Tips: Representational Beads
Those of us who enjoy making representational beads know that the sculptural manipulation of glass brings with it its own set of problems. The traditional bead shapes -- spherical, tabular, cylindrical -- are fairly consistent in volume and not too difficult to keep evenly heated. The general sequence of laying down the glass is predictable. But stray into the realm of figurative motifs and your glass skills are put to the test. Here are a few guidelines that might make things a little easier:

1. Analyze the shape of the bead you want to make in terms of bead forms you are familiar with. My goddess begins as an off-center bicone that is flattened and bisected on each side before body parts are added. My Santa bead is a sphere with a cone added to one end. By reducing the bead-making process to clearly definable steps based on common shapes, you insure that you can repeat these steps when you want to make multiples.

2. The more pre-made parts you can use, the easier your time at the flame. When I make a bear, I have thick stringers pulled and cut into pieces for arms and legs. For my goddess, I have cut lengths off the rod for the breasts and rear end. This also aids in creating a symmetrical bead. Of course, these pieces are heated on the hot plate to make assembly faster and to insure against thermal shock.

3. Keep notes when you're attempting a new bead so you'll gain from your mistakes. It's rare that your first try will be perfect. Details you might want to add at the end of the process are sometimes best put on in the beginning. My hot fudge sundae begins with the cherry -- much easier to build the rest of the bead around it than to add it at the end. The handles to my rolling pin are laid down on the mandrel and shaped before the glass for the actual pin is added between them -- it makes for a much neater connection point. Of course, I discovered these details by doing it wrong the first time!

4. Don't forget that glass can be manipulated with glass rods as well as with tools. When I'm removing a small amount of glass where my seashell folds over itself, I use a small stringer of glass the same color as the shell to delicately taper the end of the bead. When I want to make the fins on my fish look like they're moving through water, I get the edges molten and then drag a glass rod over them to give them some direction and to bring the tips of the fin to a point.

5. Your torch flame doesn't have to remain the same size during the production of your bead. One of the most useful hints I learned from Will Stokes was that you can bring your torch flame down quickly to a pin-point by reducing the propane. This isn't a flame you will want to use for a long time, but it is perfect when you're trying to heat out tool marks on one part of your bead without melting other details. Don't forget that the rest of the bead is cooling off while you're concentrating on trouble spots, so return to your normal mix after a short time and bathe the entire bead in heat.

6. Speaking of heat, here are a few helpful reminders when sculpting a figurative bead: Concentrate your insurance heat on the smallest parts of the bead, since these are the parts that will cool off first. The neck of my champagne bottle is given more rapid passes in the flame than is the larger body of the bottle. Likewise, when I'm making an urn with a handle and lip, these parts are heated frequently to maintain a good heat base. Bring them just to a low glow from time to time to make sure they don't thermal shock.

When you're concentrating on a technically difficult application of glass (such as a lip wrap, or handles), don't forget to pay attention to the part of the bead that's been out of the heat for this time. When I've finished putting twisted cane around the top of my Christmas stocking, I immediately go to the toe to make sure it's hot before heating the cane in place. Repairing beads isn't fun.

I hope I've given you a few helpful hints that will facilitate your production of sculptural beads. There probably isn't anything out there that we can't copy in glass!

©2006Kate Fowle Meleney - All rights reserved.
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