Glass jewellery maker Julia Donnelly writes about the making of her delightful beads. Lampwork is an ancient skill and a process ideally suited to small workshop practice. Her work is featured in the Ken Stradling Collection‘s exhibition ‘Making Joy – Fire and Ice.’

Lampworking is a term given to the process of heating glass in a flame to be able to manipulate it in its molten state. I was introduced to lampworking some years ago by a friend, Liz Parker, in Devon where I lived before moving to Bristol. Just as I was captivated by glassblowing back in 1985, I was hooked instantly by this way of working with molten glass on a tiny scale. After Liz generously let me use her workspace for a few sessions, I set up my own studio in the small spare room at home in which everything I needed would just about fit.

As with much creative practise, spending a couple of hours in my studio is a mood enhancer and a great chance to escape into a world where colour and pattern are the dominating factors.

Equipment needed to make lamp work glass beads:

A torch – fuelled by a mixture of gas and oxygen – this is rather like a bunsen burner, with a flame issuing in which you heat the glass as you work. The name lampwork comes from years ago when people actually used a lamp to work with, and the name has stuck. Some people refer to it as torchwork today.

Oxygen concentrator – these are usually recycled medical ones. The oxygen mixes with the gas to reach the high temperature flame needed for working the glass – approximately 1000 degrees centigrade.

Mandrels – steel rods about 30cm long with a diameter ranging from 1mm – 3mm. These are used for winding the hot glass around. They are dipped in bead release (a liquid similar to kiln wash) before using, so the glass bead can be removed from the mandrel – otherwise the glass wouldn’t want to leave the metal.

Coloured glass rods, both opaque and transparent – these are about 5mm diameter and 30cm long.

Glass rods ready for making into beads (Julia Donnelly)

Kiln for annealing the finished beads – allowing the beads to cool down slowly to eliminate the stress caused by the heating.

Various tools such as a sharp hook (dentist’s hook), presses, graphite paddle and tweezers used for making patterns and shapes.

Safety glasses to protect eyes from the glare of the torch.

My work table – ready to roll! (Julia Donnelly)

The technique of bead-making starts by heating the end of a glass rod in the torch until it becomes molten, and then applying it to the heated mandrel (steel rod). I am right-handed so hold the mandrel in my left hand and the glass rod in my right (it clearly leads to skills in ambidexterity).

As you touch the heat-softened glass against the mandrel to attach it, you turn the mandrel so the heated glass flows on to the mandrel as you keep rotating. It’s best to stop applying glass every now and then to even up the shape that is forming on the mandrel. With the heat and the rotation, the natural shape for the glass to form is a round bead. When you have achieved the size of bead you want, you can spend some time in the flame making sure it is an even shape all around.

Applying on the bead and adding glass. (photo: Jean-Paul Metzger)

Next comes the decoration, which is the fun part. The range of glass colours available is a wide spectrum and opens up a world of creative inventiveness.

You can apply dots to the bead from a different coloured glass rod by heating the tip of the second rod and dabbing it gently and quickly on the surface of the bead and using the flame to break the connection. The skill is in knowing how much pressure and heat to apply with the second rod.

Putting on the dots (photo: Jean-Paul Metzger)

I enjoy making and like the look of cylindrical beads. These are made by forming different coloured round beads close to each other in a line on the mandrel and then rolling on a small graphite paddle to smooth them together; temperature is critical in being not too hot or cold.

Strata necklace (Julia Donnelly)

For flat beads I use a press – the beads starts out as round and are then pressed into shape in a brass mould.

Once the bead is finished it must cool down slowly, preferably in a kiln, which is programmed to allow the beads to cool down slowly at the end of the work session. When the beads are cool, you take them off the mandrel and clean the inside of bead release.

Beads on mandrells – these are colour tests. (Julia Donnelly)

Then you are ready to start creating your jewellery designs.

I love matt glass and a couple of years ago bought a tumbling machine in which you place beads for about 8 hours while it rotates with silicon carbide and water all sloshing around inside.

Pebbles necklace (Julia Donnelly)

It is very patient work that brings its own sense of rhythmic and meditative calm. And it is a wonderful feeling to reflect on being a part of the long history of glass bead making as this is an art form that goes back 3,500 years to Egypt and Mesopotamia. There is more information on lampworking on the Corning Museum of Glass website.

Julia Donnelly

Originally posted Feb 2021