The Lure of Beadmaking

There's something almost magical about glass in a molten state. Did you know that the very same elements that combine to make glass are essentially those which make up the Earth's crust? Theoretically, if the cosmos had been quicker to anneal our early molten mass, the Earth might have cooled into a giant glass marble revolving around the sun. It didn't happen that way, but there remains something elemental and powerful in molten glass. And, more importantly, it's full of possibilities.

Hot Glass work allows you to step away from a two dimensional world into one where glass can take on almost any conceivable form. It's a world where color can fuse and flow together at the whim and capability of the artist—a world that seems unlimited. It's this magical potential that lies at the heart of glass beadmaking. Taking a bit of glass and melting, shaping, and manipulating it over an open flame is a mesmerizing creative process and one that's fast gaining popularity as a craft.

Kate Drew-Wilkinson is one of the world's premier glass bead artists and a quick look at the accompanying photos of her work will tell you why. She does amazing things with glass. The incredible intricacy and detail of her beads leaves most of us shaking our heads in awe. Kate's a pro and she's been working at her craft for more than 25 years—so she has a few tricks up her sleeve. She can actually "paint" with glass stringer on a blob of glass as she twirls it in and out of a flame. She makes her own latticcino—thin sticks or canes of glass twisted together—and uses them in many ways to punctuate and add fascinating decorative effects to her work. She's even found a way to create and incorporate the glass image of an open eye into each one of her "Millennium" series beads! Kate's wizardry is remarkable but beadmaking is a craft that can be a lot of fun—even for beginners.

Making glass beads is pretty straightforward. It involves using a small torch equipped with a propane tank attached to a corner of your work bench. You heat glass in the torch flame until it's soft enough to wind some of it around a metal rod called a mandrel. By spinning that mandrel in the flame long enough even a beginner can get a fairly round bead without any other equipment or advanced teaching. With a little guidance, just about anyone could turn out a decent basic glass bead—and have fun doing it. More complex results can be a bit more challenging—but also more rewarding. There are techniques to learn and some tools required to create some of the more advanced effects. But watching a skilled beadmaker is very inspirational. The scale is small so the detail is impressive. Plus, when glass is hot, colors become difficult to distinguish. To an onlooker, it can be hard to keep track of what's taking place in the torch—as a result it can be quite amazing when the cooled and finished bead is unveiled. But Kate's techniques are not magic and not secret—they're merely steps on a learning curve—just as any other craft.

Beadmaking is a fast growing segment of glass crafting and many retailers are now offering classes. There are books and several videos available (see the resources at the end of this article). I tried my hand at beadmaking while attending a local supplier's open house. Being unexposed to the more intricate possibilities, I was quite happy with my rudimentary results—that is, until I saw some of Kate Drew-Wilkinson's work. I couldn't imagine how her beads could have been created by the same process that I used when making mine. It didn't seem possible. But after I watched Kate's video detailing her techniques it was like a light bulb turning on over my head. I got it! It didn't seem overly complicated, and I couldn't wait to try again.

Kate's video is called "Making Beads with Stained Glass Remnants"—and guess what? Those remnants are Spectrum Glass! Kate uses 100% Spectrum in her work. We should make it clear that Kate's materials are not the norm in the world of beadmaking. Most bead artists have been taught to use pencil-thin glass rods made in Italy. The color range is good but they are single colors only and the rods are expensive. Kate, on the other hand has the complete Spectrum palette at moderate prices to fill her studio shelves and she can use opal mixes to achieve subtle coloring effects. Over the years, Kate's developed her own unique methods of working with our glass, but we've found that just cutting sheets into half-inch strips and using them as you would a glass rod is an easy, inexpensive way to make beads. It works great— and makes a fun way to use scrap glass.

If beadmaking sounds interesting to you—or just looking at the examples shown here has been motivating, by all means, give it a try! Ask your local supplier if they offer classes, or you can go the do-it-yourself route with some of the resources below. Be prepared to adopt a new hobby though—beadmaking is addictive!

Resources:

  • More Than You Ever Wanted to Know About Glass Beadmaking
    by James Kervin
    GlassWear Studios, Livermore CA; 1999;
    ISBN# 0-9651458-2-4
  • Making Beads with Stained Glass Remnants by Kate Drew-Wilkinson (video)
  • Kate Drew-Wilkinson's Web site
  • Glass Beadmaking by Lewis Wilson (video)

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