There are two basic forms of glass blowing: offhand glass blowing, which is typically done in large studios complete with three separate furnaces, and lampworking, which involves smaller equipment but can be equally rewarding and enjoyable.
What do you need for glass blowing? For glass-blowing classes, all the equipment needed will be supplied. For lampworking, a form of glasswork that may be done at home, you will need a torch, glass rods, a bench, mandrels, an annealing kiln, and a variety of tools to manipulate the glass.
If you are fascinated by the thought of melting glass and manipulating it until your envisioned creation takes shape, then glass blowing or lampworking is definitely worth pursuing.
If you’re interested in traditional glass blowing, you can take glass-blowing classes, join a local facility or even rent work time from a local studio once you’ve mastered the basics.
However, if you would prefer to learn the art of lampworking and work independently from home, you’ll need some basic supplies and equipment to get started.
What is Lampworking?
Because of the vast space and large equipment needed for traditional, offhand glass blowing, not to mention the permits, licenses, and inspections and the associated hazards, most home glass blowers practice an offshoot of the art called lampworking.
Lampworking uses a torch to heat glass until it is malleable enough to shape, and then various tools are used to shape and form small, artistic, decorative, or useful items.
Otherwise known as torchworking or flameworking, lampworking can be done in a much smaller workspace due to the smaller size of the necessary equipment.
However, practicing lampwork still allows you to melt and manipulate glass much as you would with traditional glass blowing.
Although the smaller equipment limits the size of glass objects that can be crafted, a huge number of items can be made in a home setup. Potential glass objects include:
- Drinking vessels.
- Decorative figurines.
- Small sculptures.
Watch the following video for a demonstration of the lampworking process.
Lampworking uses a high-temperature torch fueled by a mixture of oxygen and propane, gas, butane, or a MAPP gas substitute to melt glass rods, tubes, and sheets of glass (for those with more experience).
The pliable glass can then be shaped, blown, and otherwise manipulated into a desired form.
Wonder why it’s called lampworking if a torch is used as the heat source?
Well, in the early days of the craft (approximately fifth century B.C.) lampworkers used the flame of an oil lamp to melt the glass.
The flame’s temperature was made hot enough to melt glass by adding more oxygen by using bellows or manually blowing through a tube.
As more modern methods of melting glass became available, new names, such as flameworking, torchworking, and “at the flame” glass blowing, came into use.
Today, the terms are used interchangeably.
Supplies Needed for Lampworking
Taking a couple of classes is highly recommended before you attempt this craft on your own.
You’ll be shown the basic techniques, be taught safety guidelines, and learn about the properties of different glasses and various niches in the hobby.
This will allow you to decide what type of glass crafts interest you the most, so you can customize your tool selection to fit your needs.
You basically have three choices when it comes to lampworking torches: a hot head torch, a minor torch, or a gas/oxygen torch.
For beginners, I’d recommend starting out with a hot head torch.
These inexpensive torches attach to small cylinders of MAPP or propane gas and are ideal for beginners as they don’t require an additional oxygen source.
The Bernzomatic TS4000KC is easy to use and features an adjustable flame.
The two most common glasses used in lampwork are soda-lime glass (COE 104), a soft glass, and borosilicate (COE 33), a hard glass.
COE stands for coefficient of expansion and refers to how a glass reacts to changes in temperatures. The higher the number, the more susceptible the glass is to heat.
Most projects will use rods with a diameter of 7 – 8 millimeters, though larger and smaller rods are available as well.
For beginners, soda-lime glass is most often the best choice to allow them to develop a feel for the process before moving on to more complicated designs.
Soda-lime glass melts at lower temperatures, making it ideal for use with a hot head torch; however, it reacts more readily to temperature changes, so heating and cooling must be done with care.
Soda-lime glass rods and tubes are best suited for small projects and fine-detail work, but they are available in a wide range of colors.
Borosilicate glass requires higher temperatures to become molten, and therefore a stronger torch that combines fuel and oxygen will be needed.
It is a tougher glass that is less prone to shattering at temperature changes, but it is more expensive.
Boro, as it is affectionately called by glass blowers, is ideal for larger projects, but it is harder to use for small items and adding intricate details. It is available in a limited range of colors.
Note: Different COE glasses are not compatible with each other.
Mandrels are metal rods used to aid in manipulating the molten glass and are used to wrap the glass around when forming beads and similar items.
You’ll want to accumulate a variety of sizes as you increase your skill set.
A special coating for the mandrel, known as bead release, will prevent the glass from adhering to the metal.
A heat-proof work surface is essential when lampworking. The workbench is where you will set up your torch and work on shaping your glass.
Many lampworkers keep most of their tools and supplies on top of the workbench, but keep in mind that all flammable material must be kept well away from the torch’s reach.
A programmable kiln is used to bring the entirety of the glass object to the same temperature, relieve internal stresses, and slowly cool the glass to room temperature.
For lampworking, a glass or ceramic kiln may be used for this purpose. You can learn more about annealing in my article “Do You Need a Kiln for Glass Blowing?”
There are a few alternative methods for cooling small objects, though the results may not be as consistent as with a kiln.
- Vermiculite can be placed in a large bowl, and beads or similar glass pieces may be nestled inside to cool. Alternatively, the vermiculite may be placed and warmed in a slow cooker instead of a bowl.
- A ceramic fiber blanket can be used to form insulating layers between beads, marbles, and other small glass items to allow them to cool slowly.
Before firing up your torch, always ensure that your workspace is sufficiently ventilated with fresh air flowing into the room at all times.
In addition to ventilation, there are several protective items that should be worn, no matter your level of experience.
Protective didymium glasses are highly recommended for lampworkers to not only shield their eyes from flying glass shards but also to guard against the damage associated with long-term exposure to sodium flares, infrared light and ultraviolet light.
Annealing kilns can reach temperatures exceeding 1,000℉, which can cause serious burns.
A pair of leather gloves designed for welding, like the set I use from Ozero, will protect your hands from the scorching heat.
Although many lampworkers choose not to use an apron, it’s always better to be safe rather than sorry.
A long, leather apron will protect much of your body from cuts and burns.
The tools needed will largely depend on what you plan on making and your level of experience.
Though you won’t need many shaping tools at first, experienced lampworkers keep a variety of tools on hand, such as:
- Tweezers, pliers, and knives for manipulating, shaping, designing, and cutting.
- Marvers, paddles, molds, and crimps for forming specific shapes.
- Stringers, micas, and frit for adding colorful designs.