashed in and out of the flame. The only downside is that it isn’t as easy to clean out as Foster Fire, but then again we’re talking really long beads so they’re a pain to clean anyway, but it’s not as terrible as Super Blue Sludge. To honour where I found the original recipe I’ve named it after the best forums for glass bead makers going around. Now that I’ve talked it up, here’s the recipe:

The “Lampwork Etc” Air Dry Bead Release Recipe

  • Kiln Wash 25% – 2 heaped teaspoons
  • Kaolin 15% – 1 heaped teaspoon
  • Bentonite 10%  – 1 teaspoon (if you can’t find Bentonite, omit it)
  • Alumina Hydrate 40% – 4 teaspoons
  • Diatomaceous Earth 10% – 1 teaspoon
  1. The teaspoon measurement gives you an idea of ratio, I usually multiply this teaspoon ratio by 4. I spoon each ingredient into a sifter with bowl beneath.
  2. Sift all these ingredients together until free of lumps and pour into a tall plastic jar with an airtight lid. (If you’ve made a lot, store the excess mixture in zip lock bags)
  3. Add a few clean marbles or a clean super bouncy rubber ball (optional) to your jar.
  4. Carefully pour in a little distilled water (for years I used tap water and perhaps it’s Australian tap water, but it is not good for bead release)
  5. Cap the bottle and shake really hard for a good five minutes it’s a great abdomen and arm workout. Five minutes seems long, but trust me on this… you need to mix it really well.
    1. Some people make a modified mixer attachment for their Dremel to mix bead release, other people put it into a blender. Whatever you do, make sure your release is mixed really well.
  6. Check the consistency
    • If the consistency is thick and gluggy, add a bit more water and shake really well again.
    • If the consistency looks like pancake batter, you’ve got it right.
    • If the consistency is too watery, put the jar aside with the cap off and let some of the water evaporate.

Bentonite + Diatomaceous Earth means release is easier to clean out of beads. The fine particles of Bentonite provides holding power but also separates the Diatomaceous Earth a little from the Kaolin in kiln wash making your bead come off your mandrel easier. You can substitute your heaped teaspoon of Bentonite with a level teaspoon of Graphite if you’re finding it hard to get the beads off the mandrel or cleaned, but Graphite on its own doesn’t provide holding power. Graphite is a lubricant, so if you put too much, your release will always break when the mandrel gets cold and that is really frustrating. So err on the side of less is more when adding graphite to a bead release mix.

Alchemistress :: Blog :: Setting Up a Studio :: Bead Release
Just add distilled water to fix up hard and dry release. Buy it from hardware shops or the cleaning aisle of your supermarket.

Bead Release Woes
I’ve had a lot of experience with screwing up my bead release, in abject desperation I bought some very expensive bottles from overseas. I still had problems, until I added kiln wash to the mixture I bought from the US. I was fairly epic in the way that in every single batch of dipped mandrels, most would turn out useless in the flame. Cracking, flaking, breaking, exploding off the mandrel and once, a spectacular shower of release once the flame hit the mandrel.

You name the issue and I have managed to make it happen. The only true way of ending any issues with bead release is to prepare your mandrels and the mixture correctly. If you buy bead release it will most likely come to you in dry powder form (although a lot of American brands of release come to you wet), so follow the steps above for mixing bead release well and below for having clean mandrels free of residue which could impact the quality of your bead release.

Mandrel Preparation
Don’t take shortcuts with cleaning and preparing your mandrels. You might not have a problem at all with your bead release. Save yourself the heartache of blaming your bead release until you can eliminate greasy mandrels. After all it might be that your mandrels that are greasy or dirty from being handled causing your release to prematurely crack or break. Or your bead release isn’t adhering to the metal surface properly, because they’re too smooth.

  • Mandrels must be thoroughly scrubbed with soap and rinsed with hot water on purchase and after each use.
  • New mandrels should be “roughed up” by scrubbing them with steel wool
  • Wear rubber gloves so oils from lotions and your skin cannot sit on the mandrel when you are cleaning them.
  • Dry mandrels on a towel in a warm room or lay them out on a dish cloth in the sun. Resist the urge to “rub” them dry with a cloth.
  • Store cleaned mandrels in a place where they won’t come into contact with anything (I have my clean mandrels stored upright in a coffee jar).
  • Don’t handle your mandrels with your bare hands until you are prepared to dip them, ideally the end you touch should not be the end you coat in bead release.
Alchemistress :: Blog :: Setting Up a Studio :: Bead Release
My mandrels are clean, dry and ready for dipping. Dip at a slight angle, it just works better. I don’t know why.

Dipping Mandrels
There is a trick to doing the whole mandrel dip. The trick is; pull the mandrel out slowly and on a slight angle. The slower you pull the mandrel out of the bead release the thinner the coating is. Thinner coatings of a good consistency release will dry quickly and thoroughly, will be more stable in the flame and less likely to break or flake. You will also get a bead hole closer in size to the actual mandrel which makes it easier to explain to people buying your beads how big the hole is.

If you dunk your mandrel in and out of the release quickly, you will get a thicker coat of bead release. In some cases this is good to know if your release isn’t watery, but if it is, be prepared for a lot of drippy mandrels. Some people double dip, and only some bead release brands allow that. If you like a thicker layer of release, double check or do some tests before double dipping every single mandrel.

I used to be really paranoid about dipping mandrels. I’m not a particularly religious person, but all my Catholic upbringing comes back to me when I’m dipping mandrels. Since taking more care with my mandrel prep and mixing release better I haven’t had any of the disasters that used to happen in the past;

  1. Take a clean mandrel without touching the end you want to dip and slide it into a just shaken jar of bead release.
  2. Then slowly pull the mandrel out (slow = thinner coating, fast = thicker coating)
  3. Let the mandrel sit above the jar for a moment whilst any excess release beads off.
  4. Jam your mandrel into a container filled with sand or vermiculite to hold the mandrel up without it leaning (gravity will move wet release).
  5. Let your mandrels dry out of the sun and any breezes. Some people like to sit their mandrels on their warm kiln if they’re in a rush and need them to dry quickly.
  6. Breathe out, now do at least ten more (or however many you think you’re going to use up in the space of three to five days).
  7. Some bead release can handle being dipped and left to sit for months and others can’t. As a general rule of thumb I dip about ten mandrels at a time because I use about that many in one torch session.
  8. When bead release is completely dry, look over your mandrels. If you see little rough edges where powder hasn’t dissolved properly you can gently “finger sand” your mandrels to smooth them out.
Alchemistress :: Blog :: Setting Up a Studio :: Bead Release
The white mandrel is dry and the grey have just been dipped. Some have a drip line because I dipped it fast, you will only get those drips if you dunk your mandrel in and out quickly. Go slow!

Bead release will look grey when wet and white when dry. In winter, with the studio warmed by the heater (dry air), I give my mandrels at least an hour of drying time before I use them. In Summer, because the humidity level is higher (moist air) I’m more cautious and tend to leave them overnight under the desk where they’re out of the sun and heat. I also use my flame dry release more in Summer, because all the releases I own really don’t like humidity.

Heating Mandrels and Bead Release
When your mandrels and release are all dry and your torch is lit and everything is ready to go, there is one last step on your road to perfect bead release and that is your flame preparation. Mandrels and release have to be heated gently, so that they can expand together in the heat without cracking. This seems like a no brainer and yet, the temptation to chuck the mandrel straight into the flame is high on my “stupid things I do” list. A bit of patience when heating your mandrels up will make a great deal of difference with how well your bead release performs in the flame. Remember, different bead release brands like to be heated up differently and that is due to their nature (flame dry release, needs to be very carefully heated) but as a general rule of thumb, the following can be applied to most brands of air dry release.

  • I waft my mandrels in the top part of my flame to gently heat the entire dipped length of the mandrel.
  • Then I rotate my mandrel through the higher part of my flame making sure every part of it has flashed red from heat (your release should also get grey “scorch” marks on it). In the case of using Super Blue Sludge or Dip’N’Go sludge you want the release to change from grey all the way to white.
  • Before I apply my glass, I spot heat the area on the mandrel where my first wind of glass is going to go (your release should go white). I pull the mandrel back and forth to also heat around the spot area (so that the length of mandrel that will take the bead is also white). Then I wind on my glass.
Alchemistress :: Blog :: Setting Up a Studio :: Bead Release
These beads have been put through the torch, then fired in a kiln. They’ll need to soak in soapy warm water for a half an hour before I pull them off the mandrel. This is a perfect example of why I go to all the effort with my bead release, no cracking!!! There was a lot of tugging and shaping of glass and the lentil was put into a press.

If you do all of that in the flame, you have a much higher chance of perfect bead release that holds tight, doesn’t flake or crack, no matter what brand you are using. Its important the mandrel is well heated after the initial phase of introducing your mandrel and bead release to the flame. Your glass will not get air bubbles trying to rise to the surface of your bead from cold or moist release and your bead won’t suddenly “release” mid way through making it, (spinning bead syndrome) because a good heated connection was made.

Lastly, do not spot heat so intensely that you cause your bead release to crack. You just want the release to be hot enough to take the first wind of glass for a good connection. It takes practice learning how much heat your release can take, some brands take a lot of punishment and some don’t. The “Lampwork Etc” recipe above is pretty forgiving, but moving the mandrel in and out of the hottest part of the flame a lot will cause it to release prematurely.

Cleaning Mandrels
A little trick I taught myself is the “two bucket system” (I’m giving it a fancy name). Basically, you want two plastic buckets, the kind that kids use at the beach placed in your sink or laundry trough (to contain any spills). One bucket should be filled with very cold water and one with warm (as warm as you can handle) sudsy water. The idea is to make your job cleaning beads and mandrels as easy as possible. Drop your mandrels with the beads still on them into the bucket of very cold water, the cold water will contract the metal just a fraction, making the beads easier to twist and slide off. It also means that the bead release along the rest of the mandrel will easily crack and slide off as well. You won’t have to scrub very hard to get the release off. As you’re twisting off your beads, have a bucket of warm sudsy water next to you ready so you can pop your beads into that bucket, where they can soak a little while.

To clean out the bead hole I use a Dremel with a diamond reamer bit. If you don’t have a Dremel you can always use a hand held bead reamer to clean your beads in the warm water in the bucket. Set your cleaned beads aside on a dish cloth to dry. When you’re finished all your beads, using a cigar pipe cleaner (these pipe cleaners have stiff plastic fibres) run it through the bead holes to pull out any excess residue of clay and water, then leave your beads to dry completely.

Alchemistress :: Blog :: Setting Up a Studio :: Bead Release
My “two bucket system” patent pending. Those cheap green scrubbing sponges are the perfect thing to clean mandrels.

You can clean your mandrels using the sudsy water after you’ve cleaned your beads. Don’t forget to dunk the clean mandrels into water without soap to remove the soap residue. Lay out your mandrels on another dish cloth to dry completely before storing them away. After all of this cleaning, both buckets of water will be cold and you can go out and water onto your lawn or garden bed. (Clay based release down the sink will end up clogging the drain eventually). If you are using a dishwashing detergent that isn’t safe for your garden, you can pour it over your driveway or footpath onto weeds. Dishwashing liquid will stop weeds growing up through the cracks in pavement. (Well my soap detergent does!)

Lastly, when your beads are completely dry, run some clear nail polish through the bead holes (I learned this trick in a book) and that will make them nicer to photograph and also nicer to string up for jewellery makers. If you have a transparent bead and you’re having trouble trying to get the nail polish brush down the hole, another trick I taught myself is to thread a piece of tightly braided string (not yarn) and just paint the string in clear polish and slide the bead across it to get the clear polish through the hole. 

Premade Bead Release Brands
This is a list of bead release brands that I’ve either used or am using. Some of them come from Australia and others from the USA. Chockadoo and Beadglass ship their bead release flat in ziploc bags, but some, like Foster Fire ships out wet in sturdy plastic containers. There are heaps of brands out there, but these are the ones that I’ve personally tried and liked over the years or brands friends swear by.

Chockadoo’s Bead Release (one size bag – dry mix – Australia)
Beadglass Bead Release (one size large bag – dry mix – Australia)
Foster Fire Bead Release (various size tubs – wet mix – North America)
Super Blue Sludge Bead Release (industrial strength, can be hard for beads to release. I tend to add this to mixes for humidity resistance – small tub – wet mix – leadlighting glass supply stores in Australia stock this release.)
Frantz Art Glass range of Bead Release (North America)
Nortel Manufacturing Limited range of Bead Release (North America)
Krag Mudd ( 4oz tub – wet mix – This has a cult status in North America due to how well it cleans out of transparent glass- I’m keen to try some)
Fusion Bead Release (various oz tubs – wet mix – US beadmakers love this stuff. Haven’t tried it but its overtaken Foster Fire on the popularity stakes)

TROUBLE SHOOTING BEAD RELEASE PROBLEMS

No other issue genuinely frustrates a bead maker more than when bead release isn’t doing what it is meant to be doing, this FAQ section may help you solve your bead release drama.

What do I do if my bead release has dried in the container?
Just add distilled water. For really dry releases (so dry that it’s crumbly or looks like hard pan clay), add distilled water and allow 24hours for the mixture to absorb it. Give it a bit of a stab with a thick mandrel and then keep adding distilled water (stabbing and mixing it) until you have reached the consistency you want. Bead release never goes off, you can keep resurrecting it. I’ve resurrected a completely dry jar of release that was as hard as rock, it took 3 weeks to do but it’s doable (and I use that release with no problems).

I have green/brown/black/orange gack growing in my bead release
Double check your bottle before you turf it out. Sometimes when mixtures settle, coloured elements like graphite will leave little blackish/greenish streaks against the side of your bottle that will look like some festering growth. If the “growth” is floating on top, scoop it out and reshake the jar. I haven’t yet seen bead release grow mould or algae but if you have got something unidentifiable scoop as much out, reshake the bottle and do a few test dips. If the release holds in the flame, don’t worry. If it doesn’t, turf the release out and eliminate what you think may be causing the growth (rainwater, old beads with dirty holes in the jar as “mixers” etc.)

My release keeps cracking or flaking
Bead release will do this for a few reasons, flaking is usually due to bad adherence to the mandrel. Your mandrels might be new and not scuffed enough. Your bead release might be too thin and there wasn’t a thick enough coat to last in the flame. Some brands of bead release flake when there is too much moisture in the air or if they’ve been left to dry for a very long time.

Cracking can be down to a few things as well, one of the main reasons is prolonged heating in one spot and marvering or squashing glass repeatedly. The extensive heating and cooling, expands and contracts the mandrel which causes bead release to crack. Cracks can also form if mandrels haven’t been introduced into the flame correctly and allowed to heat up slowly. Release will also crack if it hasn’t dried properly and was put into the flame too quickly.

Alchemistress :: Blog :: Setting Up a Studio :: Bead Release
I use a tin pail filled with vermiculite (which you can get from a permaculture or hydroponic or gardening store). Some people fill a bucket with sand, others drill holes into a block of wood to stand their mandrels upright. When my mandrels are dry, I push them out on an angle to make them easier to grab, since I’m clumsy.

You should expect some cracking in your bead release particularly if you’re heavy handed with marvering or using tools. I usually develop cracks or have my release flake if I’m being particularly tedious about marvering the edge of a bead. The constant pressure against cold graphite weakens the spot immediately around the edges of beads.

I have gotten better with understanding which way I can move the glass on the mandrel without having the release crack, it’s practice. Your bead release will also crack less when you realise that you don’t need to work low in the flame all the time, working upward and slightly below the flame will ensure your release doesn’t overheat and start pulling away.

The other thing I can tell you, is that you get better at understanding what consistency your bead release should be based on your environment. My “pancake batter” is on the thinner side in winter and thicker in very dry summers. Yours too will change depending on your circumstances.

A tip for rescuing release that constantly cracks:
If none of these issues are causing your bead release to crack, then it might be the release itself. Sometimes the bag of dry mix you’re scooping from has settled and you don’t have enough of the ingredients mixed into your jar. I have had some success fixing up mixtures of release by adding a heaped teaspoon of superfine milled Diatomaceous Earth (links to the exact brand that I use) to the existing blend. The Diatomaceous Earth increases the holding capacity of the release and stops it from cracking due to cold and moist air or from using in presses.

Also, check the bottom of your wet mix jar, if you can see a lot of settled content get in there with a chopstick and mix it all up and reshake your jar, adding water where necessary. For bead release to work properly it needs a good suspension of all ingredients. The stuff settling in the bottom is the clay component, without the clay mixed in properly you will get release cracking. You can sometimes fix a jar of wet release by adding either a bit of clay (such as Kaolin) or a bit of Diatomaceous Earth. One reason for why jars of mixture suddenly “go bad” is that over time of use, not shaking up the jar properly has caused an imbalance in your mixture, depleting some of the key ingredients whilst others settle at the bottom of the jar.

I’m getting air bubbles in my glass when I start a bead
Bead release needs to be dried properly before you can wind glass onto it. If you haven’t properly heated up your mandrel the moisture in the release will cause bubbles in your base bead. These bubbles will lead to a lot of internal stress. The bubbles will eventually cause fractures which means beads will crack further down the track. Go back through my post on heating up bead release and follow that, you shouldn’t get those tiny bubbles forming in your bead.

My bead release is all frothy
If your release if frothy in your container it could be that something in there is fermenting. Smell test your release, if it smells vinegary throw it out. I think this happens when a large insect lands in your release. If there is no such smell and your release looks fine in the container but when it starts to dry on the mandrel the bubbles all begin to come up (so that your mandrel looks like an ‘aero’ chocolate bar) there was potentially oil or water already on your mandrel before you dipped it.

If that wasn’t the case, the atmosphere might be so warm the bead release is drying to fast.

Aaannnddd….If that isn’t the case, shake up your bead release mixture really well and dip again. If the same thing happens, add a heaped teaspoon of kiln wash or batt wash or your dry bead release formula to your container and reshake and dip another mandrel. Sometimes if your release isn’t mixed properly or there isn’t enough of the clay component suspended bubbling up as it dries can happen.

If you have any problems that are really persistent, drop me a message with an image of your problem release on a mandrel. I’ve had so much drama with bead release over the last ten years I could probably help diagnose the problem.

Alchemistress :: COE 104 Glass Testing :: Blog :: Studio Set Up - Part 3 - Ventilation

Studio Set Up – Part 4 – Flame On

Studio Set Up – Part 3 discussed ergonomic workspaces and ventilation. It builds on the advice in part 1 and 2 about choosing the right space and torch for you. Now we discuss setting up a dual fuel torch In Part 4 of the Studio Set Up blogs. I’m going to discuss how to go about getting the torch connected to propane and oxygen. You may have the torch lying around waiting to be set up whilst you sort out some ventilation. You might have even purchased a beadmaking starter kit and have the torch set up and can’t figure out some of the problems with your flame, so you’re trying to find the answer online, and here you are.

Alchemistress :: COE 104 Glass Testing :: Blog :: Studio Set Up - Part 4 - Flame On
Hot water tap is secretly masquerading as a Gin dispenser in my studio. I know I need a few drinks after writing all that. Can’t imagine how you feel about reading it all and discovering there’s actually important and expensive safety stuff that needs to be done first.

The Studio Set Up Blogs are cautious and may seem tedious or worse, discouraging, but the aim is for you to not make (expensive) mistakes with your set up. I spent hours searching for advice before I set up my first studio and I thought I was adequately prepared. I wasn’t at all. I did a lot of things backwards. I wish I hadn’t bought the tools and torch before seriously considering where I was going to actually do the lampworking. I would have saved myself a lot of time if I’d considered the room properly.

I couldn’t lampwork for years because my husband has a serious asthma condition and the spare room was not suitable, even with ventilation. So there was my first studio, all set up and I couldn’t turn on the torch. It took a long time (more than three years) to find appropriate studio space close to home (I don’t have a garage or porch to modify). Whilst I was lamenting my stupid decision I reflected on some of the advice I was given. All of the advice was well intentioned but some of it was better suited to someone who had already been beadmaking for a while and not someone starting out.

Alchemistress :: COE 104 Glass Testing :: Blog :: Studio Set Up - Part 4 - Flame On
Fire blanket & foam extinguisher bolted to the righthand side in case of emergencies.

Sadly, I noticed that I wasn’t able to tell the distinction between advice and golden rules when I was first learning about lampworking. I know now that if it sounds like you really should do it, it’s probably a golden rule and you should definitely do it first. And I didn’t, I got the torch and the glass and thought that all that other less exciting stuff wasn’t as important as it was because everyone was banging on about torches and glass. A lot of what you read online is opinionated advice (90% of this blog for instance) but the boring stuff makes up the golden rules (isn’t that always the way?) which is why I started with that information first.

Now… finally, lets get  that torch turned on.

Alchemistress :: COE 104 Glass Testing :: Blog :: Studio Set Up - Part 4 - Flame On
9kg LPG gas bottle (Swap’n’Go) fitted with propane regulator and flashback arrestor.

Propane (LPG) bottles and fittings
In Australia, this is the easy part. You can get a 9kg LPG BBQ gas bottle refilled from some petrol stations or 7Eleven’s. In metro Victoria finding a service station that fills gas bottles up is a rarity, so I use Swap’n’Go. If you don’t want to buy your own gas bottle, you can participate in the “Swap’n’Go” program. Its a gas bottle exchange program, you bring in an empty bottle to a participating service station (or pay a $50.00 join up fee) and pick up a gas bottle.

When that one is empty, return it and pick up a new filled bottle. Depending on your state or territory, filling your own 9kg gas bottle will set you back about $27.00AUD and a “Swap’N’Go” about $35.00 AUD. My 9kg gas bottle lasts about 60 hours, different torches use gas at different rates. It is also possible to get gas bottles delivered to your door depending on your participating Elgas branch.

Alchemistress :: COE 104 Glass Testing :: Blog :: Studio Set Up - Part 4 - Flame On
LPG Propane regulator showing the point of flow I use for my Minor Burner. This is a bit higher than where I usually run it.
  • Gas bottles require a regulator with a pressure dial for precise flow rate indication. There are lots of regulators on the market, don’t get the flat saucer type they’re unsuitable. I tried to remember where I bought my regulator from and I couldn’t, instead I’ve linked a site that sells a regulator that is suitable for Australian and New Zealand residents, you shouldn’t spend more than $100.00AUD to get one.
  • For most surface mix torches you want to set that dial to 2.5 – 3Kpa.
  • Yes, it sounds low, but that’s where it has to be, much higher and you will change the flame chemistry to a reducing flame. This means you will radically change the colour of some types of glass when put in the flame.
  • Sometimes a reduction flame is good, but you don’t want that all the time. Your aim is for a neutral propane and oxygen mix.

You will also need hoses and clamps to connect your torch and gas bottle. Each country has a different colour coding system for gas and oxygen hoses. Your country might have red hoses for gas and green for oxygen.

Alchemistress :: COE 104 Glass Testing :: Blog :: Studio Set Up - Part 4 - Flame On
9kg LPG gas bottle showing the connection between Flashback Arrestor and Propane regulator and then the connection between regulator and bottle. I use white plumbers tape to create a tight seal.

It is best to get hose with fittings suitable for a regulator at one end and unclamped and unfitted at the other end (so you can clamp it yourself to your torch, which has a much narrower fitting than gas bottles).

  •  LPG hoses will always be orange in Australia
  • Get the minimum amount of hose needed. Hose beyond 3.5 metres loses pressure or picks up impurities along the way, it’s not counteracted by increasing the pressure either.
  • You can always buy 5 metres of hose from a camping or hardware store with the fittings for a propane regulator attached if buying online doesn’t suit you (hose for gas is about $12.95 a metre usually) and then cut it to size.
  • Alchemistress :: COE 104 Glass Testing :: Blog :: Studio Set Up - Part 4 - Flame On
    The connection to the Minor Burner, showing the orange hose for LPG and the blue hose for Oxygen. I’ve used white plumbers tape for a strong seal before clamping the hose to the torch fittings.

    When you get the hose with the regulator fitting,  attach that end to your gas bottle regulator first (this stops you from cutting the wrong end off). Then run the hose up to your torch and leave some slack. If the hose is too tight the gas will not flow properly. Cut down the hose to length and clamp it to your port on your torch tightly.

  • The clamps you need can be found in the plumbing section of hardware stores and automotive parts stockists. They’re about .90 cents each.
  • If you have a surface mix torch you do not need flashback arrestors for LPG bottles. I have one because it’s required under my rental agreement. BOC in Australia, which supplies the welding industry has them if you need one. In America, they are most commonly sold in hardware stores. Different torches have different connections between torch and hose, if you are unsure always check with the manufacturer.

Keep an eye on your hose, make sure no cracks develop in it. Cracks can happen due to kinking (or tautness), extreme heat and cold exposure or gas left too long in the hose. To test for tight connections, fill a spray bottle with soap and water and spray onto the connection, turn on the gas tap lightly. If the soap bubbles at the connection point, you have a weak connection to the gas bottle. Tighten the clamps, or in worst cases, purchase new hose and new clamps. Keep testing to ensure your connections are secure. Gas sinks and displaces oxygen, it moves around spreading outward and very slowly rises to fill a room. Therefore small children and animals and anyone sleeping nearby will be first affected by gas leaks.

Alchemistress :: COE 104 Glass Testing :: Blog :: Studio Set Up - Part 4 - Flame On
Cheap C Clamps double as a convenient place to hang things, keep hose neatly out of the way and will keep your aluminium sheet in place. (Notice how the hose is not slack, but not taut either).

To keep hose out of the way, I used C clamps to tuck it up next to the bench without pinching the pipe. I wasn’t fussy, I just bought the cheapest types I could get. Clamps keep your hose not taut and not slack, if hose is too slack gas will rest in the dips. If hose is too taut the strain and pressure will cause cracks.
Many lampworkers “bleed” their hoses so that no gas or oxygen rests in the hose. I do this more often than not, once my torch is turned off, I reopen the tabs on my torch and let the gas and air escape (keep your ventilation running) then close them back up once the hose has been “bled”. You’ll know when all the gas and oxygen has escaped because the hissing will stop. This does not damage the ports on your torch.

That’s it, the gas is done. For the most part you can get everything you need from a hardware store or even a camping store. Do not skimp on the regulator, you definitely need one with an accurate dial on it because it must hold the pressure at a tiny 2.5kpa.

Oxygen Bottles and Concentrators
The other fuel source for your dual fuel torch is oxygen and this is a little more tedious. Australia has a lot of rules about who gets their hands on bottled fuels other than LPG. You can purchase oxygen in bottles or you can buy an oxygen concentrator and produce an endless supply of oxygen. If you are hiring bottles you will need an oxygen regulator and a flashback arrestor. Some oxygen regulators have flashback protection built in. When you purchase your regulator ask for the matching flashback arrestor that goes with it.

Alchemistress :: COE 104 Glass Testing :: Blog :: Studio Set Up - Part 4 - Flame On
10lpm Commerical Oxygen Concentrator. Most oxycon’s will connect from the front of the unit, they will have a pressure dial, on/off switch and sometimes a digital reading of the pressure or hours running.As

If you purchase an oxygen concentrator (oxycon), you don’t need a regulator or arrestor. Oxycons have a gauge on them to control pressure and flow. Oxycons are used very frequently in the medical industry, so you can often find 5lpm refurbished units around. Models will vary via brand, but all models have a gauge that shows pressure, some have a gauge to show purity levels and all will have a dial to control pressure (and some have a dial for purity as well). What is most important about choosing an oxycon is how many litres per minute (lpm) it produces. You also need to know how much lpm your torch needs to operate properly.

As a general rule of thumb lower end dual fuel torches, those with 7 ports will be fine to operate on a 5lpm. The more ports a torch has, the more LPM it will require to run. The next size up is 14 ports and you will need an 8 – 10lpm oxycon. Some torches have an “inner fire” of 7 ports and an “outer fire” of 14 ports, those definitely need a 15 to 20lpm oxycon or two 10-15lpm oxycon’s “Y’ed” together (that means the oxycons are connected together at the same pressure to run the torch sufficiently). Larger torches for borosilicate are much bigger again, 32 ports and up and definitely require “Y” connections to concentrators.

Alchemistress :: COE 104 Glass Testing :: Blog :: Studio Set Up - Part 4 - Flame On
Blue hose for oxygen (you can see the oxycon in the background of the photo) This hose is clamped up in several places. Notice the hose is labelled “welding hose”. If it’s blue and it says that, you can still use it.

For instance, a Minor Bench Burner requires a minimum of 5lpm to run. I have my Minor running on a 10lpm, but it maxes out at around 8lpm, so obviously a 10lpm oxycon is overkill for a Minor Burner. Oxycon’s are sold in 5lpm, 8lpm, 10lpm,  15lpm and 20lpm. The larger the volume it produces the more expensive the units get and the harder they are to find in Australia. I bought my first 5lpm oxycon in 2006 second hand for $1500 from a company that refurbished medical devices. My second unit purchased new in 2011 was $2100. Oxycon’s were stupidly expensive ten years ago, but thankfully they have come down in price considerably. If you’re in the US, a 5lpm oxycon will set you back about $500 and an 8lpm or 10lpm around the $1200 mark.

In Australia oxygen hoses are blue and start at around $9.00 a metre. In some countries oxygen hoses are green, if you’re using green hose in Australia it is fine.

  • Oxygen Bottles Overview
    • Can cost between $60.00 and $90.00 depending on size for each refill or swap over.
    • You may need to swap them over every 45 to 60 hours of usage depending on your torch and what size bottle purchased.
    • Can be hard to procure from suppliers or may need a permit to use in a residential area (depending on council regulations).
    • Need to be chained up and secure at all times.
    • Have a naturally high litre per minute (LPM) rate.
    • Are a clean, almost pure source of oxygen.
    • Is initially cheaper than an oxygen concentrator
  • Oxygen Concentrator Overview
    • “free” limitless oxygen
    • “free” limitless oxygen
    • “free” limitless oxygen
    • Big initial start up price, but did I mention the free oxygen?
    • Can be noisy when running
    • Also, they tend to creep people out the first time they run (they sound like a machine breathing or can give people flashback memories of sick relatives).
    • You need to keep oxycon’s clean inside (dust free) and away from moisture or moist environments. (They all come with instructions on how to look after them and it’s very simple).
    • Need to have the pressure dial at a rate consistent with what your torch is using up, too much pressure can cause problems with your flame.
Alchemistress :: COE 104 Glass Testing :: Blog :: Studio Set Up - Part 4 - Flame On
This photo shows you how close the LPG bottle in relation to my torch. Its under the desk to prevent any hot glass disasters. The white thing on the other side is my heater because it’s nasty cold in winter.

If you know you’re going to be flameworking for years to come, put aside money to invest in an oxycon. Always get one that suits your torch, if you know you will be upgrading your torch in the not very distant future; purchase a slightly bigger size (go a 10lpm instead of an 8lpm) and just turn the oxycon down with your lower end torch. After your extraction unit an oxycon is your next biggest purchase on your list of very important things to buy. If you didn’t buy a desk or chair then the expected outlay (say you go a mid range ventilation unit and not an industrial grade extraction unit) will be around $2700-$3000AUD. ($1000 ventilation including associated costs – such as electricians fees, $1500-1900 Oxycon, $250 Minor Bench Burner). Throw in some glass and a few basic tools and you’re easily hitting the $3000 mark to begin your hobby if you live in Australia or New Zealand. The good news is, if you’re from the United States and some parts of Europe you can set up for about $1000 less.

I bet that Hot Head torch and your garage is looking like a pretty good option after you’ve had a look at some of the expected costs of a dual fuel torch.

A small note about oxycons and moisture, I put moisture absorbing pads (the kind with the little beads in them) at the base of my oxycon to draw out any moisture. Moisture will destroy an oxygen concentrator very quickly (as will extremely dusty environments) If you’re living in humid climates, I recommend you get the moisture absorbing buckets that hardware and supermarkets sell in the laundry aisle and keep that near your oxycon.

Also, keep your oxycon out of direct sunlight and remember to clean the filter on the back of your unit. Every few years have your oxycon serviced, it is astonishing how much dust they can pick up. Dust and moisture is the number one killer of oxycons. If you’re not going to be using the unit for a while due to holidays, cover it in a drop cloth (not plastic).

If your oxycon is causing your flame to “breathe”, then there are a few possible causes. My torch does this when I have the oxycon turned up to high (its producing more oxygen than my torch can use up). The other reason is that the sieves inside your oxycon could be blocked or nearing blockage. If this “breathing thing” is happening to you, don’t stress out. Play with the settings on your oxycon before you call in a service report.

P.O.O.P
Once the hoses are all connected and fitted properly, you can go ahead and start up your torch, but first you need to POOP. No, so not what you’re thinking. (Credit for this acronym goes to Pauline Delaney).

Propane On
Oxygen On
Oxygen Off
Propane Off

  1. When you start up a torch you want to turn the propane on at the LPG bottle.
  2. Twist open the red dial on your torch (you may hear gas hissing at this point)
  3. Light a match and bring it to your torch face
    (keep your fingers under the nozzle). Behold, the marvel of fire.

    Alchemistress :: COE 104 Glass Testing :: Blog :: Studio Set Up - Part 4 - Flame On
    Neutral flame on the Nortel Minor Bench Burner. This photo has been colour altered slightly, so you can see the distinct parts of the flame.
  4. Torch lit with fuel number 1 (propane)! If it’s flaming all over the place, turn the red dial down a little, if it’s barely a flame, turn it up a little.
  5. Turn your oxygen on at the oxycon or twist open bottle taps.
  6.  Twist open the oxygen tap on your torch and adjust the flame for a neutral setting.

Don’t worry if it doesn’t look right, my minor takes about two minutes for the flame to set up correctly. If you hear a rushing or wooshing sound this means your oxygen is up too high, turn it down a little. The candles (the bright little flames at the very tip of your torch) should be blue and sharp, if they look long and yellow, you have too much gas.

Alchemistress :: Blog :: Setting Up a Studio :: Flame On
Neutral flame on the Minor Burner. If you look closely at the flame you will see the three distinct working areas.

To turn off the torch, follow the acronym.

Turn off your oxygen bottle tap or oxycon then twist closed the dial at the torch. Then turn off your propane at the bottle and twist closed the dial at the torch. Until you remember the order, get a sticky note and write POOP on it to remind you of the order. This order will reduce the chances of flashback.

Some people like to bleed their gas and oxygen lines, if you’re torching every day this isn’t necessary, if you are not it’s a handy thing to do as it lengthens the lifespan of your hose.

To bleed lines open the valves on your torch a little after you have turned everything off and let the air and excess propane escape for a few seconds (remember to keep your ventilation going, gas will sink and if there is a pilot light or candles burning nearby it could be an ignition point.) Gas sitting in hoses too long will develop an oily goop that will be forced through the hose and into your torch (which means your torch won’t work properly), so if you’re not torching regularly bleed your hoses.

Alchemistress :: COE 104 Glass Testing :: Blog :: Studio Set Up - Part 4 - Flame On
Connection between gas bottle and regulator. The tape is 5 months old and is still in good condition. I’ve unwound a section so you can see how it “frays”.

The “Great” Plumber’s Tape Debate
I have mentioned in this article and elsewhere in forums that I use plumber’s tape on the connections between my hoses, gas bottle and oxygen concentrator and I am met with some abject horror by some artists. I think it’s important that I explain a little bit about plumber’s tape because there is a correct way to apply it to your fittings.

Firstly, why you would want to use tape on your connections. Plumber’s tape creates a strong grip on the threads of your gas or oxygen bottle and your flashback arrestors and regulators. It stops leaks because it helps create a tighter seal and makes unscrewing and screwing the connections together easier, you’re also less likely to wear out the threads on your connections.

Alchemistress :: COE 104 Glass Testing :: Blog :: Studio Set Up - Part 4 - Flame On
This is what frayed tape looks like, with some debris from a gas bottle that was sitting outside. If you start to see “threads” of tape hanging from your connection, it’s time to renew it.

However, plumbers tape is plastic and is subject to degradation and the reason for why artists do not recommend that you use it is because of the urban legend that the degrading plastic can get into your gas or oxygen line and get stuck in your torch, effectively clogging it up. Yes, this can happen IF you don’t wind the tape on properly and IF you do not check it every so often. Like anything when it comes to equipment you should be looking at it every few months to see if its still in good working order and connections sealed with plumber’s tape are no different.

Simple steps for successful connection with plumbers tape
I have used plumbers tape for years on my connections and I have developed some good habits around using it which is why I support the use of it. So I’ll list what I do and you can refer to the photographs for a clearer picture of how I do it, following these steps will ensure successful connection without any dramas.

Alchemistress :: COE 104 Glass Testing :: Blog :: Studio Set Up - Part 4 - Flame On
A fresh wind of plumbers tape, notice how it is not wound right to the very end. This will stop any frayed bits breaking loose. A gas bottle thread connects all the way to the top and is unlikely to leave any tape exposed where it can fray.

1. When you wind plumbers tape on, make sure it is only on the thread of your gas or oxygen bottle.

2. Do not “double wrap” the thread, use only enough to go around once and to seal the tape down. Do this with your thumb and gently push the tape into the grooves so it “sticks”.

3. Never wind tape right to the end of the thread, always finish the wind with an edge of thread exposed where it is closest to the nozzle.

4. Keep your connections secure, if you are unscrewing them a lot, the tape will degrade quicker.

5. Every time you disconnect your regulator from your oxygen or gas bottle and flashback arrestor from your regulator, replace the tape.

Alchemistress :: COE 104 Glass Testing :: Blog :: Studio Set Up - Part 4 - Flame On
New plumbers tape on both the arrestor and the regulator. The arrestor doesn’t wind all the way to the top of the thread. I check this tape about once a year, since my gas bottle lives inside. If your bottle is outside, check the flashback connection more regularly.

6. If you use tape between your torch and your hoses, keep an eye on the connection. This is less likely to degrade (I’ve replaced the tape only twice in 9 years) but it can still happen at that point as well, particularly if you lean up against the torch or hoses a lot at that point.

Plumbers tape is fine to use as long as you maintain it and ensure that it is not fraying. It will save your thread connections and help ensure that the connection is tight and not leaking from anywhere. If you do not maintain it, there is the possibility that a fragment can break off and work its way through your pipes and into your torch. A good rule of thumb is to replace the tape every time you change your bottles over.

Now, you’re ready to play with fire and glass… but only if you have some mandrels prepared!

Alchemistress :: COE 104 Glass Testing :: Blog :: Studio Set Up - Part 2 - Flame On

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.

ERGONOMIC LAMPWORKING
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.

VENTILATION
Overview
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.

Disclaimer:
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.

Alchemistress :: COE 104 Glass Testing :: Blog :: Studio Set Up - Part 4 - Flame On

Studio Set Up – Part 2 – The Torch

Studio Set Up – Part 1 discusses the primary problem of finding a space suitable for bead making. In Part 2 of the Studio Set Up blogs, I assume that you have a space and you’re now pondering how best to get the room ready to install a torch. You might be questioning if having a lot of light is important or not when it comes to setting up a torch. Or you might be wondering what kind of torch to get, if so, then Part 2 will attempt to answer the question of what torch is right for you and give you some advice on lighting solutions for when you get that torch.

Alchemistress :: COE 104 Glass Testing :: Blog :: Studio Set Up - Part 2 - The Torch
This photo is taken at 4pm in August (the middle of winter) in Victoria, Australia. It’s just a fraction darker than the light I usually like to work in. Although the same time in summer is perfect. The windows are fixed on that angle, so it’s impossible to hang blinds properly.

CHOOSING STUDIO LIGHTING
Depending on your eyesight and how you like to work you may want to work in a room that is lit by natural light. I like my studio light and bright after making the mistake with my first studio of working in a dark room with badly positioned lighting. My current studio has a bit of a lighting problem. It has way too much natural light in summer. When the sun is in my eyes I can’t torch, sometimes the light is so bright I can’t even see my flame and I have to work around those times (early morning). When you choose your space, grab a chair and position it about where you think your torch might be. Then spend a few minutes or so at different points of the day sitting in it to understand how the light moves in that space. Some things to consider are:

  • Do I  need to invest in blinds, UV laminate or lamps to get the right amount of light where I will be working?
  • Will I need to put in power points near the work station for lamps or employ someone to install overhead lighting?
  • Will my ventilation system have lights in it and what colour are the globes? (did you buy a kitchen rangehood for ventilation? they often have lights in them and they’re often yellow toned)
  •  The room doesn’t have a lot of natural light, do I have the spare cash in my budget to buy a lamp or change all the globes?

If the room you have chosen doesn’t have any natural light, then you may need to install more overhead lighting. You may also find yourself changing light fittings for higher or lower wattages. If you aren’t getting enough light think about where the primary light sources are in your space.

  • Will changing all the globes in your space to “daylight” globes give you some “natural” light?
  • Make sure the only light source isn’t from behind you, it will cast shadows over your torch as your work.
  • Avoid overly yellow or blue toned lighting, these colours radically affects how glass looks when melting. It also affects the colours in the flame and can lead to some “interesting” colour combinations or eye strain.
  • Think about getting inexpensive L.E.D. clip on reading lights, L.E.D lighting can come in yellow or slightly blue tones, choose the slightly blue tones over the yellow. I use a clip light with slightly blue globes when I’m working nights, they are handy, but they will change the colour of some purple glass to blue.
Alchemistress :: COE 104 Glass Testing :: Blog :: Studio Set Up - Part 2 - The Torch
It’s a bit darker now and there are two sets of lights on. The overhead lighting is a fluorescent “natural” light globe, the orange light is from a cheap IKEA upright lamp with halogen globes. Orange light really makes it hard to see your flame. So change your globes to white light.

Sometimes it’s quite hard to gauge how much light you will need until you have the torch running and you’re making beads. Think back to the lighting in the studio where you learned to melt glass, was it easy to work in? Were you able to see the flame properly? If you can’t remember what the lighting arrangement was like (or you didn’t get lessons in a studio) or you want to know where the studio got their lighting from it’s very easy to call up and ask for information or to ask online in a glass beadmakers forum or search Youtube and watch how other bead makers work.

Some glass changes colour under lights, there is a particular range of glass that Creation is Messy makes (more notably than any other manufacturer) that colour shifts significantly when exposed to fluorescent light, incandescent, fluorescent and daylight. For instance, pinks and purple glass can look blue under fluorescent lighting and blues can look grey. Lighting is a crucial factor in your studio configuration, you do not want to pick up a rod of “grey” transparent glass only for it to be a transparent blue instead. Where possible, change globes first to “natural or daylight” tones before going the more expensive route of getting an electrician in.

CHOOSING THE RIGHT TORCH

HOW TO CHOOSE A TORCH
When I started lampworking in 2006 there were only two kinds of torches available in Australia. There was the Hot Head and the Nortel Minor Bench Burner. I learned on a Minor Burner and loved how fast glass melted. Personally, I don’t like the sound of a Hot Head when its running, its hissing drives me insane. I was pretty sure that I didn’t want that torch because everyone I spoke to seemed to curse the Hot Head for being too slow to melt glass. So I ended up with a Minor Burner. So is, this how you choose a torch? Just listen to everyone else? Well kind of.

But first if you’re very new to bead making here is a little more information about the Hot Head Burner. To see it in action click on the link to this wonderful video of Jenine Bressner making lampwork beads on a Hot Head Burner for Martha Stewart.

  • Hot Head Burner
    • Pro’s
      • They are really inexpensive both up front and long term
      • You can attach it to a gas container and flame on anywhere
      • You can get a bracket to attach the torch to a bench for a more organised set up
      • You can get glass to reduce easily (a little too easily)
      • With practice you can strike “silver” and other “striking” glass
      • It will teach you patience (oh, you don’t think that’s a pro? Read on!)

That is just a few pro’s for this entry level torch. So is that it? Well that depends on how you are going to approach flameworking. I personally find the hot head annoying and skipped straight to a more powerful torch. Although some of the best artists around today started on a Hot Head before they invested more fully in equipment. So if you weren’t able to take a class and really want to get into making beads but don’t want to spend a lot of money on something you might not like, buy a Hot Head and see if you have the fortitude (read; patience) to go for a complete set up and a more expensive torch.

  •  Hot Head Burner
    • Con’s
      • Very noisy once all connected
      • It’s much slower to melt glass on a single fuel torch (melting Borosilicate COE33 is impossible, melting Bullseye Glass COE90 will induce coma, System96 can put you to sleep. Okay, my bias is showing. BE and S96 are fine on a HH, but COE104 glass is quicker)
      • It’s hard (not impossible) to strike glass. (Covering the vents with aluminium baking foil is a technique for getting the best striking effects from a Hot Head torch)

After hearing all the “faults” of a Hot Head I thought wow, they sound terrible I’m not going to get one. So, I got a Minor Burner. I didn’t stop to ask if there might be other torches around that I could buy. I actually thought my only choice was between a Hot Head and a Minor (it never occurred to me that other brands were available online to buy from the US, I know, I can be really stupid sometimes). I bought a Minor because I’d learned on one, it was readily available and everyone said it was better than a Hot Head. For me, in 2006 I went for  the best torch I could afford and find. However in 2016, my advice to a new lampworker would be a lot different. It should depend on your initial confidence and skill as a bead maker and what you think long term of investing in being a glass artist.

I’ll be upfront about my initial skills, they sucked. I was really bad at heat control, I was terrible at going slow (and I burned out so many colours). I just wanted the glass to melt already! But I did know that I was in it for the long haul and the Minor Burner was something I would buy anyway after learning basic skills. If I had really been listening to Hot Head users I would have found some golden advice as a novice bead maker.

“You’re forced to go slow on a Hot Head and you really learn how glass melts. You learn where the “sweet” spots are in the flame. You learn that patience is necessary for getting the best out of your glass. You learn to control yourself and the Hot Head teaches you to be a more understanding glass artist.”

Everyone I know who started on a Hot Head no longer uses one, but they do credit it for helping them understand molten glass and being better bead makers once they got more powerful torches. I think if I had started on a Hot Head torch and worried about getting a kiln later I would never have bought a Minor Burner, I probably would have skipped straight to buying a much more powerful torch because I would have been confident to use one after I’d mastered basic skills with a Hot Head.

Alchemistress :: COE 104 Glass Testing :: Blog :: Studio Set Up - Part 2 - The Torch
The Nortel Minor Bench Burner mostly hidden by it’s “torch mounted marvering pad” and a brass shaping press. Here you can see the gas and oxygen controls and the connection to the pipes. The burner is bolted to the bench with it’s own plate (ooh look at all those boo boo’s, yep, when I was new a lot of glass fell off the mandrel)

So about that Minor Burner? Well I still have it and it’s my primary torch. I have tried other torches and yes, just about every other torch out there on the market burns hotter. But hotter and faster isn’t necessarily better. Making glass beads isn’t a race. I get the best results when I slow down and take my time and that was a hard lesson to learn for an impatient person like me.
So even though I might have wanted a bigger and better torch when I learned that there were other brands out there, I know I don’t need it for the moment. Torches are like cars in the sense that when you find the one you like to drive you’ll never want to drive anything else. Initially I hated my Minor as I couldn’t figure it out, but I have really learned to appreciate it and as I became better at making beads, I realised it’s a pretty good torch.

The Minor Burner torch has taught me that getting the best results I can means I need to hit the brakes and slow right down. It’s taught me to understand that it’s a powerful torch in its own right and to not covet other more powerful torches (they have their own quirks, problems and differences). But don’t take my word for it. Do what I didn’t do and go try a bunch of torches out before you buy your forever torch. If that isn’t possible,  do a lot of research on Youtube and watch other torches in action. 

Edit: Since writing this blog post I’ve tried out a Mini CC, so I’m going to add that to my list of torches because it is very different from a Minor Burner but is around the same price range. I’m not reviewing any other torches because I’m not an expert on them. I do hope in the future that I can interview people who work on other torches for this blog. Here is my blunt (but truthful) impression of the Minor.

  • Nortel Minor (Bench) Burner
    • Pro’s
      • Even in Australia, this is the cheapest dual fuel torch on the market (anywhere from $250 to $350AUD, shop around).
      • Its been around for a long time (since the 1950’s), so all the bugs have been ironed out and you can find good ones second hand at about the same price as a new Hot Head.
      • Its a 7 port surface mix torch (the flame is hot enough for boro on the right oxygen concentrator) which is really easy to use and offers a variety of flame types.
      • Surface mix torches mean that they don’t get hot to touch and they’re unlikely to build pressure and blow the nozzles off. (Anecdotally, I know other brands that are not surface mix that have done this).
      • Its actually pretty portable. You can unbolt it and move it quickly without fuss or stress of “breaking” it.
      • I’ve had mine for 9 years, I think they get better with age.
      • It runs well on a 5lpm oxygen concentrator (I have mine hooked to a 10lpm because I was considering a Mega Minor Burner at one stage) and I prefer it on a 10lpm, although it never surpasses 8lpm.
      • It is very forgiving if you don’t clean it, the carbon shoots out of the ports eventually. I’ve had mine for 9 years and it hasn’t clogged once. (I’ve been told off for not cleaning it. Yes, yes, lampworking cardinal sin is to not clean the soot out of your torch regularly. I’m sorry!)
      • You can control the flame easily with the gas and oxygen dial on the torch. This means you can affect a pure neutral, striking and reducing flame instantly. The heat spots in the flame are very defined, which makes it easier to understand where the right spot is to melt glass fast, slow or keep it warm.
    • Con’s
      • If you’re working with thick Borosilicate rods, it takes a very long time to melt on a Minor Burner on a 5lpm oxygen concentrator, and it’s much slower than soft glass on a more powerful concentrator or bottled oxy.
      • You cannot get pinpoint accurate flames. You can lower the flame right down, but it will be never be pin prick sharp like what some other torches can achieve. This might be important to you further down the track as you refine your skills.
      • Minors do not have a very wide radiant heat range. Which means long, wide and narrow beads need to be heated carefully. This also means that sculptural work is harder as bits and pieces sticking out will cool very fast. You will constantly be heat soaking.
        • This also means that the “sweet” spot for doing stringer work in is a lot narrower and harder to find. However this is not only a Minor Burner issue, other brands of more powerful torches also have a narrow radiant heat spot.
      • Draughts, air conditioning and very strong ventilation can pull, distort or blow the flame around too easily. (If I breathe hard the flame is all over the place, I find this annoying since I tend to breathe out hard when I’m trying to slow down. Again, that is particular to me.)
      • When I ran mine on a 5lpm concentrator I wasn’t happy with the flame. The flame was much weaker than being on an oxy bottle and everything was reducing too easily. I was frustrated a lot and actually really hated the torch. (Again, this is particular to me, lots of other people run their minor burner on a 5lpm concentrator with no problems)
Alchemistress :: COE 104 Glass Testing :: Blog :: Studio Set Up - Part 2 - The Torch
This pile of beads contain the very first beads I ever made in 2006 (these are in the foreground) moving outward in no particular order to beads made in the first 30 hours of being on a torch. These beads show skill development and lots of fun. I had a go at beadmaking and I didn’t stop to worry about if they were “saleable” or “wearable”. I made beads because I could (although some of them are burned blobs).

I’m not advocating for either torch in particular, what I am saying is; test drive a few torches with different set ups. The same torch on different oxygen set ups can behave differently. Tanked oxygen gives different results from a low or high powered oxygen concentrator. Even if you are thinking of upgrading from a Minor Burner or a Hot Head to something else, look around and test it out. Don’t just read a blog or listen to someone else’s advice, get stuck into it and find out for yourself. For nearly six months I was dead certain I was going to buy either a GTT Cricket or a Nortel Mega Minor Bench Burner. I went out and bought the new oxygen concentrator first in preparation for a Cricket. Then, I connected the bigger concentrator to my Minor and I found that I loved the combination and didn’t bother purchasing the new torch. That isn’t to say I’m not thinking about buying a new torch someday, just not right now. My priorities lie in getting an annealer rather than using my huge kiln all the time.

Alchemistress :: COE 104 Glass Testing :: Blog :: Studio Set Up - Part 2 - The Torch
The Carlisle Mini CC torch that I used over the weekend at a class with Kim Fields creating “Sculptural Florals”.

Carlisle Mini CC Torch
Since writing this blog post I’ve had time to work on a Carlisle Mini CC for about 8 hours over the weekend whilst doing a workshop with Kim Fields.  Since developing my skills as a lampworker, my beads have come a long way from round. My preferred style is for long narrow beads or for very large barrel or tapered bicone beads. Usually my beads are hitting the 3in mark in length. Minor Burners do not have a wide radiant heat range, certainly not wider than about a half inch on either side of the flame. I find that I spend a lot of time rolling heat through my beads after almost any form of surface decoration because of the narrow radiant heat band. The Minor Burner is perfect for detailed beads up to 1.5in in width. My problem is, I like to make beads twice that size. I have good intentions of staying small, but it never works out. I also like to work as fast as I can and when I’m spending half my time rolling heat through my bead it means I’m not making beads at the speed I need to in which to actually make money or profit from. So this puts me into a depressing mood, because I have to scale back the size of my beads to work comfortably within the means of my torch.

Whilst the flames temperatures between a Mini CC and a Minor are comparable there is a huge difference in flame style.

Carlisle Mini CC Torch

  • Pro’s
    • The Mini CC when compared to the Minor Burner has a softer, “fluffier” flame, which means the radiant heat distribution is a lot wider and hotter.
    • This wide radiant head band means the torch is very good for sculptural or very large floral beads.
    • Its very good for stringer application work, as the bead will not get cold as you’re focusing on one spot for detail.
    • Cost wise, if you can find one in Australia they are comparable to a Minor Burner. If you can’t you will be spending a little more for it as shipping from the US is expensive.
    • The flame is very easy to see even in bright light, I’m not sure why this is. This torch is much easier to use in broad daylight.

I have never made sculptural beads with any success on a Minor, my sticky outie bits crack far too quickly and easily, so I gave up completely thinking that I sucked at sculptural work. This was not the case with a Mini CC, it took me about forty minutes to get the hang of the torch. The first bead I made cracked in the kiln, but once I had understood the flame chemistry of this new torch there was not one problem with any of my beads cracking for the rest of the course. It dawned on me that I was a better lampworker because of the Mini CC.  Then, I had my second epiphany, I could do sculptural work. Whilst my beads are nowhere near as impressive as Kim Fields I definitely did not suck as much as I thought I would and not once did Kim have to save any of my beads. My torching style and habits matched perfectly with the flame style of the Mini CC. I love my Minor, I will never sell it, I love the flame too much for detailed round dot beads, but…

  • Con’s
    • The Mini CC when compared to the Minor Burner is harder to see the heating zones, because it really is a fluffy flame you actually have to work quite close to the front of the torch which can effect more temperamental glass colours.
    • That wide fluffy flame is impossible to pinpoint down without losing a lot of heat. The minor is very good at getting down to a very hot small flame.
    • It runs better on tanked oxygen rather than an 8lpm Oxycon, although it is pretty good on a high end 10lpm oxycon when the purity level can be controlled.
    • It is fuel hungry, which means that you will go through oxygen and gas a lot quicker than if you’re on a Minor Burner.

I love the flame on the Mini CC, that wide radiant heat band is an awesome thing to have for people like me who love making huge beads. However because the flame is so fluffy I felt that I didn’t have as much fine control over the flame as I do with the Minor. I felt that when it came down to it, I was actually working way too hot and that wasn’t something I could counteract easily by turning the torch down. Ideally I’d have a torch that combined the best flame chemistry of both torches.

QUESTIONS TO ASK YOURSELF WHEN UPGRADING YOUR TORCH
If you are looking to upgrade your torch from say the basic Hot Head, Minor or Mini CC consider your needs. Are you still working small? Are you interested in sculptural or off mandrel work. Are you considering moving from soft glass to Borosilicate? List all your needs then explore the different torches online to understand what will tick all your boxes.

For instance, after using the Mini CC I’m pondering if it will be useful to me to sidegrade to a Mini CC or upgrade to something like a 2 stud GTT Sidewinder? I don’t know, The Mini CC is good, but not exactly what I’m looking for and I’d want to try out the Sidewinder before I buy it and that means finding a lampworker who is at least in the same state as me to try it out. Then there is still that Mega Minor Burner I have my eye on, will that offer me the combination of the wide bushy flame of the Mini CC with the heat sink capacity of the Minor Burner. Don’t know, I’ll procrastinate a bit more and wait for the right time.

I’m the sort of person who would like to try before I buy because I don’t want to make an expensive mistake. So I need to test the GTT or procrastinate and never make a decision (which is something I’m great at). If you’re like me, the best thing to do is get onto the internet and find other artists near you so you can try stuff out.

CONNECTIONS TO OTHER ARTISTS
Lastly, a lot of people ask about where to go to find other artists to hire/borrow time at their torch? In Australia there are several groups connected via facebook which incorporate Australia, NZ and surrounding islands artists. You can contact me through my Facebook page to join the group which will put you in touch with 100 other Aussie artists, some of whom might be in your vicinity. We’re a very social group despite the geographical distance between us, we have newbies, experienced, hobbyists and professional beadmakers. Unfortunately, there are no organised chapters of the International Society of Glass Beadmakers in Australia or New Zealand. In North America, the ISGB is your first port of reference to finding lampworkers.

Whilst this isn’t the expert advice on torches you might have been looking for, it gives you an understanding of three types of torches that most lampworkers start out with. Another great resource to ask for opinions and advice from other lampworkers is the Lampwork Etc forums, this is largely for a North American audience, but I have found these forums friendly, helpful and overwhelmingly full of people who really want you to be the best artist you can.

Alchemistress :: COE 104 Glass Testing :: Blog :: Studio Set Up - Part 4 - Flame On

Studio Set Up – Part 1 – Choosing your space

Alchemistress :: COE 104 Glass Testing :: Blog :: Setting up a studio, Part 1
My studio is in the former lunchroom of what used to be a tyre factory. It’s now a warehouse for a plastics manufacturer. I have pallets of boxes and a forklift to keep me company, but there are other bonuses to this space.

I have set up two bead making studios. My first one was in a spare room in my home. In my excitement and urgency to get underway I made a lot of mistakes with that one. My second studio is in a factory and it took me a long time to find my perfect space. I had a clear idea of what I needed, after learning from the mistakes with my first set up.

A lot of people new to bead making ask very similar questions about how to set up for the first time. There are some great books around that give very helpful advice. I personally found Corina Tettinger’s book; “Passing The Flame” to be the most helpful. Although, being in Australia and so far away from suppliers and manufacturers I had another layer of complication when it came to procuring everything I needed to begin making beads. In these blog posts, I try and address studio set up questions, provide answers to common problems and give my perspective on running a hot glass studio.

What do you want out of making beads?
The first thing you should do (after you have had an introductory lesson and decided that beadmaking is for you) is decide what you want to get out of making beads.

  • I want to sell what I make (at shows, galleries, shops, online) immediately
  • I will not be selling my glass beads (it’s just a hobby)
  • I’ll be using my beads in my (suncatchers, jewellery, garlands, etc) and selling them (at shows, galleries, shops, online)
  • I may give some beads (suncatchers, jewellery, garlands, etc) away as gifts, but not sell, well maybe one or two pieces… if someone asks me…
  • I’m not going to start selling right away, but I will eventually

By answering this question you will determine what sort of studio you should be setting up. For instance, there is no point setting up a studio with a kiln if you have no intention of ever selling your beads. By understanding what you want to get out of making beads you can determine how much money is likely to be involved up front and what your first purchases will be. You can also project how much you will need to save for future purchases.

Alchemistress :: COE 104 Glass Testing :: Blog :: Setting up a studio, Part 1
My studio is a long rectangle, the desk placement was decided by the electrician. He was working out where the best place was to drop the ventilation pipe and it made sense to have it here against the wall. The desk is covered in a sheet of thick aluminium and rests against the concrete wall.

Choosing your studio space:
I know… I know… everyone wants to buy the torch first. Actually the most important thing is to figure out where the torch will go. When melting glass a lot of fumes are produced and you need adequate ventilation and not to mention space for all the stuff you’re going to accumulate. If you have children, animals or anyone that suffers from asthma living with you, setting up inside of your house is not a great idea. Cats will jump up onto your bench with disastrous consequences (another mistake I made originally was not putting a net up to keep the cat out) and pinging glass can hit sleeping dogs beneath you (put a bed in a spot away from your desk if you have a pet that likes to be your shadow). If inside your house is your only option for a set up you must install an extractor ventilation unit for the health of yourself and everyone else in the residence.

Another question to consider when deciding on your studio space is; will it be suitable for a gas bottle and an oxygen bottle? If it’s not going to be suitable, perhaps you will be best off with a torch that doesn’t need oxygen, like a Hot Head torch. It attaches to the front of a gas bottle, which means your torch is portable and you can potentially make beads wherever you want. If you’re looking around at what spaces are available to you and can’t see an option that doesn’t radically require changing (and cost you too much money to do it). You may find that hiring hot glass studio time with another artist is the best solution for right now, until you can afford to deck out a room properly.

How to work out if your space is suitable:
Oxygen and gas bottles located inside your home are not usually covered by home and contents insurance (it’s not in Australia). Working in a factory, shed or garage has advantages as they’re not classed as residences. That means you can have bottled oxygen and gas inside with you, which is easier. If the room you want to torch in is inside your house there are some questions you need to consider;

  • Are you prepared to drill through walls?
  • Does your home and contents insurance allow you to have gas or oxygen bottles inside or near the external walls of your home?
  • You may need to consider buying an oxygen concentrator instead of using bottled oxygen if you live in a region that requires a permit to have oxygen bottles in residential areas.

What if your insurance won’t cover oxygen or gas bottles in or near your home?

  • Will you be happy with a single fuel torch like a hot head and using space outside on a porch?
  • If you don’t want a single fuel torch, do you have space for a studio shed? Can you modify the porch by glassing it in or can you move into the garage?

Sometimes finding the space is easy and sometimes its not. A lot of lampworkers ignore their house and contents insurance policy by using gas and oxygen bottles inside their home. In my first studio, I found out that my policy allowed only for gas bottles outside on the external walls of the home. I had to drill a hole through the bricks for the pipe. It turned out to be a poor solution, because the pipe was so long (anything over 2.5 metres is going to present issues) that I lost pressure between the bottle and the torch (I couldn’t just turn up the pressure on the bottle, it affected the flame on the torch). If you have found a space and worked out where you can position gas or oxygen bottles nearby, you may also have to consider the following;

  • Are you prepared to remove carpet, floor boards and lay tiles? (pinging glass will burn holes in carpet and wooden floors)
    • If you don’t have the option of tiling, are you able to lay down a sheet of metal to protect the floor? (and will your desk and chair be stable on it?)
    • Do you have an old rug (that you don’t mind if it gets burned) or can you get a cheap rug from a discount store to cover your floor?
  • If you have concrete, is it sealed properly? (unsealed concrete is dusty)
  • Do you have plasterboard or wood panelling that needs covering? (hot glass can fly all over the place when you’re learning)
    • Brick or tiled walls are best. If you don’t have that option you can cover plasterboard up with metal sheet.

These are some of the reasons why so many artists work in a shed or garage. The practicality of the situation means that their home is not breached by massive modifications and the freedom to be an artist (and make a mess) is afforded to you by having a space you’re not stressing about keeping clean or burn free.

Also consider how you will install proper ventilation into that room. You can’t get away with only an open door or window as a source of ventilation. You do need a door or window open for a supply of fresh air, but you also need an actual extraction unit or ventilation fan as well (I cover this in a blog on ventilation systems). Glass is coloured with metals and oxides. When you melt glass these oxides and metals burn off and disperse into the immediate atmosphere. These particles will settle on any surface (and down your lungs) if not sucked up and dispelled outside and away from your source of fresh air. Over time, the particles will inflict serious health risks to your lungs. Look at your space, get up into the roof if you have to and see where the beams are and how much space is available to you outside of your studio (a potential place to rest a ventilation unit). Then work with a qualified electrician to select a ventilation unit that is suitable.

  • Will you be able to sit an extractor unit in the roof cavity? (mine is in the roof cavity with a pipe leading down directly in front of my torch)
  • If not, can you attach an extraction hood (like a kitchen canopy or “rangehood”) to your wall above your workstation?
  • Will you be able to place the unit right above or in front of the torch, which is where it needs to be?
Alchemistress :: COE 104 Glass Testing :: Blog :: Studio set up, Part 1
If you have the luxury of doing up a studio exactly the way you want, choose to put running water and a sink into it. Place some power points nearby so that you can run a Dremel with a flex shaft to clean your beads at the sink.

Lastly, a hot glass studio requires electricity. Do you have power to that room and enough power points? I found that I needed a lot more than just one double socket.

Do you have a sink nearby or do you want a sink in the room? I used to make a mess of my kitchen trying to clean beads, so I went looking for a space that had it’s own kitchenette.

Is the room dim or bright, breezy or have no window, extremely cold or always warm? These small things effect your torch placement and what you need to do to prepare the room. In turn these small considerations affects your ventilation placement and your comfort in making beads.

If you come from a very hot climate, you will need to assess how hot the room gets just from natural sunlight. A dual fuel torch in a small room will increase the ambient temperature by up to 4 degrees celcius. So be prepared for that. If you live in a very cold climate, certain limitations will need to be considered, for instance, you may not be able to put your extraction fan outside because of freezing temperatures icing up the filters. You may need to build an insulator box and keep the entire extraction unit inside, with a vent leading out through a wall or window.

My advice is to do a cost benefit analysis when choosing your space:
1. If it is a hobby (or you are undecided);
Set up a desk with some adequate ventilation and get torching out in your garage or shed starting with an entry level torch like a hot head. Just make beads! If you become skilled at it or decide this is the thing for you to do on a more permanent basis look around at improving your surroundings. Then set goals and work towards getting a better space, a better torch, a kiln and an oxygen concentrator.

2. If you already know that lampworking is for you;
Seriously consider the space you want to set up in and go for the quality instalments that you can afford now, then save up for the rest. Set your goals accordingly and reasonably. I’m assuming you already have your torch, but if you’re looking to upgrade that is secondary to a quality extraction unit, then oxygen concentrator/s, then the kiln of your dreams (in that order). Remember, you can batch anneal your beads or send your beads away to be annealed, so a kiln isn’t as necessary as it appears whilst your starting out. If your room needs modifying that takes precedence before anything else, particularly if you cannot get ventilation in. You cannot torch without an extraction fan and you don’t need an oxygen concentrator right away or a kiln. What you do need is ventilation, the right space and then, the right tools.

See, I told you buying a torch wasn’t the most important thing to do first!