This is the first in a two part series on buying lampwork beads. For some buyers, a lot of mystery surrounds the whole art of lampwork beads. How are they made? Why are some more costly than others? Many lampwork artists have written about this, but the message is useful so I thought I'd share it here. If you're already in the know I guess you're free to mill about smartly.
Why are artisan-made lampwork beads so much more expensive than other types of beads?
For starters, handmade beads using any material generally cost more than factory-made beads because, well, they're made one at a time by a real person. Lampwork beads are made by melting rods of glass (most of which is imported) in a torch, and then annealed (cooled very slowly) in a kiln for 8 hours overnight.
The Hothead is a good, inexpensive beginner's torch that uses 1 lb cannisters of MAPP gas. It produces a cooler flame than an dual fuel (oxygen-propane) torch, but is a good torch for beginners learning how to control the effects of heat on the glass. Some bead makers continue to use this torch throughout their career, with much success.
The Minor Bench Burner mixes propane with oxygen to create a hotter flame for making lampwork beads.
The bead maker must also wear protective eyewear, and must ensure that the torching area is properly ventilated. The fumes from melting glass and from using materials like glass powder (enamels) and metals are extremely toxic.
Master glass artist Lewis Wilson, at Open Torch night at the ISGB annual conference in Miami. Those are not sunglasses, they are special lenses designed to protect his eyes from flying glass, heat, and IR hazards in specific wavelengths for the type of glass (pyrex) he uses.
All of this equipment is expensive, and it takes a bead maker some time to acquire the skill to make good beads. As you saw in my introductory post, usually only the creator can love the first beads she makes, and even then sometimes it takes a leap of faith. The first months and years spent making glass beads are usually focused on getting to know the material, heat control, and simple techniques (e.g. making a round bead round) as opposed to developing one's own individual style. With practice, practice, practice comes more control and mastery of this amazing medium.
In the next part of this series I'll cover some of the more artistic considerations in lampwork bead making, along with some tips for helping you shop for beads.