Flameworking beginning bead class

My sister Angela, who’s now also into making jewelry, was interested in taking some of the beadmaking classes at the UC Davis Craft Center. I thought it would be fun to take a class with her, so we signed up for a one-night three-hour flameworking class for learning basic beadmaking.

There were six people in the class. First, we collected our flameworking materials (see the Flickr photo for the labeled notes):

  • Thin wires on the left are “mandrels,” used for holding the bead as you shape it. There’s also a clear glass rod with them.
  • Metal thing in the background is the kiln. Set at 195 degrees, you set finished beads in it. It cools slowly overnight so the beads don’t crack.
  • Wooden block is a mandrel holder, which holds the mandrels upright for easy reach.
  • White jar holds bead release – more later.
  • Gear box contains goggles (mine didn’t stay on my face at all and I had to try checking out a different style of goggles), tinted so that you don’t burn out your retinas looking at the flame, and various picks and tools for shaping glass.

First thing we did was to coat the ends of the mandrels in the bead release, which was a blue viscous goo. This allows the bead to come off of the mandrel easily.

Then, you turn on the torch, which is mounted at the front of the table with the flame facing away from you. There’s a valve for natural gas (and a dangling flint starter like what you’d have in a chem lab) and a valve for oxygen, which heats up the flame into a hot blue streak. You poke the end of your glass rod (we got to pick out three colors in addition to our clear ; Angela and I picked out 2/3 colors – we must be related!) in and out of the flame to preheat it. If you just leave it in the flame, it shatters from heating up too quickly. Below is Angela preheating her glass rod while wearing silly, misfitting goggles:

As the end of the rod starts to glow red, then melt, the end starts to droop down. You have to twist and turn the rod with your fingers to keep the end continuously moving and falling back on itself, otherwise it will drip right down onto the table!

Next step is to heat up your mandril. The bead release burns black, then white, when you heat it in the flame. When it turns white and glows red, it’s ready.

You touch the glass rod to the mandrel and twist the mandrel so it picks up the glass of the rod, keeping the mandrel level so that the glass doesn’t slide around or drip off. I didn’t get any good pictures of this, because the glass is glowing in the flame and just shows up as a big white flame in the picture. This part requires some coordination because you’re twisting with both hands, yet also trying to guide and touch the two things together.

Once you have a glob of glass on the mandrel, you bring the glass rod away a bit and the molten glass stretches out like melted cheese. The flame itself “cuts” the glass, melting away the string and separating it. This whole time, you’re continuously turning the mandrel so that the glass doesn’t drip off and trying to get the glass to be even on all sides in a nice round bead shape.

I made a boring clear bead for my first simple bead:

I kept my bead out a little longer than I should have. As soon as the bead stops glowing red hot, you’re supposed to immediately put it into the kiln to sit and cool slowly so that it doesn’t crack. My bead didn’t crack, but the instructor did rush over and say, “Put it in the kiln now!”

For our second bead, we learned a technique for rounding out the edges of the bead hole. You want the bead hole to curve inwards so that sharp edges don’t cut the string. The way our instructor showed us was to start with a smallish bead, then add Saturn rings around it with more molten glass until you had a disc-blob on your mandrel. Then, you stick the disc into the flame and melt it down. As the glass melts down, it naturally forms rounded edges for the hole of the bead.

The next thing we did was cool. We took two glass rods, preheated them at the same time, got them both to a molten stage (one in each hand), then touched and squished them together. Then we took it out of the flame and stretched and twisted and pulled them apart to make a cool swirly bit. You heat up one end of the swirly part to separate it from one of the rods, and you end up with a unicorn horn!

Angela’s turned out kind of long – I think the white rod hadn’t cooled at the base part of where the two colors came together so the white part started twisting out, too. It looks like she’s fencing with a very pretty sword:

Next: Make a plain bead, let it cool slightly by taking it out of the flame while preheating your unicorn horn, then touch the unicorn horn to the bead and let it melt on to form stripes and swirls.

It’s really crazy how glass looks different when it’s molten or hot. White glass turns completely clear, with a red glow, when it’s melted. I think Angela’s bead is dark blue, above, but it looks bright red when hot and turns purple, then slowly dark blue, as it cools.

Here’s Angela’s swirly bead as it cools:

There’s a handy metal rack for holding your tools and setting down your glass rods in between:

Next, we made a bead, then added dots of molten glass in a different color, then added dots on top of those dots. The dots are like little bumps or alien-looking spikes on the bead until you melt the whole thing down.

I made a turquoise bead that was all lopsided and uneven and tried to even it out with dark blue on top. Then I added turquoise dots on top and smoothed it all down:

We learned to use the pick to “dig” into the surface of the bead after heating up one place of the bead to make patterns and swirls. Our instructor showed us how to dig into the top part of one circle and drag it down, then dig into the bottom part of that circle and drag it down, to form hearts.

For our next bead, we made dots on both sides of the bead and melted it down so it formed a tortoiseshell-like pattern.

The last bead involved adding frit to the glass. “Frit” is basically small crumbles of other type of glass. We had sprinkles of sparkly copper-infused glass on a small graphite paddle. We made a bead, then heated it up and rolled it on the paddle to pick up the glass. I added dots of dark blue to mine for good measure, then melted the whole thing down. Then you add a thick layer of clear glass over it so that the clear glass magnifies the sparkly copper blobs. Below, you can see my initially red-hot bead as it cools.

I got pictures of Angela working on her bead, too – a white base with the copper frit on top:

Adding the clear layer on top:

I tried a fast shutter speed to see if I could get a better picture of the glass in the flame:

Finally – all of my finished beads, cooling in the kiln.

I’ll be picking them up later today – I’m so excited! I’ll put up another post when I get pictures of the finished beads.

9 thoughts on “Flameworking beginning bead class

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