What is lampworking?

Making a glass bead with a torch

In lampworking, a torch is used in addition to a variety of tools to melt and form the glass.

Lampworking gets its name from the oil lamps that were used for a fuel source hundreds or even thousands of years ago. Today it is also called flameworking or torch working and uses, not surprisingly, a torch to provide the heat necessary to melt and form glass. Small objects such as beads, pipes, and sculptures are made this way although bigger items can be made with bigger torches. Lampworking is distinct from furnace work, or glass blowing, which uses a furnace as the heat source. There are many tools and techniques used in lampworking and it is an art form that is forever offering new adventures in glass. It never gets old.

The torch I use is a GTT (Glass Torch Technologies) Lynx. It is a duel fuel torch requiring propane and oxygen for fuel. It is a surface mix torch which means that the fuels are mixed on the surface of the torch. GTT is known for it’s triple mix torches where there is a ring of propane with oxygen in the center and around the outside. There are two oxygen controls and one for propane. This allows the torch to burn hotter and cleaner than standard torches. For my oxygen I use a refurbished medical oxygen concentrator.

The glass that I use is soda-lime glass. It comes in different colored rods about 4-6mm thick and 12 inches long. I use glass made in the USA, Italy, and China. The glass I use is mainly COE 104. COE stands for coefficient of expansion and refers to how quickly the glass expands and contracts when heated and cooled. There are other COEs available for lampworking – 120, 113, 90, and 96. Those are the “soft” glasses, there is also “hard” glass or borosilicate (boro for short) glass which is COE 33. Boro melts at a higher temperature and cools slower than soft glass so the working methods are quite different. Also, you cannot mix the different COEs of glass when hot because the piece will crack when it cools due to the incompatibility of the glasses and built up stress.

A kiln is used to cool down the glass slowly and uniformly so that the stress doesn’t build up in the glass. When glass cools, the outside cools faster than the inside which creates stress. Annealing in a kiln allows the piece to come to a uniform temperature and is held at the annealing temperature – about 950℉. Some glasses like to be annealed at higher temperatures than others and the temperature and cycle are digitally controlled. My kiln is a converted toolbox made by Jen-Ken.

Ventilation is also required to safely work with glass. I have a sheet metal hood that is vented to the outside through a window in my shed. Incoming air flows through the vents in the shed. Ventilation is often neglected but some people quickly develop headaches and become woozy if they torch without proper ventilation. Since it is specialty equipment it is sometimes difficult to hire someone to install ventilation professionally for a reasonable price.

Lampworking, as you can see, despite the amount of equipment required, is a fairly accessible form of glass work. Many people have lampworking studios in their home or garage. The craft has really grown over the last twenty years or so as more and more people discover the joy of melting glass in the flame. It takes a lot of practice to become proficient at working with glass, and there are many tools and techniques to become familiar with. The style and type of beads that can be made are limitless and there is always something new to discover.