Lampworking is an ancient craft that goes back several thousand years. Glass artists of Italy had kept glass creation a secret many, many years. Now the art of melting glass to create beads, vessels and sculpture is widely known and enjoyed by artists such as myself.
To create a bead, I melt narrow rods of different colored glass in the flame of a beadmaking torch. The molten glass is wound around a mandrel, which is a thin length of stainless steel. The space occupied by the mandrel becomes a hole through the bead when the bead is slipped off. It is also a heat safe handle for me to use as I work on the bead.
As I turn the mandrel and hold it in different positions gravity is used to help the bead take form, but tools may also be used to push and pull the glass into desired shapes. Once I've got the desired shape I can add dots with different colors of glass, frit, silver, and other applications to decorate the bead.
There are different types of glass that lampworkers use. One is Borocilicate, otherwise known as Pyrex. It is a hard glass and most sculptural glass art and ornaments are made using this type of glass. It is a much tougher glass and requires a special torch to melt the rods. The glass that I use is Italian Morretti, a soft glass. The two types of glass cannot be mixed because they have different Coefficients of Expansion, which is basically the rate at which the glass expands and contracts.
Glass shrinks as it cools. Bringing a bead out of the flame and leaving it in the open air allows the outside of the bead to cool rapidly, but inside the glass is still burning hot. The stress point between the cool, shrinking glass and the hot center begins to grow and often causes the bead to crack.
To prevent stress and cracks, beads are annealed in a kiln, where temperatures can be closely regulated. "Soaking" the beads at the prescribed temperature makes sure that all glass within the bead is evenly heated. It takes several hours to slowly reduce the heat to bring beads to room temperature. You can be assured that all of my beads are kiln annealed for stability. The final step is to take the bead off the mandrel and clean the bead release out of the hole, this is called "dressing." This gives the final work of art sparkle and a professional look. Most mass produced beads such as those from China will still have the release in the hole, which is one way you can tell whether your bead is a handmade original.