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All About Lampwork

What is Lampworking?

Lampworking is a specialized type of glass work that uses a torch to melt rods and tubes of glass and then form it into shapes using tools, hand movements, gravity, or blowing.

Lampworking Tools

The tools lampworkers use are metal (graphite or steel) shapers, flat surfaces for rolling, molds, and of course glass. Lampworkers use rods or tubes of borosilicate glass or soda-lime glass (the former is commonly referred to as “hard” glass and the latter is commonly referred to as “soft” glass). Borosilicate is favored for making lampwork beads and glass jewelry because it is more durable and uses a higher temperature to melt. Just like it sounds, borosilicate is made mainly from a combination of boron and silicate (it is also made with sodium oxide, potassium oxide and calcium oxide). It is a very durable material because it is resistant to thermal shock. That means that the melting point is at a very high temperature and it has very low coefficients of thermal expansion. Which also means when it is cooled, if it is somehow broken, it will snap rather than shatter, does not easily get stress fractures, is less dense, and it does not melt or change shape easily. Borosilicate glass is very versatile and is used for glass blowing and lampworking when making jewelry, marbles and sculptures. It is also used for glass cookware, tobacco pipes, guitar sliders, telescopic glass mirrors, optical lenses, semiconductors, thermal insulation tiles, and medical tools. It is an excellent tool for jewelry making.

History of Lampworking

The history of lampworking spans the globe! Lampworking is called such because it used to be done with the flame of an oil lamp. Modern lampworking uses torches which are fueled by propane or butane. Lampworking was first done in Ancient Syria in the first century B.C. Not much is known about the practices back then. Lampwork beads can be traced to Asia and Africa. In the 1300s, lampworking became a popular form of glasswork in Murano, Italy which is still known for its glasswork. Murano, Italy also became known for its lampwork beads. The way they made lampwork beads was long kept a secret. Lampworking also became popular in the 1800s in France. Otto Schott was the person who developed borosilicate in the late 1800s, which was an essential development for the type of lampworking that is done now. He was a German glassmaker who sold borosilicate as Duran. Borosilicate was later sold under the trademark of Pyrex by Corning Glass Works in 1915. Later, in 1986, Paul Trautman started Northstar Glassworks which produced colored borosilicate. This special colored borosilicate is used for the studio glass trade, including bead making. In the 1990s, Bob Snodgrass developed the technique of creating glass with metal fuming. This process heats metal and allows it to fume into the glass, creating amazing colors and metallic sheen. 

In 2000, Henry Grimmett, who used to work for Northstar Glassworks, started Glass Alchemy, in 2002 Paul Trautman sold Northstar Glassworks.  A few years later he started Trautman Art Glass.  With these three great companies developing color,
a whole new palette of colors have been developed in borosilicate.  It's popularity has exploded in the last 20 years with many American artists now creating glass art, glass jewelry, and functional art.  Lampwork glass bead making has also been gaining a huge following worldwide.  Most bead making is done using a glass with a much higher coefficient of expansion commonly called soft glass.  Soft glass has a much lower melting temperature, which means it takes less heat to make it melt, and after being heated it stays soft and pliable for a much longer time.  Soft glass is great for bead making, it takes very little gas to run a own studio, and a small torch is all you need.  Since 2000 there have been huge advances in the colors available in soft glass as well.  Many of the colors that were usually only available in borosilicate are now available in soft glass.  

Glass Jewelry Making

The process of making glass jewelry is very intricate. Glass jewelry making starts with the glass selection. Borosilicate is the most commonly used material. Compatible glasses are used. These glasses are compatible both in chemical composition and color to make the most beautiful jewelry. When the glass reaches its melting point, it is shaped using various methods. This is an incredible process where the artists’ visions come to life. Special attention is given to each piece. The final step before the art piece is finished is the annealing process. Annealing means that it is brought up to a high enough temperature to meld together any stress fractures. However, it is not a high enough temperature to melt the piece again. This special process makes sure that each piece is found to be without stress fractures. As important, it improves the piece’s durability. The completed piece of glass jewelry is truly a unique work of art. Its beauty reflects the tremendous effort that went into its creation.