Adventures in hot glass

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This is a post I intended to write last weekend before I had all the technical difficulties. The past week has been pretty busy at work, and I’m working on a post about that gradually too but I’m still gathering material for it so I’m not sure when I’ll be writing it.

Two weekends ago I took a lampwork class from local bead artisan Natasha Puffer. If you aren’t sure what lampwork is let me digress for a moment. Lampwork is a hot glass forming technique using glass rods and a bench mounted torch. Wikipedia has a pretty good article about it that goes into the history, but it suffices here to say that it has been around since ancient times. I personally have been fascinated with the idea of learning lampwork since I visited Boston in 2006 and I saw the astounding glass flower collection at the Harvard Museum.

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These amazing plants were made by a family of glass artisans over the course of 50 years starting in 1886. The thing that I think is truly amazing about this is the level of detail achieved when the tools they had to work with looked like medieval torture devices.

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On the right hand side of the table you can see the oil lamp they used to melt the glass. Modern lampwork is done with a dual gas torch, usually oxygen and acetylene, which is what we used. Here’s the workbench I got to work at for comparison.

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Bead making is a blast and I was a bit like a kid in a candy store with all the color options. Beads are made on a mandril which is basically a stainless steel wire that has been treated on the end or in the middle with bead release. The actual process is a little bit like trying to pat your head and rub your tummy at the same time. You manage the mandril in one hand while you hold the glass rod you are pulling glass from in the other and both of these items must dance in and out of the flame on the bench in front of you. Once you get the hang of it, the process is deeply meditative. It’s very important that your bead not cool down past a certain point while you work on it because abrupt changes in temperature can cause the glass to shatter and destroy all your work. Once you finish a bead it goes into a kiln to anneal over night, the kiln brings all the beads up to 960 degrees F and holds them there for two hours, after which they slowly cool all night.

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We worked with two different types of glass, soda-lime glass which is also known as soft glass and borosilicate glass or hard glass. Natasha started me out making simple round beads using soda-lime glass because it melts faster and is generally easier to work with. I made a handful of round beads, some with dots, and some cylinder beads with mixed colors.

The class was an all day class so we decided that after lunch we would experiment with borosilicate glass. This isn’t a regular feature of the beginner’s class but I went to Natasha with a specific project in mind. It involves solar panels, LEDs, fiber optic cable, moss and terrariums. More than that I won’t say right now, but it’s a pretty exciting project and I hope to have something to show you sometime in the fall. Though the irregular shape on the left hand side of this photo is a sort of preview of the glass part of this project.

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Natasha is an excellent teacher, she explains things in a way that is very easy to understand and I highly recommend that if you’ve ever thought about taking a class in glass bead making you contact Natasha. One on one classes are the best way to learn a new skill and her classes cost less than you are likely to pay for a workshop class with multiple students.

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