An Introduction to
by Ann Scherm Baldwin

 The Art of Making Glass Beads

Beads have been around since prehistoric times, when humans first developed tools to drill holes in shells, bones and other natural objects. The earliest glass beads are thought to date as far back as 1400 b.c., found in Egypt. Many cultures have used, worn and traded glass beads, and they are still prized for their ornamental and collectible value today.

The art of beadmaking by winding molten glass around a steel mandrel is often referred to as "Lampworking". This is because the early glass beadmakers in Venice used oil lamps as their heat source for melting the glass. Today, it's more common to use torches, such as the minor burner I work on, a torch that uses a mix of propane as the fuel and oxygen as an accelerant, to get a precise flame that allows me to control the heat in the glass as it melts.

I will now give you a brief overview of beadmaking, the tools and methods I use to make my miniature glass bead sculptures. Hopefully this will give you a greater appreciation for the lampwork beads you see on this and other websites. If you are considering taking up beadmaking yourself, I strongly recommend that you take a class to learn proper safety issues and technique. The art of making glass beads is a complicated, but highly satisfying, and terribly addictive pastime.

Now, let's get ready to play with fire.........

To begin with, let's start with Mandrels. Mandrels are steel welding rods that have been cut about 12 inches long. The glass is wound around the mandrel. But, if you applied hot glass to them directly, the glass would stick and never come off. So, the mandrels are dipped in "Sludge", a bead release mixture with the consistency of pancake batter. The dipped mandrels are then air dried, and ready for beadmaking. I keep mine in a shallow planter filled with sand.

After the beads are finished annealing in the kiln, the whole mandrel is put in a tub of water to soak, which loosens the sludge, and the bead can be removed from the mandrel, leaving a nice even hole.

Occasionally, the bead release chips or pulls away from the metal mandrel, and the molten glass comes in contact with metal. These beads will never come off the mandrel, however, they do make lovely plant pokes.


Here's my oxygen tank. The torch I use is called a minor burner, and it uses propane as the fuel, and oxygen as the accelerant, to make the flame hot enough to melt and work the glass efficiently.

Perhaps the biggest safety issues in beadmaking is in the handling of the gas tanks. You can see the oxygen is chained securely to the wall. The oxygen is pressurized in the tank, and if the nozzle were knocked off, it would take off like a rocket, so your oxygen tank must always be secured.

The propane tank is stored outside, and connected by a hose which runs through a hole in the wall. (Another little surprise that my husband didn't expect when he let me use the garage for my studio. ) If the propane tank were to leak inside, it would pool on the floor, and be a potential combustion hazard.


This is the kiln. The first thing I do when I'm getting ready to make beads is to turn on my equipment. I turn on my oxygen and propane tanks and adjust the pressure, and then I turn on my kiln. It is set to heat to 940 degrees and remain there while I work.You can see the digital controller (with the red read-out) on the right side which controls the temperature for me.

This picture shows the kiln with the soft fiber door in place. This kiln is made by Arrow Springs just for beadmakers. The soft door conforms around the ends of the mandrels, allowing them to stick out, and me not to have to put my hand all the way in the kiln with a bead.


Now, before I turn on the torch, I'll have you put on a pair of safety glasses. No, your regular ones won't do. These special glasses have Rose Didymium lenses. These allow you to see the glass in the flame. If you don't wear them, all you'll see is a big orange ball of sodium flare. You will probably notice this in the next couple pictures. Unfortunately, I don't have a pair that fits my digital camera !!

Since you're the guest, you take the nicely beaded pair on top. I made them just for you !


Here is my workbench, all set up to make beads. On the left side, you'll see the torch. On the top of the torch, as well as under it and the black paddle to the right are all made of graphite. This helps me shape the hot glass because it doesn't stick to graphite.

In the white organizer are my tools, and a bowl of water used to cool down hot tools and singed fingers. My glass rods are lined up in the rod rest, cleaned and ready to be melted. Okay, I think we're ready. If you'll just turn to page two while I light the torch, we'll make some beads.....



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