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How Lampworking Works

History of Lampworking

Cone-shaped furnaces similar to the ceramic chimineas that dot modern-day backyards and porches have been noted in many ancient cultures. According to some lampworking historians, these furnaces could have been used to make glass beads, and in fact, many Egyptian decorative beads from more than 5,000 years ago survive today because they were considered very valuable and were often buried with their owners. Though many things about lampworking and this ancient beadworking are similar, there are differences, too [source: Mickelsen]. Obviously, the fire used way back when was not the controllable source of heat of today's torches, whose flame can be turned up or down, or positioned toward one area of the glass. So whether or not these beads can officially be called lampwork is a matter of some debate.

What is not under much question is the fact that another type of furnace, known as the beehive furnace was in use from Japan to North Africa to Rome more than 2,000 years ago. Beads were used as a kind of money back then, so the thinking is that ways of making glass would have spread as quickly as a legal do-it-yourself mint would spread today.

Fast-forward 15 centuries, and you'll get to the beginning of "modern" day lampworking [source: Mickleson]. That's when artists wanted to "go green" in a medieval way -- they thought the techniques available took up too much energy to make such small end products, so they started to blow air from their mouths to direct the flame from an oil lamp to heat pieces of glass. The only problem with this do-it-yourself technique was the possibility of hyperventilation. But use of hand and foot bellows (like those used to fan the flames of a fireplace) soon put an end to that problem. Galileo is one artist known to have worked with these types of lampworking devices.

The next section will tell you about how today's lampworkers do their thing.