it’s o f f i c i a l

It’s MARCH. Whoa. Am I the only one wondering how the heck that happened? I love March because I feel like spring is ‘officially’ just around the corner. The light has been brighter for a while, but the word ‘March’ kind of spells relief.

You know what I was thinking though? Pretty soon it’s going to be SOOOOOOOOO freaking hot in my studio while I’m torching. I don’t know if you remember but I said I would not truly complain about the winter cold, or wish it away, not even once (because it’s so lovely to work without sweat pouring down my face…) and I didn’t. Not once. And it is COLD in the winter in Edmonton. Real cold.

Come spring and summer, all bets are off. There WILL be a lot of howling up in here when the temperature starts to climb.

Today will be my first day back at the torch post-vacation. I’m mostly caught up on all the non-torching stuff. The plan is to spend one or two days working on some new things to send to Beads of Courage. It will help me get back in the swing of things, and I get to do some good at the same time. If you don’t know about Beads of Courage, it’s a beautiful arts-in-medicine program that provides beads to seriously ill children in hospital, to help them stay strong and to honor their journey. http://www.beadsofcourage.org

I love to donate beads when I can, and in the past what I’ve done is a ‘one-for-one’ system. Whenever I sell a ‘cutesy’ bead – a ladybug or a turtle, for example, I donate one just like it to BOC. July 18 Beads of Courage envelope

I’ve done some other fun things too 🙂 The hungry caterpillar…Sept-26-beads-of-courage-caterpillar

Crazy butterflies….Sept-26-beads-of-courage-crazy-butterflies

Wise owl…Sept-26-beads-of-courage-owl

And fun, bright, bumpy beads…Sept-26-beads-of-courage-set

It’s fun for me to take some time out once in a while to make things that are really outside my comfort zone. I am NOT a sculptural beadmaker, that is for sure. But when I make beads for kids I can be for a day 🙂

I loved all those beads, and I’m sure they were appreciated, but I was thinking… what kinds of beads do the kids actually WANT? What kinds of beads are they really hoping for?

I’m not totally up (down?) with what’s cool these days, since I’m not a parent, or a teacher, or someone who spends a lot of time with the younger set. But I was curious. I hadn’t seen a good list of recent requests anywhere, so I put out a plea on Facebook the other day.

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The response was amazing!! There were over 70 replies, mostly from parents of the amazing, brave BOC kids. I wanted to share a few of them, to give you a glimpse into the value of this special organization and what it means to the parents of the children who participate.

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And man, ideas, ideas, ideas! No shortage of inspiration! Parents are full of good ideas. Fellow beadmakers, take note!

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[As a side note – I wondered about the legalities of making and donating beads that feature copyrighted/trademarked characters like Spiderman, Mine Craft, Elmo, Minions, etc… and had a little chat with someone from BOC about it. There was no ‘official’ answer, though the feeling (and my feeling too) is that if you are gifting them to the program, and not selling them (which is a BIG BIG NO-NO), that is ok.]

Some things are hard to find, I think because they’re REALLY hard to make! I hope that someone out there will take up this challenge:

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At the end of the day, I was feeling very humbled that I’m able to make a small contribution to such a special thing. I’m always saying that beads are never ‘just beads’ and if this doesn’t convince you, I don’t know what will.

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EACH one of those beads – every single one – represents a treatment, a procedure, or a milestone in little Luke’s journey to recovery. More than 1400, and this adorable little guy is 2 years old. Now, that is BRAVE. That is COURAGE.

If you’re a beadmaker – I highly recommend donating some of your time to this amazing program. Making beads that are used to create beautiful jewelry is very special and very rewarding, but knowing that your bead is being held by a child lying in a hospital bed, helping them heal… Well… that is beyond words.

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Feeling teary? Me too.

If you are thinking of donating beads, it could not be more easy. All the guidelines are covered in detail right here: http://www.beadsofcourage.org/pages/donatebeads.html. There are a few little technical things that you need to know about what kinds of beads are allowed (ie. no unencased silver glass, no ‘sticky-outy’ bits that could break off, preferred hole size, etc.).

For the Canadians in the crowd, there is a Beads of Courage Canada website that you can visit for information on where to send your bead donations! Click here: http://www.beadsofcourage.ca

If you are not a beadmaker, you can show your support too! BOC has a ‘Beads From a Distance’ program, which provides beads to children who are not located in major centers where the program operates. From time to time I donate a portion of sales to this program, and customers and friends have matched those donations, which is amazing 🙂 It’s an easy, 5 minute process to make a donation:

https://www.crowdrise.com/BOCGivingTuesday/fundraiser/beadsofcourage

Don’t forget, if you’re a fan of Amazon, you can shop through their ‘Amazon Smile’ program to support your favorite charity. Beads of Courage included!

Well, I’m inspired! And motivated to make some fun things. I guess I’d better get busy!

Wishing you a joyful, creative, inspired month of March.

xo

a tour of the weenie factory

Weenie beads!!!!

I know what you’re thinking.

What on god’s green earth is a weenie bead?

They’re my really teeny tiny little lampwork spacer beads. ‘Spacer bead’ just means a plain round bead in a solid color that people use as accents in their jewelry designs. The average size of a weenie bead is about 4 x 7 mm.

SOSOSMALL.

Here they are!

weenie spacer beads by Uglibeads

They look ginormous!

Until you see this:

weenie spacer beads by Uglibeads

Or this!

teeny tiny beads by Uglibeads

Those were the original weenie beads, made in February 2014! Yes, 4 of them fit on a dime!

(you can find the weenie beads – and lots of other good stuff too (when I’m not sold out!) – in my Etsy shop! Click here: http://www.uglibeads.etsy.com)

Anyway. I had a little contest on my Facebook page, and to enter, you had to guess how many weenie beads I could make in one hour. The guesses were wildly different – from under 20 to over 200! I realized, reading the guesses, that unless you are a beadmaker yourself, it’s very hard to conceptualize the time that goes into making even a simple bead. And even more difficult to figure out is all the time that goes into that bead after it’s made and before it gets to you.

The correct answer, by the way, was 45!

Now, if you’re doing the math, you’re thinking – 45 weenies per hour, times $1.50 per weenie (I sell them in sets of 6 for $9) – that’s $67.50 per hour! WHOA!!!!!!!! Time to quit the day job and start making beads for a living!!!!!!!

There are a lot of people who see lampwork beads selling for a lot of money and think… I could do that too – and it looks like a dead easy way to make a living. Work at home in your jammies, make fun stuff all day, mess around on Facebook… what’s not to love? Thousands of new folks take up lampworking every year and many, MANY of them dream of quitting their jobs and living on their bead money.

There are also many people who look at lampwork beads (even those who buy them regularly!) and don’t quite ‘get’ why they are so freaking expensive. They are expensive. They are. I know.

Here’s why.

Using the weenie beads as an example, I’ll run you through what goes into the making and selling of the SIMPLEST of simple beads.

The last time I made weenies, I made 135 in 3 hours so we’ll use that as a guide. First let me say that of those 135 weenies, there were 30 that I couldn’t sell in pairs, because they didn’t match in size. So we’re talking 105 successful weenies. I don’t usually sell the leftovers. I give them away.

Recipe for a weenie:

Step 1: dip mandrels – 6 minutes = 0.057 minutes/bead

Step 2: make beads – 3 hours = 1.71 minutes/bead

Step 2.5: anneal beads – 5 hours – but we’re not going to count that since I can do other stuff while I’m waiting…

Step 3: clean beads – 47 minutes = 0.45 minutes/bead

Step 4: organize into matched pairs = 10 minutes = 0.095 minutes/bead (if you’re a visual kind of person, you can learn about that adventure in a short video I made – click here to watch)

Step 5: string beads onto cord for display/photos = 15 minutes = 0.143 minutes/bead

Step 6: photograph beads for listing – 10 minutes for 6 beads = 1.67 minutes/bead

Step 7: list beads for sale – 6 minutes for 6 beads (since I have a template I can copy and use again) – 1 minute/bead

Step 8: shipping – 60 minutes for 105 beads = 0.57 minutes/bead

TOTAL time per bead = 5.7 minutes

(If you add etching, which I offer to do for free – for now – add another 45 seconds per bead, but we won’t count that)

So for every minute I spend at the torch, I spend THREE times that doing all the other things that need to be done before I can ship the beads. In the end, the actual hourly rate for the weenies is $15.79/hour. This does not include:

– time spent ordering glass and shipping supplies, refilling propane, etc.
– time spent researching and developing the design
– time spent marketing my work (it is a LOT)
– time spent communicating with customers (also a lot)
– time spent practicing my technical skills (years)
– money spent on classes to improve my skills (an average 1-2 day class is $300-$600)
– market research time (and I’m talking serious time, not surfing Pinterest for 5 hours)
– raw materials including glass
– tool costs
– torch – minimum of $150 for an entry-level oxygen/propane torch
– kiln for annealing – $900
– oxygen concentrator – $400-600
– specialty eyewear – $90
– ventilation – at least $100 – typically $300+
– propane tank, regulator, hoses, flashback arrestors – $275
– etching liquid for complimentary etching – $90/bottle
– electricity
– propane
– computer costs
– camera
– photo editing software
– Etsy fees
– PayPal fees
– advertising costs
– rent
– insurance
– taxes

Lampworking isn’t looking like such a get-rich-quick scheme anymore, is it? 🙂

And you know what? Weenies are my MOST profitable beads. Most of my beads are priced at about $30/hour for torch time. Now you have some idea of how far down that goes after all the extra work that goes into that bead. Often we’re hovering at less than minimum wage ($10.20/hour where I live).

I think the moral of the story is that artists don’t do the work they do for the money. They do it because they love it. They do it because they can’t imagine doing anything else. It’s possible that they’re not wearing the fanciest clothes, driving the fanciest cars, or living in the fanciest houses. But for people who choose to live their lives creatively, making beautiful objects for others to enjoy, the reward goes far beyond material wealth.

Ok. So we will not get started on people charging very little for their beads because it’s a hobby and they just want to buy more glass with the money they make. If that is you, please don’t sell yourself short. If you don’t value your art, who will? It’s a bit of a sore spot with full-time beadmakers. When our customers see those low, low, low prices, sitting beside our much higher, fair-wage prices, it’s confusing, and it does not reflect the true cost of what we do.

On the other hand, if you’re looking at beads made by a full-time lampworker, considering the investment you’re about to make, take a moment to appreciate all the time that went into those beautiful objects. They were made not just with minutes or hours, but years (and maybe even decades) of love, dedication, and skill. Whether they become part of your creative process or part of your personal collection, you’ll get great enjoyment out of them and so will future generations. Beautiful art glass objects will remain on this earth for a lot longer than any of us will. Cool, isn’t it?

So whatever it is you’re paying for those beads you love so much…

It’s worth it. And so are you.

xo — julie

*this is an old post, but since it’s making the rounds again, I thought I’d mention, for the sake of the beadmakers in the crowd:

since I wrote this article (over a year ago) I:

a) raised the price of my weenie beads from $1.50/bead to $2/bead

b) implemented a surcharge for etching (after all, it takes time!) – $0.50 per bead

c) now sell the single (unmatched) beads in mixed sets

Take the time to re-evaluate every once in a while. You deserve to be well compensated for the good work you do, and the best customers out there want that for you too.

nailed it

Picfx-14

Just admiring my pretty red manicure as I make beads… 

Here’s a fact: making beads is MUCH easier than painting your own nails.

While we’re at it, here’s one of my beadmaker pet peeves: if you’re going to show a photo of the beads in your hand to give an idea of how big they are, for god’s sake, CLEAN YOUR FINGERNAILS. While you’re at it, maybe trim them too. Gross, dirty claws are so… gross.

The end.

tiny tip: please release me, let me go

Fusion Bead release

Just hanging out, eating gluten free toaster strudel for dinner (I know, shame on me), and I spied my beloved bottle of bead release sitting on the counter. I’ve been meaning to say a few words about bead release. Ya, I know, boooooring. But the perfect bead release is sort of like the Holy Grail… Ye may seek and never find. What’s perfect for one person may not work for someone else, but I’ve finally found what works for me. If you’re just starting out, maybe I can save you some frustration.

For the non-beadmakers – bead release is a clay-like substance used to coat the mandrel (the stainless steel rod that a bead is made on) before you make a bead on it. It forms a layer between the hot glass and the metal so they don’t stick together. Thus, when the bead comes out of the kiln, you can actually get it off the mandrel. Here are what the beads look like still on the mandrel with bead release:

Beads on Mandrels

The bead release is dusty and powdery, and it has to be cleaned out of the holes using a dremel tool with an abrasive bit (under water, protect your lungs!). I use regular diamond whatever reamer tips (they’re cheap) but I’ve recently been told that the BeaDreamer is magical (and magically expensive – saving up for that).

There are as many bead release recipes as there are beadmakers. For good reason – if your bead release isn’t working it’s a major PIA. So there’s lots of experimentation going on to find the ‘perfect’ formula. All kinds of things can go wrong with your bead release, but the thing that’s plagued me the most is being nearly done a complicated bead with many many layers and tons of work in it, and having the bead release break. Seeing your lovingly crafted bead spinning around the mandrel with bead release flaking off is not a happy sight. Major sweatage ensues. Yes, there are a few ‘Hail Mary’ tricks that you can try in an effort to save your bead, but most of the time they don’t work.

Bead release breakage was happening to me so often that I finally began the search for a replacement for my old (and mostly ok for small beads) FosterFire. In my search, I came across a lot of weird and wonderful suggestions… blenders, chemicals, keeping the algae at bay (really!)… but in the end it seemed that a lot of people like Fusion Bead Release, and now that I’ve been using it for a while, I’m a convert. Here’s what I like about it:

– It has a nice consistency and when it gets a bit thick, adding water fixes it right up and it mixes well.

– It coats the mandrel with a nice thin, smooth layer of release, no bumps or gritty stuff. I think you could double dip very nicely though I haven’t tried it.

– It air dries quickly (within a few minutes) or flame dries in a few seconds – and I haven’t had any trouble with breakage either way.

– I can dip mandrels and use them weeks later and the release still doesn’t break.

– It holds up to large focal beads with multiple layers of encasing – and I am not particularly careful about pushing and pulling on the glass.

– It’s been perfect on every size mandrel I’ve tried – 1/16″ up to the 3/16″ for big hole beads.

The only small drawback I’ve noticed is that it can be tricky to get the beads off the mandrels. Really tricky. Especially with a long focal bead. Which make sense – the bead release doesn’t break when you’re making the bead, but it doesn’t want to break up when you’re trying to get the darn thing off the mandrel either. I’ve bent more mandrels in the past 2 months than I did in 4 years with my FosterFire. I just remind myself that I’d rather lose a 60 cent mandrel than a bead that’s worth $30.

So there ya go.

*This post is not officially endorsed by Grumpy Cat or Boo.

tiny tip – where old stringers go to die

stinger disposal

There are all kinds of little tips and tricks that make life as a beadmaker easier… I feel a bit dumb sharing some of them because they seem so obvious and simple. But if I didn’t know about them after many years in the bead world, maybe some of you didn’t either.

One of those things that is a pain is disposing of all those sharp nasty stringer bits that you’re done with. I used to dump mine in a bowl of water, but then I always had to deal with this nasty, swampy bowl full of sharp glass bits. Wait for the water to dry up, brush the nasty bits into some container so they wouldn’t rip a hole in the garbage bag… Ugh.

Then I read someone’s suggestion to get a big plastic bottle and drop the stringer bits right in there. Genius! It’s like my favorite thing on my work table. When it’s full, you just put the lid on and throw that sucker in the garbage.

I’ve also heard of people using those big tough dog food bags… that seems like a good idea too, though maybe a bit large to put right on your table.

I do have little jars that I keep hundreds of decent, usable stringers in (why??? I don’t know), but this is for the ones that I’ll never use again. Too short, etc.

Are you loving my geeky ‘nebula’ photo filter? The plastic stringer bottle really is that cosmic and magical.

brights, brights baby

So now that we all know about my focal bead saga, I wanted to show you some I made recently that I’m really proud of.Focal beads by Julie Wong SontagOne of these days I might get over my obsession with bright colors. You know, grow up and adopt a more ‘sophisticated’ palette.

Like some of my favorites:

Anvil Artifacts
Fanciful Devices
Numinosity Beads
Toni McCarthy
Scorched Earth

Or not.

focusing on focalling

This is where people apologize profusely for being such ‘bad bloggers’… I haven’t posted in so long… I’m a terrible person… yada yada yada. Yes, it’s been a month. But I must admit that my feathers aren’t all that ruffled about it. There are far too many things in life to beat yourself up over, and I decided long ago that my ability to blog regularly just isn’t one of them.

Something interesting is afoot this week. When I make beads, I feel different. I feel like my hands suddenly just ‘know’ what to do. There’s an ease – a confidence – that hasn’t been there before. When I noticed that easy feeling I silently rejoiced. You know, Hallelujah Chorus and everything. Ode to Joy. Because before this, it’s been anything but easy. I’ve been struggling with my beadmaking for a little while. Feeling frustrated. Feeling stuck. Spending a lot of time sitting in front of the torch, looking at my glass, feeling lost. I know we’ve been over this whole ‘creativity is cyclical’ thing before, and feeling lost comes and goes. But finding my way again this time was different.

When things started to improve, I felt like I’d really stepped up my game. Like I was starting to inch my way, bit by bit, toward some new things that I’ve had my eye on – for a long time.

It’s interesting how progress happens. Or doesn’t. I find that I can think about things a lot. You know, new ideas. Wanting to learn something new, do something new. I can plan, and hope, and dream, but no matter how much mental energy gets thrown at the problem, sometimes it just doesn’t happen. Although it’s frustrating waiting for that next step forward to become clear, I try to trust that when I’ve worked hard enough to get there, everything will fall into place. Faith is important when your livelihood depends on creativity.

Something that’s on my wishing-and-hoping-and-dreaming list is to become a better ‘focal bead’ maker. In my previous beadmaking life, I really hadn’t made focal beads in any significant way. One or two here and there. Not a regular thing. But it’s always been a goal of mine to move away from making bead ‘sets’ (groups of coordinating or matching beads), toward making focal beads. I’m just so drawn to the idea of making something that stands on its own… that makes a singular statement. As a set maker, I know how much work and planning goes into making a spectacular set of beads, and I can appreciate that, but I’ve always been enchanted by the ‘art’ of a really amazing focal bead. In the deepest, darkest recesses of my heart, I long to be a focal bead maker.

In the bead world, there tend to be set people and focal people. Of course, there are lots of people who do both. You have to be in a different sort of mindset to make a nice set of beads. It requires a different skill set – precision, good color sense, concentration. Some people say that they don’t have the attention span required to make a bunch of beads that go together. I suppose that different personalities and artistic temperaments are just drawn to different modes of expression. What’s interesting to me, though, is that the ‘big name’ beadmakers, almost without exception, are focal bead makers. Sometimes you’ll see a set now and then, but it’s rare. Somehow, as lampworkers, it seems that we have a certain respect for the almighty focal. And bead buyers do as well. A beautiful, well executed focal bead sells for a lot. Sometimes sets of beads do too… sometimes. But for the most part, it’s hard to charge what they’re really worth.

So back to my problem with focals. The last couple of weeks, I’ve been really actively trying to force myself to work on things I’m not comfortable doing. Top of the list: the elusive focal bead. I can’t really explain what it is that I find so difficult about them. Lots of things, I guess. A bigger surface area to cover, challenging to shape, more pre-planning required, more time lost if it doesn’t turn out… but I think mostly it’s a mental barrier that I’ve unwittingly erected over the years. When I sit down to make a focal bead, I get sweaty and uncomfortable. I have a few moments of panic before I light the torch and pick up the glass. I literally have to take a deep breath. It’s silly. I mean, what’s the big deal? If it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out. I’ve wasted a buck or two worth of glass and some time. But my pride is bruised and it’s disheartening. Nonetheless, when I persevere, it works out. Almost all the time. Practice pays off. Revolutionary, I know.

Yesterday I was making a focal bead. In a style that is really new for me. Totally experimental. As I worked, I literally felt something shift inside. I had an overwhelming feeling that there was a ‘before this moment’ and ‘after this moment’. When I finished torching for the night, I turned to my husband and I said, “I’m a focal bead maker now.” He probably thought, thank you god… maybe now she’ll stop blathering on about how she really, really needs to learn to make focal beads. All. The. Time.

Finally, the scary is gone. From now on, that deep breath will be filled with anticipation rather than fear. I’m all for having faith and trusting in the process, but really. It’s about time.

grey steel amphora

 

 

start the insanity

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I had this crazy idea. I’ve been thinking about how people truly dedicate themselves to things that they struggle with. I guess this could apply to a lot of things in life – changing bad habits, adopting new habits, eating healthy food, exercising… And of course, productivity, whether it’s at work or at a pastime. Of course, you need a goal. You need to challenge yourself. And you have to start somewhere. I’m not one of those people who can start slow and work my way up to things. I have to go all out right away. This scares some people. Like my husband. But it’s just the way I am.

I want to make good beads. Better beads. Beads that excite me when I pull them out of the kiln. It seems obvious that the only way to improve at one’s craft is to log hours creating new things. In one of his books, Malcolm Gladwell (fantastic author) studied many people who are considered to be very, very talented at what they do. He estimated that in order to become a ‘master’ in their fields of work/study, they each logged at least 10,000 hours of practice. That’s a lot of hours. There is no substitute for practice. You can’t skip it. There is no easy route to success. Someone who makes beads every day is going to improve more quickly than someone who makes beads once a week. I’m in the once a week category at the moment, and I don’t want to be. But there are so many excuses to get around making beads regularly. Too tired, other stuff to do, don’t ‘feel’ like it… I know myself, and I know that if I give myself the *choice* of torching or not torching, I will tend toward not torching. There is also this weird kind of fear/hesitation that prevents me from starting most days. I can’t quite put my finger on it. Some days you spend a few hours at the torch and everything you make is crap. Often I worry that if I sit down to work I won’t be able to make anything ‘good’. So I don’t make anything at all.

This is dumb.

And so counterproductive. Of course anyone, at any skill level, will make a mix of things. Good and bad. But in order to have some success, you have to accept the inevitable failures. Ironically you usually learn more from the failures. They help you grow and change.

So I had this thought. I thought, if I eliminate the *choice* of whether I’m going to work or not, and I light the torch every day whether I feel like it or not, I will learn much faster. I will probably have more fun. I will worry less and create more. I’m going to attempt to do something insane (in my mind): I’m going to make a commitment to myself to make beads every day for 30 days. Every day. For at least one hour. If I’m frustrated and nothing is happening, I can quit, but I have to try. So far I’ve got one day in a row under my belt. I feel good about this. I could use more self-discipline in many aspects of my life. I think that feeling productive and disciplined with my work can’t help but spill over into the rest of my life.

Wish me luck.

I almost forgot: new beads on Etsy today. Click here to check ’em out.