How to make glass beads

The magic of making glass beads

I have done many, many craft shows in my day and typically a customer will ask where do I get my beads. When I tell them that I make them the look on their face is like "whaaaaaaaat!!!".

Most people know how a sweater, painting or even ceramics are made but making glass beads...that's a different story. Glass is such a magical medium to work with. It's both fragile and malleable, solid and transparent. There are seemingly an infinite amount of colors and no end to the decorative possibilities. For me every day in the studio is a day of play and adventure. So join me for a quick tour of how glass beads are made.

Working on the torch

If you've ever toasted a marshmallow over a campfire you know the joy of watching that pure white marshmallow go toasty brown and start to soften and the anticipation of devouring that tasty treat. Making glass beads holds a certain similarity. No, I don't work over a camp fire and I certainly don't eat my hot beads but that joy and anticipation are always present.

Wound beads

The kind of bead that I typically make are called wound beads. I start with long rods of glass that are about the thickness of a pencil but much longer. The rods come in every color of the rainbow. Some are opaque, some transparent and others are somewhere in between. The color of the glass rods is more or less what you will get once you have made the bead but there are some really cool colors called striking colors that may start off transparent pale yellow or clear then when heated and cooled and heated again they can go from bright orange to deep cherry red to vibrant yellow and magenta.

Melting the glass

This is where the marshmallow toasting comes in...To melt the glass I work on a torch which burns a combination of oxygen and propane. This produces a flame which is hot enough to melt the glass. With my right hand I introduce the glass rods in to the flame to start melting the glass. At the same time I use a steel mandrel which has been dipped in something like watery clay to wind the molten glass onto. The watery clay, called bead release allows me to wind the hot glass onto the mandrel without the glass sticking solidly to the mandrel. It also keeps the mandrel from heating up so I can still hold it with my bare hands.

With glass bead making you can melt rods of different colors to add dots and lines. You can take a blob of hot glass and pull it into a long thin strand like a thin piece of spaghetti and use that to draw delicate lines, swirls and tiny little dots. The really cool thing about glass is that the colors remain distinct. They don't mix like paint. A yellow dot on a blue background won't mix to make green but you can play with overlaying transparent colors over opaque colors and get effects with depth and colors that appear to change depending upon the angle you see them at. If that's not enough....there's frit and enamel which is tiny particles of crushed or powdered glass which you can use to add even more decorations. I better live to be 120 because I have so much more to explore....;~)

Once I have completed the bead on the torch there is still more work to be done. Before the bead cools it is put into a kiln. People usually think this is to melt it more but it is really the opposite. The kilns job is to anneal the bead. This allows the bead to cool at a prescribed rate so that it won't crack. At my studio my kiln stays at 960 degrees all day while I make my daily stash. Then when I am finished up for the day the kiln cools down 100 degrees an hour. It takes most of the night for the beads to cool off. Opening the kiln the next morning is like celebrating Christmas everyday! The glass has cooled, the true colors present themselves and I have a kiln full of colorful treasures ready to be cleaned and made into bold, bright, beautiful jewelry.