Have you ever marveled at the work of glass artisans and wondered how you could do it, too? From pendants to platters to picture frames, you can create beautiful crafts with glass.
Best of all, some of it’s possible without a lot of painstaking effort or seasoned skills. To help you get inspired, let’s enter the beguiling world of glass working with this beginner’s guide.
What Is Glass Working?
Glass working refers to manipulating glass or its ingredients to create new glass products.
In some cases, it’s about making glass out of raw materials. In many other cases, it involves working with small pieces of glass.
Experts often group glass working into three main categories:
- Hot glass working
- Warm glass working
- Cold working
Don’t Overlook This One Key Step
Glass is a fragile material to begin with. All glass working introduces extra stresses. The crucial process of annealing reduces these stresses to ensure longer life.
Annealing involves holding glass at its annealing temperature for a prescribed period. For more details, check out our article delving inside glass annealing.
Hot Glass Working Techniques
When you completely melt glass ingredients and then shape that molten material, that’s hot glass working. Hot glass applications involve temperatures of 2,000 °F or higher.
In the classic art of glass blowing, you gather molten glass material at the end of a blowpipe.
Blow into the tube to make a bubble. Then roll the bubble, aka the “gather,” on a steel table called a marver to begin shaping it as desired.
Equipment needs include:
- A high-heat furnace
- Jacks, shears, wooden blocks, and other shaping tools
Glass blowing is ideal for one-of-a-kind ornamental globes, paperweights, and cups and vases.
Lampworking involves heating glass rods to soften for sculpting.
It’s also called torchworking or flameworking. Centuries ago, people heated the rods over oil lamps (hence the name). Today, most artisans use more powerful oxygen-propane torches.
In addition to the torch, lampworking employs a wide array of specialized tools, such as:
- Claw grabbers – For holding the workpieces while shaping
- Reamers – Stainless steel knives for creating holes
- Mandrels – Steel rods to make large holes
- Paddles – For shaping the material
- Tungsten picks – To poke holes and make bubbles
- Blow hoses – For shaping vessels
- Shears – With a long handle and short blade for cutting through hot glass
- Mashers – In a range of sizes and types to shape the material
Small beads, midsize vases, and hollow glass sculptures are among popular lampworking products.
Warm Glass Working Techniques
Warm glass working, as you might guess, involves lower temperatures than hot glass. Instead of heating the glass ingredients to a molten state, you’re aiming for a soft glass. The process usually involves ramping up the temperature in several stages.
You need a glass kiln for warm glass working. Most of these techniques, in fact, are also referred to as “kiln forming.” Learn more in our guide to kiln formed glass for beginners.
A quality kiln that’s safe and easy to use is paramount. Hot Shot glass kilns, for example, have Cool-Touch technology that prevents burns. Intuitive operation with precise temperature control makes it easy to get the results you want.
Choose from a range of Hot Shot kiln sizes that are in stock and ready to ship. Then you can get started quickly with these warm glass techniques …
Image source: Etsy (KRiceDesigns)
Glass casting is like hot glass, since it involves melting the material to pour and form in a mold.
- A special kiln capable of reaching temperatures up to 2,000 °F, depending on the technique and the glass used
- Molds made from plaster, ceramics, metal, or refractory fiberboard
- “Casting glass” with a lower melting temperature and lower viscosity than other warm glass materials
With this versatile technique, you can make sculptures, vases, jewelry, and other glass products.
If you’re interested, explore glass casting in greater detail.
Image source: Etsy (Eclecticfusedglass)
Glass fusion is the art of fusing multi-colored pieces of glass, to beautiful effect.
You need to pay close attention to the types of glass you use for this technique. Good fusing glass is:
- About 1/8 to 3/8 inch thick
- Available in sheets, stringers (spaghetti-like strands), confetti, and millefiori (small beads)
- Of the same coefficient of expansion (COE), which tells you how much the glass expands when heated
Glass fusion introduces a wide variety of colorful creative possibilities, from jewelry to picture frames to wall art and more.
For more details, check out our glass fusing guide.
Image source: Etsy (JoshuaTracyGlass)
When you heat glass up until it “slumps” and takes the shape of a mold, that’s glass slumping.
Like fusing, successful slumping takes a special type of glass. You also need specific molds that can withstand high heat, such as ceramic molds, stainless steel forms, or refractory molds. Kiln wash will also come in handy to keep the molds clean.
Slumping is a wonderful way to make fascinating, contoured forms–vases, soap dishes, candle holders, and more.
For a closer look, read our secrets of slumping glass.
Cold Working Techniques
Cold working glass is any technique manipulating glass at room temperature. That usually means finishing your glass creations in various ways.
This technique involves blasting glass with a sandy substance, such as silica carbide. The sand carves the glass, thanks to the force of an air compressor.
An enclosed cabinet is essential to contain the airborne particles.
Use different patterns to achieve different effects, shapes, and designs.
You can engrave glass via several different methods and tools.
Diamond- or carbide-tipped burrs help remove material. Different shapes and widths enable specific designs. Apply varied pressure with the tools to change the depth and intricacy of the engraving.
Engraving can include detailed artwork, patterns, or text.
Etching is a chemical process using an acidic substance to remove layers of glass, creating a frosted or textured appearance.
Apply a resist material (such as wax or a specialized etching resist) to the surface to create your design.
Like engraving, etching can create intricate patterns, designs, or even text.
Glass workers have lots of reasons to cut glass.
Trim an edge. Slice out shapes. Halve a bottle. Carve a channel.
Whatever you do, you should use quality tools made of either carbide or diamond. Glass cutters, jeweler’s hand saws, and diamond slitting discs are among the tools you need.
Grinding shapes glass by removing material with a powered abrasive wheel or belt.
When you want to smooth rough edges, remove imperfections, or create specific contours, grinding is a fast, effective method. Apply the glass surface against the rotating abrasive to turn it into your desired shape.
Choose abrasives ranging from coarse to fine grit to achieve the smoothness you want.
Polishing is the most aesthetic cold working finish technique.
Polish after grinding or as a standalone process to create a smooth, reflective surface. You can also remove faint scratches or other imperfections left by other processes.
The key ingredient is a polishing compound or fine abrasive slurry. Apply the compound to the glass surface with a felt pad or cloth wheel. Then admire the clear, glossy finish!
The Importance of Safety
If there’s one thing every one of these glass working techniques has in common, it’s that they’re all hazardous.
Glass is fragile. Broken glass is sharp. Molten glass is extremely hot. Glass dust is an irritant. It all seems simple enough, yet it’s easy to forget to protect yourself.
Always wear personal protective equipment when doing any kind of glass working:
- Safety glasses
- Closed-toe shoes
- Dust mask (for cold working techniques such as sandblasting, etching, cutting, and grinding)
How to Get Started in Glass Working
With this overview of glass working in mind, what inspires you?
Why not take the next step and learn more about one or more of these exciting techniques. Read more here on our glass art blog. Watch tutorials. Take a class. Many community colleges and recreation programs offer classes. So do glass studios across the country.
In the wide world of glass working, the possibilities are plentiful—so get exploring!