Thursday, October 15, 2015

Designer's guide to lampwork: all about etching - with Julie of Uglibeads!

When we're admiring art beads, it's easy to appreciate their aesthetic qualities. Certain colors, shapes, materials or motifs speak to us right away. We like what we like, and we know it when we see it! It's possible to be an enthusiastic fan or collector of these beautiful creations without knowing a whole lot about how they're made. 

And you know, it's true that when it comes to the things we love, sometimes we prefer not to know. I think we all feel that about some things... A divinely delicious meal, a transcendent piece of music, a play or a poem that moves us to tears... often, it's the mystery that appeals to our sense of imagination and wonder. 

But if you're an avid buyer of a certain kind of bead or component, and it doesn't ruin the magic for you, it can be very interesting to know a bit about the process - whether it's glass, ceramic, polymer clay, paper, fibre, metal, enamel, wood, resin, stone, plastic, mixed media, or something else that I'm surely forgetting. Even if you have no plans to make such things yourself, some technical know-how can be handy as you're considering a purchase and how it might work for you. Or, perhaps you'd like to share a few insights with your customers, who may not be aware of what is so unusual or special about the art beads you've carefully chosen for your designs.

I get (and love to answer) a lot of questions from designers I work with who want to educate themselves about the beads they're investing in. As the resident glass beadmaker here at ABS, I thought perhaps from time to time I could shed light on some of the things I'm asked most often. So let's jump in. Today, it's all about 'etching' - which simply refers to the process of removing a surface layer of the material (in my case, glass - but other materials can also be etched) to create a matte, non-reflective finish. 

These beads (from my Vivid Wilderness series) have their original, shiny surface intact (no etching):

And these are very similar, made from the same colors of glass, but they have been etched to achieve a lovely smooth, matte finish. Etched lampwork beads are often mistaken for polymer clay - and you can see why - that non-reflective surface is not the finish that immediately comes to mind when we think about 'glass' as a material:

Some beads you would never consider etching because the process would ruin the beautiful surface effects. Beads that have an iridescent or metallic finish are a good example. But in many cases when you purchase lampwork, the beadmaker will offer you the choice - to etch, or not to etch. It sounds like a big question. And it is - because once it's etched, it's permanently etched. No backsies.

If you like both shiny and etched glass, and are wondering which would look better... It depends. Certain bead designs are very well suited to etching and it seems to make the colors come alive. In other cases, the beads won't necessarily look 'better' - just different. The person who made the beads will have a good feel for that, so if you're on the fence, don't hesitate to ask what they'd recommend. They may have a photo of a similar design in the etched version they could show you to help you decide. Or they may tell you that both (shiny and etched) are equally lovely. In that case, no doubt you'll be pleased with the outcome, no matter what you decide.

If you're really struggling with the choice, consider asking the artist if they would mind putting the beads in the freezer for 10-15 minutes and taking a quick pic for you when they come out. The frosted surface of the icy-cold beads mimics the 'etched look' without passing the point of no return. Unlike actual etching, it's reversible if you decide you liked them better shiny.

In the end, it's really a matter of preference. If etching is done properly, it has no effect on the longevity or durability of the glass. Some people are drawn to the soft look and tactile quality of etched beads, and others prefer glass the way it is - glossy, shiny, smooth and reflective. 

The most popular method for etching lampwork beads is to use a chemical called 'Etch-All', 'Etch Bath', or similar. This is a strong acid that actually eats away the surface of the glass. This is available in a liquid form that the beads can be dipped into for a certain length of time, or a cream that can be applied. This is very nasty stuff, so precautions must be taken - protective gloves, eyewear, and good ventilation:

I've spoken to a number of designers who have purchased a bottle of etching solution themselves to use on beads they already own. It can be fun to experiment - sometimes etching radically changes the appearance of something you're not totally crazy about - for the better! Lampwork, czech glass, seed beads, stones, ceramic beads... The possibilities are really only limited by your imagination - and ability to tolerate the risk that they won't turn out the way you'd hoped. Always test on a throwaway bead or an extra if you're not sure. That said, if they were in desperate need of a makeover anyway, you've got nothing to lose ;)

Another way to etch glass beads (the method I use and prefer) is to use a rotary tumbler - the same one that you'd use to polish or work-harden metal. In this case, instead of using steel shot, we use an abrasive substance like silicon carbide. If you can picture the way sea glass is tumbled in ocean waves, brushing up against sand hundreds of thousands of times to create a soft, matte finish - you know how tumble etching beads works. With a critical difference; it may take hundreds of years for a piece of sea glass to develop that lovely frosted surface, but glass beads can be etched in a tumbler in a matter of hours.

This is Mabel. My beloved tumbler. The beads roll around and around and around in there for a few hours... not particularly exciting. But when they come out, they're transformed! It's kinda magic, really....

Some designs aren't suited to tumble-etching (beads with deep indentations or raised elements, for example, would need to be acid etched), but for those that are, it makes the beads soft, suuuuuuper smooth to the touch, and luminously glowy - like my ocean-inspired 'weenie bead' sets:

As you can see, etching transparent glass gives it a look much like sea glass. I collect genuine sea glass, and there's no question that Mother Nature is the master, but I do have a few advantages over her - I can use artistic license to create any shape, size or color desired - and no drilling - the holes are built right in!

If you like that 'sea glass' look for your jewelry, keep it in mind as you shop for transparent lampwork beads. Etching often transforms them into something really special, and most beadmakers are set up to etch your new beads if you prefer them that way.

If there is a small additional charge for etching the beads, don't be alarmed. Achieving a beautiful etched surface takes time, skill, care, and expensive equipment and/or chemicals. Most professional beadmakers will need to consider that in the final cost of their work.

A couple of tips that may prove handy if you're a fan of etched lampwork beads and use them frequently in your work:

- etched beads can pick up dust, fingerprints, lint, and other gunk over the years as they're worn and come into contact with fabric and body oils. To restore the beautiful matte surface, a gentle scrub with warm water, a toothbrush, and a bit of toothpaste can keep them looking new. Sometimes just rolling for a few moments between your thumb and fingers is enough. Rubbing the beads with the tiniest bit of Renaissance wax can give them a lovely soft, glowy sheen.

- keep in mind as you're designing with etched beads (especially those light in color) that they can develop an unsightly discoloration if they rub against some types of metal beads. This is clearly of greater consideration in a bracelet or necklace, where the beads are jostled around quite a bit, vs. a pair of earrings where they may be relatively immobile.

I can't leave you without some gorgeous jewelry inspiration that shows off the beauty of etched lampwork beads. Sharon Borsavage of Livewire Jewelry created these stunning earrings with a pair of etched golden-brown Uglibeads, and beyond beautiful feather headpins by artist Heidi Ahrens Williams of Azteca Designs. The soft, matte, warm quality of the etched glass perfectly complements the rustic feel of the patinated copper and the natural surface of the turquoise stones:

Glass beadmakers, if you'd like to learn more about how to etch your beads (with acid or a tumbler), you'll find a mountain of helpful information by searching the archives of either Lampworketc. here, or, if you are on Facebook, the 'Lampwork Beadmaking Tips Techniques and Questions' group, here. If you need additional help, don't hesitate to get in touch.

So. All the lampwork fans, buyers, lovers, collectors, afficionados in the crowd... Do you have other burning questions and curiosities about how glass beads are made, or what to look for when buying? Let me know in the comments below and I'll keep those in mind for a future 'Designer's guide to lampwork' post. Of course, as always, if you just want to wave your hand and say 'hi' - I'd love that too :)

Thanks so much for joining me - until next time!



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Julie is a glass beadmaker with a passion for building community and inspiring conversation around her writing. Her best work comes from that magical place where nature meets creative flow. She is fascinated by all things weird and wonderful. You will find her hanging out most days in her Uglibeads Facebook group or on Instagram, and you're invited to join in the adventure by signing up for her weekly email newsletter.


Rebecca said...

I'm a bit obsessed with etching right now. I somehow wish that every lampwork bead I come across has that silky smooth, velvety loveliness than only etching achieves! Also love the soda(?) finish - that crusty, rustic one - that some lampwork artists do. And I do believe that first pair that you've featured there is now mine, all MINE! Very special beads that will be well and truly staying mine, too. Oh and by the way? Etched weenies? Yes. ALL the yeses!

sharon said...

I've always been a matte girl! Something about that understated smooth low key cool looking finish! I love learning about an artists process and what is involved in creating, I think it's fascinating! Thank you so much for showing me off, you are so very kind!

Jean Katherine Baldridge said...

I love etched lampwork beads--they are so cool looking in an understated way. It adds an extra dimension I find really appealing.