As summer show season really kicks off for me I thought I would share a little bit about what makes my work special. At shows it is unfortunately quite common to have people scoff at the prices of handmade art, so I thought I would use my gummy bears as an example of how much work goes into every one of my pieces.
Each glass gummy starts out as a coloured rod of glass. I start by heating up the rod at a small oxygen/propane torch. I have to be careful that I don't heat up the glass too quickly because the type of glass I work with is prone to thermal shock, meaning it has a high coefficient of expansion and contraction or COE. Most "Soft Glass" in the flameworking world, a type of soda lime glass, has a COE of 104. This high COE means that heat must be introduced to the glass slowly. If you have ever seen videos of me working you’ll notice that instead of plunging the glass right into the flame I make sure to dab the glass in the flame for several seconds so that it doesn't explode either all over my work space or up at my face and chest (this is why I never flamework without my apron!)
Before I even begin making the beads there is prep work to be done. Most glass beads are made by winding hot glass onto a steel mandrel. In order for your bead to be removed easily from the mandrel once it is cool it must be dipped in something called bead release. Bead release is a clay body, sort of similar to slip but a bit more fluid. Note: if you are going to shake your bead release vigorously to make sure it's properly mixed up, be sure that your lid is firmly on the jar. I once learned that the hard way…
Another important step in my process is to make stringer, rods of glass that are even thinner for detail work. I use these to add the arms, legs and eyes on the gummy bears. I decide which colours of gummy bears I am making at the beginning of the day and pull all the stringer I will need, usually 3 big pulls per colour.
So fast forward, I've dipped all my mandrels and I've pulled all my stringer. Now it's finally time for production to start! I heat up a small blob of glass on the end of the rod which I then wind onto a mandrel I have pre-heated in the torch. If you do not heat your mandrel to remove the excess moisture in the bead release this moisture will release as bubbles into your bead when you wind the glass on. I shape the glass a little bit while simultaneously heating up more glass at the end of the rod which I will then add to the glass already on the mandrel. I use my masher tool to flatten and shape the newly added bit of glass. The next step is to heat up the top of the head and sculpt in the ears using a small metal sculpting tool. Now it’s time to add legs and arms! Using the stringer I made at the beginning, I create two bits for the legs and then another two for the arms making sure to heat them enough to get a proper join, but not so much that I lose the detail. While I am focusing most of the heat on the front of the bear, I need to be mindful that I am keeping the back, especially the area right behind the ears, warm by occasionally tapping it in the flame to keep it warm and avoid cracking. I apply the eyes, and melt them in just enough to retain the detail. One last flash in the torch to make sure the heat is even in the bead and then it's done!
It has always been very important to me that I do not use molds in my pieces and that every piece be sculpted by hand. First and most importantly because it is more fun for me that way! Why would I spend years learning how to work with glass only to mass produce my work in molds? Secondly I really like the idea that every necklace I make is a tiny sculpture. I like that I can make art just a little more accessible. And finally because even though they all look similar, each bear has its own personality. I love watching people fall in love with a specific bear because of the size or shape.
Did you know that different colours of glass have unique working properties? I make 8 different colours of gummy bears and every single colour is a little bit different.
Red, orange and yellow are all "striking" colours which means that in order for that glass to become the proper colour it needs to be heated in a way that causes a chemical reaction in the glass. To achieve this I have to let the glass cool to a certain point and then reheat the glass slightly to “strike”. This creates the reaction that results in the final colour. Some colours, like red, strike quickly and easily. And it's magical when it happens! Orange and yellow on the other hand are slower to strike which means having enough patience allow the bead to cool down enough and then reheat it slowly in the end of the flame. I want it just hot enough for the colour to shift, but not so hot that the detail is lost.
Green likes to bubble. If heated too close to the base of the flame it will boil and I will get a ton of tiny bubbles, which do not make me happy and definitely do not make me feel fine. (Now you have that song in your head too, you're welcome) Here is the thing, most other colours are fine in that spot in the flame, but the green I use doesn't like things that hot. So I have to make adjustments and work it in a cooler spot on the flame to make green bears.
Teal needs to be worked in at least a neutral flame (a half and half mix of oxygen/propane) or more preferably a more oxygen rich flame. Working teal too close to the base of the flame or in a flame that doesn't have enough oxygen can result in a terrible red scuzz on the surface of the glass.
Similarly, blue likes an oxygen rich flame. When your glass is molten you can work it closer to the base of the flame but once the glass has solidified I make sure to work in a cooler part of the flame and further out because the surface can boil and create lots of scummy looking surface bubbles.
Where do I start with purple and pink...? They are beautiful colours but lord are they ever a pain in the butt. Remember when I talked about thermal shock above? Some colours tend to be more prone to thermal shock than others and oh boy do these ones like to explode! I have to take even more time and care than usual to make sure I am heating these colours up extremely slowly. It is not as difficult when the rods of glass are thin, but the manufacturer of these two colours has a lot of inconsistencies with rod thickness. The thin rods are easy to work with and I barely ever (knock on wood) have a problem with them. But if I am working with thicker rods, sometimes it can take almost twice as long to make a gummy bear made with these colours. What I tend to do is use the thicker rods to pull my stringer with, because it generally means less exploding. Previously what I had done was to use up all the thinner rods that didn't cause me problems until all I had left were the thick ones. There was lots of exploding and subsequently lots of swearing. Want to know another fun fact about purple and pink? They are some of the most expensive colours out there in glass, especially pinks. Various elements like copper, cobalt, arsenic and cadmium are used to create different colours of glass. Pink is made using gold, hence the hefty price tag. So when an entire rod decides to explode all over my work space, I make sure I use every single one of those little bits!
Special bonus! When I used to make clear gummy bears I had all kinds of problems keeping enough detail in them. This is because unlike all the other colours I make my bears with, clear doesn't indicate how hot it is by changing colour. This resulted in super melty looking clear bears because I heated them up a bit too much and lost the crisp detail of their extremities.
This is just the work that happens at the torch. When my beads are complete they go into a kiln to be annealed. Annealing is the process of slowly cooling down the glass to room temperature. Since glass contracts as it cools it is important that the surface and the interior of the glass cool down uniformly in a controlled manner to relieve any stress in the glass. The kiln is first held at annealing temperature (510 Celsius, 960 Fahrenheit) for an hour, it then comes down very slowly through the strain point (the temperature below which permanent strain cannot be introduced). From there the program brings the glass slowly down to room temperature. Programs are typically 8-10 hours; this is how long it takes for glass molecules to get in a comfy position so that there is no stress in the glass. As a wise man, Koen Vanderstukken the head of the glass program at Sheridan College, once told our class "glass molecules are very lazy, and very stupid."
Once I return to the studio to get my beads out of the kiln, they are still on the steel mandrels so I have to soak them in water to help loosen the bead release in order to wiggle my beads off the rods. If I think the bead release is going to be particularly stubborn I drop a Polident tablet in which helps loosen things up! Each mandrel is placed in a little bench vise where I can get enough leverage to rotate the bead off. In rare and extremely frustrating cases a bead is very stubborn and just straight up refuses to come off no matter how much torquing and twisting and begging and swearing.
The next step is to throw on some good tunes and dremel the holes of the beads. The bead release is fused on the inside of the bead hole and needs to be removed. A diamond tipped bit (everything in glass is expensive) is required. Dremelling the holes clean must be done using water to both lubricate the diamond bit to make sure it lasts as long as possible, and to eliminate dust in the air because no one wants to get silicosis from inhaling silica particles.
Most beads are complete after this stage but gummy bears have two more steps! First they go through an acid bath. I use a liquid etching solution and I am able to reuse the same bottle of acid until it completely loses its effectiveness. Depending on how new my acid is etching can take anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour with frequent stirring in the process. When bath time is over, the beads are rinsed in a baking soda solution to neutralize the acid. Pink and purple prevail again at being a pain in the butt because for reasons I don’t understand, they are the only two colours that end up with residue from the acid/baking soda. One by one I scrub all my beads clean with soap and water, and those two colours in particular require a little extra elbow grease! I set them aside to dry, sometimes some beads require a little extra scrubbing and then they are finally complete!
As I finish this post thinking “gee this is awfully long” I realize that is exactly the point. I have 14 years of experience working with glass and 11 years of experience making glass candy under my belt. All of that knowledge and experience goes into every single piece I make.