Thursday, January 23, 2014

The life of a bead

When I first started making ceramic beads, I didn't have a clue where to start. I searched around on the internet looking for information on how you baked the clay and created all the wonderful textures, colours and effects... I wanted to do everything, (I still do), but all I really knew was that you had to get it very hot for it to work, so you needed a kiln.

From those naïve beginnings, a few years down the line, I do take for granted the process of turning a lump of mud into a ceramic bead or pendant. For even the simplest design, it's a long process. You have to understand your materials, possess skill to create your imaginings, have patience, and a dose of luck to finish up with something worthy of passing on to others.

So today, I'd like to share the process and show you from start to finish the process of making a bead.

It all begins with a bag of mud. I like to use all types of clay, low fire, mid fire, high fire and Raku. Each has it's own properties and produces different results, but today, I'm using low fire earthenware.

Here's a piece of clay ready from the bag.

First, it's rolled in to a shape. I'm just keeping it simple and making a round. This only takes a few seconds, more complicated designs can take as long as you wish to spend on them, minutes to an hour or more.

Then it's poked with a skewer to create the hole.

For a simple bead, that's the end of the creation process, but for something a bit fancier, you have various stages of decoration, adding clay to create more dimension, stamping for texture, carving, shaping and smoothing to create a miniature work of art. The bead is then set aside to dry. Depending on the size of the work and the humidity, which in the rainy UK is usually pretty high, it can take from a day to a week to dry completely.

Once bone dry the clay can go through the first firing. The clay is gradually heated up to it's bisque temperature over a period of around 9 hours, then allowed to cool. If I start my kiln off in the morning, it's usually ready to open by the following morning.

The result is a bisque bead. The clay has transformed and become solid, but is still porous so that you can glaze it.

Next is the glazing. Glaze is made up from chemicals and stains and can be painted, dipped and sprayed. I use commercial glazes which come ready to paint on to your design. Each bead needs up to three coats, carefully applied to ensure a nice finish. When fired to the correct temperature, the glaze turns into a vitreous coating making the bead strong and waterproof. 

After cleaning up the holes to ensure they don't stick to the rods and don't have sharp glaze edges, in they go for another firing. This time, you can go a bit faster as the clay has gone through all the delicate stages of transformation during the bisque firing. My normal earthenware glaze firing takes about 6 hours to reach top temperature and is again left to cool.

Then comes the real fun... opening the lid!

I'm sure any one who creates with clay does the same as me and holds their breath while they take a first peek inside. There are lots of things that can go wrong during a firing, many of which I've experienced, but that just makes it all the more worthwhile when you see a great result from your days of work.



  1. Good illustration of how much time and energy goes into even a basic ceramic bead - thank you.

  2. Very interesting! Thanks for sharing the process.

  3. this was really fascinating! I'm hoping to get a kiln later this year as I love fused glass and I'm also keen to try lampworking and pottery, so this is really interesting to me. thanks!

  4. Thanks for the inside look at the process! It's amazing what goes into each and every little matter how simple or complex.

  5. Fascinating! Thanks for the peek into the process!

  6. I love learning about the processes required for different media. It helps me appreciate all that goes into those little beady wonders that I love. Thank you for sharing!!!

  7. Caroline, thanks for sharing all this info. I've always wondered about working with this kind of clay. I wondered if I would like it. I have a kiln from using metal clay. Could I use that same kiln? After seeing the kinds of beads you make, I really want to try playing around with it. I loved learning about this process.

  8. Yay for Clay! Good overview of the process!

  9. I'm echoing Karen, yay for clay!! I love learning about things I don't do! love those little birdies!

  10. Great post Caroline! One of the things on my bucket list!

  11. Thanks all, glad you enjoyed it!

    Stregajewellry, you might be able to use the kiln you have, it all depends on what temperature it fires to. For earthenware, you need to be able to run up to around 1020oC/1870oF. That's as a rough guide... It depends on what temperature your clay matures at and what your glaze firing needs to go up to. It's recommended that your kiln can run up past that temperature though as constantly firing to the maximum can damage your kiln. Hope that helps!

  12. That was an amazing post!!! I love the life of a bead!

  13. So true, it's wonderful to see how they turn out. Wonderful post about ceramic clay beads!!!


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