Playing with Fire

This week at the John C. Campbell Folk School, I took a glass bead making class with Lynday Huneycutt.  This class was held in the Enameling Studio located on Studio Row.

My classroom last week: the Enameling Studio
My class: Margie, Me, Nettie and Faye

First, we outfitted ourselves:

The apron is to protect me from flying shards of glass – which thankfully don’t happen too often if you know what you’re doing.  The glasses are also to protect us from flying glass, and from the UV rays.  Without the glasses, the flame looks bright orange:

Bead making without the UV glasses on (not advised!)

With the glasses, the flame is a pretty light blue – in which it is much easier to see what you are doing.  The Folk School encourages visits to the studios while classes are in session, so if you walked into our class for a visit you’d have to don the glasses in order to see what we were doing!

Next , we learned to light the torch:

My set up: Torch, Tray, Glass Rods

To get started, I lit a match, held it in front of the torch, then turned the red nozzle which controls the propane.  In the picture above, only the propane is on.  Next, I’d adjust the gray nozzle to add some oxygen to the flame making it that lovely blue color.

Remember when I asked last week why someone would take a blacksmithing class in July?  Well, I could have said the same about beadmaking in August.  Our studio doesn’t get as warm as a blacksmith shop, and we do have air-conditioning, but in the morning we open to doors to keep the place well-ventilated and then sit in front of a flame that, at its base, is two thousand degrees Fahrenheit.  So it can be a little warm.

Before making a bead, you have to prepare the mandrel – a length of wire basically.  We dipped it in a thick grey substance referred to as “bead release.”  Then the mandrels get put in a block of wood to let them dry.  The bead release keeps the hot glass from sticking to the mandrel.  To hurry the drying process, we can heat the mandrel near the flame, but if we heat it up too quickly we’ll crack the surface.  This is not good – the hot glass can seep through those cracks and stick to the metal, and then you have no way to remove the bead from the mandrel – but you’ve made a lovely plant decorator.  I only made one of those – on our last day, no less:)

Heating a Mandrel. Note the mandrels on the left - the top is gray as it's covered in bead release. In this picture, my teacher is heating a mandrel with bead release at one end.

Remember trying to rub your belly and pat your head at the same time?  Beadmaking is a little like that.  In your left hand you warm the mandrel by holding it near the flame and constantly turning it.  In your right hand, you hold a glass rod that you slowly heat by putting it first way out in the flame and gradually bring it in closer.  Once you’ve got a “gather” (a ball of molten glass) on the end of your rod, you touch the glass rod to the mandrel.  You continue to rotate the mandrel thus wrapping the bead around it.  Then, you can get fancy and add more glass, or different colors, or roll it on a graphite block to make it into a cylinder, or flatten in between two paddles to make it a disc.

Me making a bead:)

After you’re finished making it, you rush it over to the kiln for annealing (you can see the kilns in the upper right corner of the above picture).  You don’t want to drastically change the temperature as the glass will crack, so you put it in a kiln that’s about the same temperature as your bead (nine hundred degrees) and then slowly bring that temperature down until the bead is at room temp.

Once we take the beads out of the kiln, we keep them on the mandrels for a while to be sure the entire bead is cool (and not just the outside).

Beads after the annealing process

Then, you have to do some “cold work.”

Cold work tools

You put the mandrel with the bead on it in water to get the bead release off, then slide the bead off the mandrel.  Sometimes the bead doesn’t want to come off.  That’s either because it’s being finicky or because it’s stuck to the rod (and thus becomes the aforementioned plant decorator).  If it’s the former, we can use a tool to hold the mandrel while we work to get the bead off.  Then, you clean the bead release out of the middle of the bead and file down any rough spots (usually by the hole).

Some of my finished beads stored in a paper cup

Yesterday, we had our weekly Exhibition where we displayed our finished products:)

Some of my beads on display
More of my beads on display. We also made some teardrops which I might try to learn to wire wrap to make into a necklace. You'll also see two fused glass pieces I did as well - basically layering glass and melting it together to make pendants or other glass art.


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