What is lampworking? Also sometimes known as "lampwinding", the name is derived from the gas torch, or "lamp", in which the artisan heats colored glass rods to fluidity and, in the case of beadmaking, winds the molten glass around lengths of specially-coated steel wire (mandrels). The unique clay coating (bead release) allows the finished bead to be removed after annealing in a kiln. Lampworking was developed in the glass centers of Italy centuries ago, where the original torches were actual oil or wax-fueled lamps, boosted with a foot-pumped bellows (I wish I could go back in time and see the process).
The glass is still being produced in the traditional glassmaking city of Murano, and glass in rod form for beadmaking is now available from German, Czech, Japanese, and United States manufacturers, among others. Lampwork has been around in various forms forever... you're probably familiar with the little glass figurines of animals and such that you can buy in gift kiosks at the mall... but the secrets necessary to make good beads were unknown in the US until the 1980's, when a pair of American glassworkers (if I was a better researcher I'd give you their names!) hungry for knowledge traveled abroad and brought the techniques back with them. The seeds of lampwork beadmaking were planted in the US, and spread quickly. Today, the ISGB (International Society of Glass Beadmakers), formed in 1993, boasts thousands of members.
What is annealing, and why is it so important? Kiln annealing is more than just slow cooling. Every kind of glass has a fairly specific annealing point (within a small range of 40-50 degrees) at which it is neither too solid nor too liquid, where the molecules are "relaxed" enough for stress to be alleviated, but not fluid enough to move into new stress-creating positions. The piece of glass must be held at its annealing temperature long enough for the temperature to equalize throughout the piece. If it is ramped down too fast through the annealing temperature rather than held there, the core will remain warmer than the outside and full annealing will not take place. A piece that is simply slow-cooled in a kiln will be more stable than a piece that was not, but it is NOT fully annealed! Glass that has an annealing point of 970, give-or-take twenty degrees, will not anneal properly at 1000, and it will not anneal properly at 940.
Larger pieces take longer to anneal, and to safely cool, because it takes longer for the core and the surface temperatures to equalize. However, more is not better; there is no benefit to holding it at the annealing temp longer than the minimum it takes to anneal. It usually won't hurt it, either, but it's not really a valid selling point; the soak time for most beads (10-15 mm) is only around ten minutes. Holding glass at its annealing point for an extended period can cause it to slump or stick... eventually. At an annealing temperature, the molecules are still moving; just slowly. You can hold beads at the low end of the annealing range for an extended period of time without problems and still anneal successfully. Note that this is not better than annealing for a shorter time at the higher end of the range- nor is it worse.
Last but not least, glass also has a strain point a hundred degrees or so below annealing temp, at which it is most likely to crack during cooling. Soaking it at the strain temp can help reduce loss of even properly annealed pieces during the cooling cycle.
If you're looking to get started lampworking, I want to share my "stuff I wish I'd known". Much of this is more or less exerpted out of an email I sent to a newbie looking for information in the ISGB forum. If I had known these things when I got started initially, it would have saved me a lot of money and gotten me farther faster.
I started out on a Hot Head ages ago and I have still never taken a class, so it is certainly doable! The best thing you can do for your education is look at as many beads as possible, and check into forums like he ones at the ISGB website (http://www.ISGB.org), Art Glass Forum (http://www.artglassforum.com) and Lampwork Etc. (http://www.lampworketc.com) as often as you have time for. People post invaluable information on a regular basis. If I had books to choose from when I started, I would want Corina's book (http://www.corinabeads.com) and Jim Kervin's book (available through almost any glass supplier, but I have had over a decade of good experiences with http://www.frantzartglass.com).
If you're wondering if you really *have* to have a ventilation system and didymium or AUR-92 (http://www.auralens.com) glasses, the answer is yes, absolutely. Without the glasses, not only are your eyes exposed to physical harm from flying shards of glass, but the special filtering effects of the glasses cuts out the sodium flare where the flame meets the glass, allowing you to actually see what you're doing. Your work will be much better, and you won't suffer from eyestrain headaches. Ventilation can be as simple as a box fan blowing out an open window, but for something economical, effective, and not as chilly, you can get a cheap stove hood (I got one on eBay for $11!) and run inexpensive 8" ducting, like the kind used to vent dryers but bigger; you can get it at Home Depot. The built-in fan in the hood isn't usually strong enough for what you're doing, so you'll want a "duct booster" fan, which is available at Home Depot for about $30. Voila! Glass is colored with heavy metals and other toxic substances, so this will save your lungs and your brain cells; PLEASE don't just crack a window and think "that'll be OK"! If you have a longer duct run, you'll probably want a stronger fan, like a "squirrel cage" fan, which are often available on eBay for very little money. My favorite seller of squirrel cage fans on eBay is Samgreat.
If you think you want to do this long term, and you have the money, skip the Hot Head and go straight to a Nortel Minor, a Carlisle Mini, or a GTT Bobcat. I LOVE the Nortel torches, they're very easy to use and hard to screw up. Get a concentrator (http://www.suncoastbeads.com) instead of tanked oxygen; for $215 for an oxy con, vs. $100 deposit for an oxy tank, $70 for a regulator, $20 for a quick disconnecter, $6/mo tank rent, and $12 once a week to fill your tank, you will find the safety and convenience of an oxy con to be the best beadmaking investment you ever made, after a good torch and annealer. If you have natural gas in your house already, forget about propane; natural gas is cheaper and safer, and you never run out. It's far cheaper to have a line run for your torch initially than it is to buy a regulator, quick-disconnect, tank and propane.
If you change your mind, you can always sell the torch and oxy con for almost what you paid for it.
Skip the sample pack and buy your glass colors individually. It's cheaper that way, and you get more glass in colors you actually like. Nowadays American glass is hard to resist; Bullseye has an extensive palette and the colors are incredibly consistent from batch to batch. Uroboros is a relative newcomer but is compatible with most of the furnace glass on the market. If you're using Italian glass get Vetrofond clear, and for the remainder, get either Effetre or Vetrofond black, white, and ivory, then pick a few colors that sound nice at random; if you love lampworking, you'll buy more anyway and can stock up on colors you missed, and if you don't, you'll be able to sell the remainder properly bundled and labeled.
Most people mess around with keeping rods in mason jars for a while before they "move up" to a more organized system. Skip the mason jars... invest in 5 dollars worth of 1" pvc thin-wall pipe (Home Depot); cut it into 1' lengths and stick it in a box or milk crate to organize your glass and seperate it by color. You will be SO glad you did! Get a frit sampler pack, 7" pointed tweezers, a tungsten pick, and a small graphite paddle. Other tools can be added as you decide you need them, so you don't end up with a bunch of tools you never use. Dental tools make awesome glass working tools, and are cheap on ebay! Get spring-loaded needlenose pliers at the hardware store, they come in handy. A butter knife, soup spoon, and fork can all be used as glass shaping tools.
When it's time to get a kiln, choose the best kiln you can afford for annealing your lampwork. A lot of people get caught up in selecting a kiln that can also fuse or do PMC, but if you're at a point where you're buying a kiln for lampwork, you're probably going to be selling it, and you want a kiln that does *lampwork* well, not a kiln that does a bunch of things to the lowest common denominator of excellence... because what will happen is that down the road, you'll find that you're not entirely happy with it as a bead annealer OR a fusing kiln.
Now is a great time to be a beadmaker! There are several high-quality options available to you in terms of the annealers now on the market. Through trial and error, I've found that the features most valuable to me as a full-time lampworker are low operating costs, a digital controller, a full-length bead door, and plenty of width to maximise the number of beads I can fit in the kiln, combined with minimal depth and height for greatest operating efficiency.
My own kiln, which I love, is an EK Miller Fusebox 10: sadly, EK Miller has stopped making kilns. If cost is no issue, I would suggest the Arrow Springs AF 1813; it's a wonderfully well-made kiln with a wide opening and enough room to do fused work too, if you choose. Since cost is usually an issue for most people, my close second choice would be a Don McKinney Toolbox Kiln or a Chili Pepper Bead Annealer; both are excellent dedicated bead annealers, made by very reputable companies, and also are quite lightweight and should be less expensive to ship than a heavier all-firebrick kiln.
Something to know about kilns/annealers: Firebrick makes for a kiln that cools very slowly, increasing the likelihood of your beads surviving in the case of an unexpected power outage. On the other hand, firefrax fiber insulation makes for a very lightweight and portable kiln, is also quite durable, and since it doesn't absorb heat, your annealer will heat up much faster and be more energy efficient to run. You hear a lot about how firebrick holds the heat, which can be a real asset, but what you don't hear about as much is that fiber insulation tends not to degrade as fast, and since it doesn't absorb heat, a fiber kiln heats faster and is more energy-efficient. There are tradeoffs, and you just have to decide which is important in your particular case. My kiln may be on for six or eight hours of the day, so energy-efficiency is important to me.
All that said, there is absolutely nothing wrong with starting on a Hot head, or buying the cheapest kiln you can afford; either route will get you where you want to go, one will just take longer! (I speak from experience, because I took the long route...)
Last but not at all least, NEVER assume a technique is too advanced for you to try. Many of the "advanced" techniques are quite accessible to the beginner, and can produce stunning results even if you're just starting out, so if you like a look, make sure you're following all the safety precautions (with metals, enamels and such), and give it a try! You never know what you'll be a natural at.
Good luck, have fun, and enjoy the journey!