Friday, January 5, 2018

Why Are Lampwork Beads So Expensive

Long ago, when I was just a simple bead stringer, I fell in love with lampwork beads.  These exquisite pieces of tiny glass art captured my fancy and ran away with it.  I became an eBay addict and would set my alarm to bid on beads.  Eventually it got to the point that our budget simply couldn't keep up with my desire for more beads.  They were just so expensive. 

Along the way, I was gifted a few sets of lampwork beads from our local Big Box craft store.  and even my inexperienced eye could tell a difference.  The sparkle wasn't there.  The designs weren't consistent.  There was mud in the holes that just wouldn't wash out.  If I tried to string them on jewelry wire the mud flaked off and caused a mess.  I put those in a bead box and put them at the bottom of my pile.

One day I attended a seminar for work and met a man that would change my life.  He said he had recently started making lampwork beads at his dining room table.  All I needed to get started was a $40 torch called a Hot Head, a crock pot, a bag of vermiculite, and a couple of glass rods.

I ended up buying a beginner kit to get started.  I started doing research and watching YouTube videos to find out how to make beads.  The information I found blew my mind.  Sure, you can get started pretty inexpensively and end up with some beads made from glass.  But in order to make beautiful works of art, or even beads that can be sold or used in jewelry, it takes much more.

Using the items in my kit, I melted the glass in the flame around a mandrel coated in bead release (mud in the bead holes), then gently inserted the finished bead into the crock pot filled with vermiculite.  They are then left to cool slowly because glass that experiences extreme temperature changes has a tendency to shatter.  Just ask anyone who has accidentally tried to fill a hot coffee pot with cold water.

There are so many things wrong with this scenario.  First off, if your beads are very big they break anyway.  Second, if you are too excited about getting those dots just perfect and don't give it the exact right amount of time to cool off before plunging it in the depths, you end up with a smashed bead with bits stuck in it for all eternity.  Third, and most importantly, the beads aren't annealed.  This basically means that glass needs to cool very very slowly through a certain temperature range to remove the internal stress caused by the different temperatures the glass reaches during the making of the bead.  Not annealed = explody glass bead.  A kiln to anneal the beads isn't a luxury, it is a necessity.

Do you remember me mentioning the Big Box lampwork ?  I'll wait here while you scroll up a bit if necessary.  You back?  I had a bead box with multiple compartments.  It housed my mass produced beads as well as some of my beginner beads.  They were ugly but I waited to get a kiln so all my beads were annealed.  Circumstances forced me to box up my beads and put them in storage for a few years.  When I finally got back to my beads, I opened that box to find that all of my ugly annealed beads were intact, but the majority of the cheap imported beads had exploded.  A few glass shards and a lot of glass dust.  I had nightmares about selling a necklace made with these beads only to have it explode on them during dinner.  Extreme, yes.  But my nightmares generally are.

The kiln was just the beginning.  I still needed ventilation.  Because of the fumes that are given off while lampworking I didn't feel comfortable doing it at the kitchen table.  Or even in my house.  So we built an addition on our carport and installed a decent vent fan, climate control (window AC and a space heater) and make up air source (a window).  Not cheap.

Now I get to my torch!  The Hot Head lasted about a month.  It was definitely a case of "it's not you, it's me."  So many talented lampworkers only use a Hot Head.  I couldn't make it work.  The mapp gas that it runs on was expensive and lasted about two beads.  Then they discontinued mapp gas and I switched to bulk propane.  Propane is dirty and I couldn't find the sweet spot where the glass melts and doesn't get sooty.  So I upgraded to the next torch up, a dual fuel torch.  It uses propane and oxygen.  So I had to buy an oxygen source.  Tanks weren't a viable option for me, so I chose an oxygen concentrator.

Now a few things I've mentioned so far are personal choices, not absolutely necessary.  Obviously if you have a suitable space already or opt to use a less expensive torch, it will cut down on your expenses.  But let's do some rudimentary math, keeping in mind this is what I spent and your mileage may vary.

Studio Space - $1500
Kiln - $500
Ventilation - $200
Torch - $250 for my Carlisle Mini CC
Hoses - $75
Regulator/Flashback Arrest - $50
Propane Tank - $30
Propane Refill - $15
Glass - $50 got me started with a sample pack.
Beginner Kit - $100 contained enough misc supplies to get started (mandrels, bead release, marvers)

There are some things that I'm forgetting because all that adds up to $5740 and I spent closer to $8000.  Probably tax and shipping and some non-necessities.  Keep in mind this is just the cash payout to get started.

Now lets talk about the time it takes.  A wise person would take a class or two (more money, a little time) but I'm not a wise person.  I am completely self-taught (no money, a whole lot of time).  I watched videos and read online forums, then I sat down and started practicing.  I probably could have saved a some time and a metric boat load of glass by having someone teach me the basics, but I like doing things the hard way.  It gives me an excuse to cuss.

It took me a year of making beads after work and on weekends before I could make a bead good enough to make jewelry out of.  It took another six months before I could make beads to sell.  These weren't complicated beads.  Just simple donut beads that would lay straight and had nice puckered holes that wouldn't cut and fray the stringing wire. 

That's a lot of hours. 

Now there are lampworkers out there that have made different decisions and taken different paths.  They took classes, they learn quicker, they use less expensive equipment, etc. but my experience is pretty average. 

So the next time you see a complex floral bead and wonder why the artist wants $40 for it, keep this in mind.  You are paying for the time it took to make the bead (probably an hour or more), plus glass ($10/pound minimum), plus the equipment, plus the practice it took to learn to make the bead well enough to offer it to you.