Melting solid glass into liquid, and balancing it long enough for it to solidify again – maybe puffing in some air to inflate the bubble – this is lampworking.
When you think of glass blowing, you likely think of grand furnaces with workers dipping steel handles into large vats of molten glass before puffing, shaping, and working the molten glob into a form or vessel. That’s called furnace work, or hot shop – as I’m sure you could guess – the environment is very warm!
Not What You Expect
I am experienced in a different type of glass blowing better suited to the home studio, called lampwork, or flamework. One of the major distinctions is that there is no furnace with a molten crucible of glass in my studio. We work from solid rods and hollow tubes of clear and colored glass.
We do however, use a furnace (called a kiln) to slowly cool our glass down to room temperature after working in a process called annealing.
Another major distinction is the type of glass I use. In glass, COE refers to the coefficient of expansion. The COE is the rate at which the glass expands and contracts as heat enters and leaves the material. Regular soft glass is less tolerant of fast heat changes, and prone to breaking. Many lampworkers, and most pipe makers use COE 33 borosilicate glass – also called hard glass.
COE 33 glass is strong and resilient to thermal stress. Most lab glass is COE 33 borosilicate. It is stiffer at temperature than soft glass, as well as quicker to solidify when removed from the flame – hence the name hard glass.
It’s Hot in the Shop
So you want to try melting some borosilicate in a torch’s flame? First, lets take a few steps back and clear up a few points about what it is that a lampworker actually does.
Lampworkers melt, and fuse glass in front of a torch flame to assemble artistic and functional glass. The work is hazardous for obvious reasons, with burns being a common workplace injury for the lampworker. Glass is a poor conductor, otherwise known as an insulator. It takes a lot of energy to get the glass hot. With so much ambient and radiant heat, lampworkers must tolerate high temperatures almost any time they work.
A little bit more on glass being an insulator – it takes time to sink the heat into the glass: that takes patience. Glassblowing seems to me to be an exercise in presence of mind, and flow. Rushing things just doesn’t work, and taking your time paradoxically makes the glass move faster. Being distracted certainly doesn’t help!
Early on, much of your focus will be spent on handling your work piece and keeping it rotating in the flame. Being a poor conductor, a lampworker has to spread heat out slowly and evenly by rotating the work piece within the flame. If heat is focused on one area, it will stay in that local region – not spreading much further than the bush of the flame does. Thanks to this, lampworkers are able to hold onto the still cool glass just inches from molten temperatures as they work. This property can be leveraged to move the glass in a very controlled manner. Hot glass moves.
Have you ever inflated a glass bottle at room temperature? Of course not! It’s a solid, and locked into it’s shaped. Heat is required to get the glass into a liquid state, and the more you have – the more liquid your glass will be.
If you make two pieces of glass hot enough that they become liquid, and then touch them together: the liquids will flow together as surface tension and heat allow the two masses to become one. This is the heart of what lampworkers do, and almost all lampwork assembly techniques can be distilled down to this principal of joining glass together with heat.
Where to Start
So that’s all fine and dandy, but where does a new lampworker begin?
Ideally, apprenticed under an experienced flame worker in a shop with adequate ventilation and safety precautions. Though I realize this is a pipe dream for most as even I had to start out in a studio I made for myself.
Finding a Mentor
First and foremost – the world owes you nothing. Don’t get down or dejected if the first lampworker you meet wants nothing to do with you. In my experience, lampworking attracts all sorts of strange individuals – and some of them want nothing to do with other people – including you.
If you live in a major US city, or Toronto for example there may be a flameworking school near you. Alternatively there are university and college programs that teach lampwork. Going this route might take you longer, but in my opinion this is where some of the best all around lampworkers come from.
Another good place to start is to reach out to your local head shops, and inquire about local glassblowers that they may know of or do business with. This is how I made my first industry connections.
My first time on a torch, I paid a semi-local lampworker for a demonstration, and introduction to the craft. To this day, I don’t know that I would have been able to enter into the scene without that first introduction to lampworking – as good or bad as it may have been (and boy was it bad).
Try to learn from someone who knows what they’re doing. Don’t pay just anyone to give you time on their torch. Learning bad fundamentals or form lays groundwork for a tough journey ahead. I promise it won’t be easy, even with good mentors and a proper starting point.
Another good place to find and make connections are online communities like the Facebook group Torch Talk managed by Mike Mason and members of the global flame working community.
No Mentor – Now What?
Ah, so you’re in the same boat as I was.
You’ve got three good options:
- Wait until you find a mentor
- Practice fundamentals without the torch
- Dive in using whatever help you can find online
The first one is most obvious, and probably the route with the least heartache, wasted effort, and material. There are many facets of lampworking that are difficult to convey through text or speech, that need to be felt or learned through imitation and practice. It is a very tactile and involved learning experience that moves fastest with hands-on instruction.
Waiting to find a good teacher, or changing your circumstances to pursuit an opportunity with a teacher is your best options.
Practice Fundamentals Without a Torch
Second to that, stepping back and practicing the fundamental skills can be a valuable preparatory phase before trying to get into the craft on your own. By this, I mean practice simple skills such as rotating two rods in sync in your hands – imitating a working lampworker. After years of practice, this skill is performed subconsciously having become muscle memory. At the start it can be one of the most frustrating challenges to overcome.
Practice twisting a pair of pencils or chopsticks in sync, tip to tip for around twenty minutes at a time. Do it while you watch TV, or otherwise relax. You are building muscle memory for when you eventually get behind a torch. The practice is free, and you will need it. Work up to twisting in sync idly for as long as you can bare. This will both train your muscles, as well help to establish general form and posture.
This skill is fundamental to assembling glass in the flame, and though it may feel silly spinning chopsticks in your living room – it’s valuable practice.
Spend a Small Fortune in Time and Money
If money is no object, and you really must get behind a torch – purchase a kit and start breaking stuff! It’s what we did when we first set up our studio. The tools and equipment you choose will be dictated by the work you want to do. People who make large hollow vessels tend to require a different flame than those who do intricate line work.
We relied heavily on the fine folks at Nortel when we were first exploring the craft. Jean at Nortel is the Godmother of the Canadian glass scene, and I can’t thank or recognize her enough for her place in my glass journey.
Even with her help, we managed to spend thousands of dollars on equipment, glass, and gas before we made anything worth keeping. That could have been avoided for sure.
The availability of online tutorials and demonstrations has increased by volumes since I first started exploring lampwork. Here are a few of the resources I highly value:
- The aforementioned Torch Talk has an excellent Youtube channel and live stream schedule.
- I used Dustin Revere’s Youtube content a lot early on, but beware the videos are played back at 3x speed – which misled me early on: slow down!
- The Corning Museum of glass is a cornerstone of the global art glass scene, and their catalog of studio demonstrations include some amazing in depth videos
- The talkglass.com forums have a massive collection of conversations and images
Make use of these resources and absorb as much information as you can. When you think you understand, watch it again! Try to test your understanding, and push your limits.
Glass blowing is hard. It’s unforgiving and heartbreaking. Glass breaks.
You can invest days, and weeks into a piece – only to lose it in the last moments to thermal shock or a drop.
Failure and letting go are an integral part of having a healthy relationship with glass.
I can say confidently that in my personal experience, glass has helped me with accepting defeat and rallying to try again. Despite the regular failure and challenges I face, I continue to step up to the plate and face those challenges again and again in the pursuit of personal betterment.
Glass is unlike any other medium I work in, and the emotional process is equally as unique.
Get to it
No matter your motivation for reading this piece, there isn’t much to do beside get to it. Whether it’s research, twisting sticks, watching demos, or shopping for tools there is something you can be doing right now on your journey of becoming a glassblower.
Good luck and much love!