Art Glass Lampwork History

Art Glass Lampwork by Mickelsen Glass Museum On Line

Paul Stankard glass piece
above: glass by Paul Stankard
top left: glass by Robert Mickelsen

author: Robert A. Mickelsen

(this article is drawn from "A Global Overview of Flameworked Glass Art" by Jennifer Frehling Zamboli & Robert A. Mickelsen, with the authors' permission)

There is no way to accurately measure the age of lampworking because many of the techniques associated with working glass at a flame were actually in use for many thousands of years before the first lamp, or burner was invented. Depending on how one defines what lampworking is, much of early glassmaking could be thought of as a kind of lampworking, or perhaps as a precursor to lampworking. Rosemary Lierke states in her paper entitled "Early History of Lampworking", "if one would extend the definition of lampwork and permit a ‘small fire’ as heat source instead of single flame only, almost all ancient glass working could be defined as lampwork." Reference 1 (at end of article).

Ancient man is widely presumed to have discovered glass by accident in a campfire, and subsequently learned to make it in small earthen furnaces shaped like beehives. Wood was the energy source and ceramic crucibles were used to contain the compounds used to make glass. Air to fuel the combustion was allowed to enter through portals at the bottom and was exhausted through a round vent at the top. Tools were very simple, and mainly used to draw cane out of the small, molten blob within the crucible.

In his paper submitted to the Glass Art Society Journal in 1995, Dudley Giberson describes what he calls a ‘hot volcano’. Reference 2 (end of this article) This quaint term refers simply to a cone-shaped furnace that allowed heat to escape through a narrow opening at the top while the escaping hot air was replaced through some opening at the bottom. The result was a jet of very hot gas and flame exiting the top of the ‘volcano’ that was sufficient to melt and form glass. It is easy to see the logic of such a simple device and no surprise that evidence of the existence of such furnaces has been found in diverse cultures continents apart. Early glass furnace
Illustration of a possible early wood-fired furnace from The Volcano Dream, GAS journal 1995 by Dudley Giberson

Using such a ‘small fire’, ancient artisans could make complex beads and core-formed vessels and could even make hollow tubing centuries before the invention of glassblowing. Many of the artifacts from this period that survive today have decorations that could have only been achieved by melting thin rods onto the hot surface of the piece, a technique characteristic of flameworking. In fact, this method of melting a pre-made rod or tube of glass is one of the defining techniques of flameworking. Reference 3

Early lampwork
Comparison of bead and core-formed vessel making, by Dudley Giberson in The Volcano Dream GAS Journal, 1995
5000 years ago, the Egyptians used furnaces like these to create small vessels using a technique known as core-forming. A matted mixture of grass, sand, clay and dung was wrapped around a metal mandrel, molded into the general shape of the desired vessel, and then dried. Then, artisans would heat cane in the vent-hole at the top of the furnace and wrap the softened cane around the core. Rather elaborate decorations were possible and many beautiful objects were made this way. They were considered very valuable in Egyptian society and so were cared for and preserved, often in burial tombs, so that many of them survive today. Reference 4

Core-forming was the primary method of forming glass into utilitarian vessels in most of the world’s ancient civilizations, but it was not suitable for mass producing vessels in the same way as ceramics. The method was too slow and the material too rare. Consequently, core-formed vessels were used for religious rituals and were strictly something that only the rich could afford to own.

There is a strong similarity between the core-forming methods of the Ancient Egyptians and modern lampworking. The cane and object are both held in the hands. The manipulation primarily consists of adding from the cane to the object. The heat from the vent-hole actually looked and behaved very much like a flame. Many of the surface decorations were done the same way as modern lampworking. The vessels were primarily small, intricately decorated pieces. Would we not then be inclined to call these pieces lampworked? Not necessarily.

For one thing, there was no actual lamp or burner involved. Even though there was often a visible flame coming from the vent-hole, it was not the fixed flame normally associated with lampworking. It could not be directed at specific areas of the object. Furthermore, many of the techniques in question are not specific to lampworking alone. So, although the techniques were similar and the pieces bear many characteristics of lampworking, the pieces were not actually what we currently define as lampwork.

Illustration of a Japanese charcoal-fired furnace, by Dudley Giberson The Volcano Dream, GAS Journal, 1995
These ‘beehive’ furnaces have been recorded in a great many ancient civilizations, indicating that making and working with glass may have originated from a single source. Furnaces found in Japan are nearly identical to furnaces found in North Africa. These furnaces dominated glassmaking worldwide before the birth of Christ. Since beads are known to have been an important medium of exchange in ancient times, the techniques of working glass are likely to have spread far and fast across the ancient world. Reference 5

The Romans also used these beehive kilns, but they were responsible for making some important changes in its design. The Romans were the first to build a kiln with multiple exhaust vents instead of just one or two. They were the first to create side access to the crucible and to experiment with different tools for extracting the glass. One such experiment turned out to be the most important innovation in the history of glasswork. Shortly before the birth of Christ, someone thought of using a hollow pipe to extract the glass instead of a rod and then discovered that blowing into the pipe would cause a bubble to form in the gather of hot glass. The blowpipe was to revolutionize the way glass was worked around the world. Reference 6

As the use of the blowpipe spread, older techniques like core-forming gradually disappeared. Glass beads were still made in the old way, but they paled in importance to the intricate and beautiful designs that could be blown on a pipe. Glassblowing enabled artisans to create entirely new objects of a wide variety of functions. Glassblowing dominated glass-forming technique for the next thousand years, during which the Italians achieved the highest level of technical achievement in the world. The Italians, who by 1291 had been exiled to Murano because of the fire hazards associated with glassblowing, exported both their superior glass formulas and techniques to the rest of Europe. As Europe left the middle ages and entered the Renaissance, glassblowing had spread to every corner of the continent and across most of Asia.

As Europe entered the Renaissance, a new use for glass was developed. Angelo Barovier, working in Murano had invented Crystallo, a clear soda glass in 1450 AD. Reference 7 As chemical science developed through the inquiries of alchemists, there arose a concurrent  need for clear, durable vessels to contain, mix, and measure chemicals. No material was better suited for the task than this new clear glass. The first apparati were primitive and not very precise, but as alchemy evolved into chemistry and scientist’s needs became more sophisticated, there arose a need for vessels that would hold precise quantities of liquids and for apparatus that did more than contain and measure, such as condensers and thermometers. Pipe glassblowing was poorly suited for making these objects; glassblowing by hand (often referred to as "off-hand glassblowing") required a tremendous amount of energy, chiefly provided in those days by burning down the forests of Europe.

It seemed wasteful, even to medieval artisans, to consume so much resource to make such small things. Off-hand techniques just could not provide the precision the new apparatus demanded so chemists were forced to develop other means. It was discovered that by forcing a narrow stream of air into the flame from an oil lamp, sufficient heat could be generated to soften and work small pieces of glass. By the beginning of the fifteenth century scientific apparatus was being made using this new technique all across Europe. Some of the original apparatus used by Galileo himself still survives. Lampworking, as we know it today, had been born. Hand-pumped device
Early hand-pumped lampworking device, from Traditional Glassworking Techniques by Paul N.  Hasluck, 1899, p.14

The very first lampworkers actually used their breath to create a stream of forced air by blowing into a tube that was directed at the flame. But hyperventilation tended to make this method good only for very short lengths of time. Then a hand bellows was used. This was an improvement, but the stream of air was not constant because the bellows had to be released in order to refill with air, and it occupied one of the lampworker’s hands which made working difficult.

Foot bellows
Early foot-bellows device for lampworking, from Traditional Glassworking Techniques, by Paul N.  Hasluck, 1899, p.17
These problems were solved by the invention of the foot-bellows and by adding an expandable bladder to the bellows. The stream of air from the bladder was constant while the foot-bellows was used to pump up the pressure. The versatility of this new technology was quickly apparent and gave the lampworker several important advantages over the glassblower. Because the lampworker was able to selectively heat the object by directing the flame at a specific area, he could realize exacting procedures which were extremely difficult for the off-hand glassblower. Additionally, the energy requirements of lampworking were a tiny fraction of those of glassblowing. .
By the 16th century, the forests of Europe were already in alarming decline and the increasing cost of the dwindling supplies of wood made lampworking a very attractive option. Lampworking allowed for the creation of items that could be afforded by common people, and by the beginning of the 18th century localized industries devoted to making small novelty items for public consumption had sprung up all over Europe. In the town of Nevers, France, tiny figurines of people and farm animals were so popular that their production did not cease until the start of the 20th century. The village of Lauscha, Germany, was entirely employed in the making of Christmas ornaments at the lamp. Venice itself employed lampworking techniques in making beads and millifiore, tiny murrines that looked like flowers. Nevers figurine
Figurine of a beggar, from Nevers, France (photograph courtesy of the Corning Museum of Glass)

Blaschka2xToward the end of the 19th century a Bohemian father-son team, Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka, combined to create what is still arguably the most stunning example of lampwork the world has ever seen. They were already widely known for their glass models of marine invertebrates when George Lincoln Goodale, Harvard Professor and director of the Museum of Botany , commissioned them to undertake a mammoth project, the creation of detailed botanical models of common and exotic plants from Europe and North America. Benefactors of the project were Elizabeth Ware and her daughter Mary Lee Ware. Using only a simple bellows-driven lamp and a variety of home-made tools, the Blaschkas produced the models using wire frameworks to give them structure and enamels and paints to duplicate the coloration and texture of the plants. The results were stunning! The models were so lifelike, that even close scrutiny cannot distinguish between them and the real thing. Over the next 50 years, some 840 life-size model sets of plants and over 3000 oversized models of magnified plant parts and anatomical sections were produced. Most of the models are still on display at the Harvard Botanical Museum on the Harvard campus. To this day, no one has ever succeeded in reproducing the Blaschka's techniques or in duplicating the quality of their models.

The demand for refined scientific instruments continued unabated through the 19th century. Although equipment and tools became more sophisticated, the basic material - the glass - was essentially the same as when "Crystallo" was invented 200 years before. The most commonly used types of glass were prone to leaching when exposed to caustic chemicals and had a tendency to shatter when heated and cooled repeatedly. In 1924 the scientists at the glass factories in Corning, New York invented a new, more resilient glass which was composed of a large percentage of uncombined silica, used boron instead of soda, and contained a small percentage of aluminum for clarity. Reference 8 This new borosilicate glass, named Pyrex, had a very low coefficient of expansion and was very resistant to thermal and physical shock. Since it was about 15% lighter by volume than soda-lime or flint glass but much stronger, Pyrex was ideal for apparati. However there was one problem: the melting temperature was so high that the old forced-air lamps could not melt it. A new method of heating the glass was now needed to work the new material.

Borrowing from the welding trade and combining oxygen and natural gas, new burners were designed that produced a flame of sufficient heat to melt Pyrex. Traditional oil lamps were replaced by torches that were clamped to the lampworker’s benchtop. These too were eventually replaced by the modern surface-mix bench burners in use today.

The advent of Pyrex revolutionized lampworking in North America. It was almost as if lampworking was invented all over again. Although developed for scientific instruments, Pyrex soon found its way into the hands of artisans who adapted the glass for "artistic" and novelty pieces. ‘Glassblowers’ began showing up at county fairs and tourist attractions across the US making and selling their items in front of appreciative crowds. All across America, the public came to associate ‘glassblowing’ with the lampworkers they encountered at carnivals, theme parks, and later at shopping malls. Typical items included blown swans full of colored water and little spun glass ships and animals that could be made cheaply and sold quickly. Quality and creativity were not relevant issues and lampworkers copied each other mercilessly until all novelty lampwork started to look alike. In a bizarre twist of reasoning, the more established lampworkers then took to erecting veils of secrecy, presumably to protect ‘their’ designs and techniques. Lampworkers would refuse to work in front of or even speak to anyone they thought might be another lampworker. Naturally, this greatly inhibited the development of the fledgling art form. This veil of secrecy came to be known as the ‘glass curtain’.

In Europe, however, the introduction of borosilicate glass did not denote the death toll for old traditions. In the town of Lauscha in particular, the local craftsmen continued working strictly with German soda-lime glass, busily perfecting centuries-old techniques and perhaps unconsciously crossing the line from novelty to art. In particular, Albin Schaedel developed and perfected a technique called "montage" that would come to characterize East German lampwork from the 1960’s on. Montage is simply the assembly of many pieces of tubing into one larger bubble which is then shaped into the final vessel form. This technique is incredibly difficult and time-consuming and Schaedel and a few other Lauschans were the only ones in the world who had mastered it until recently. The vessels that resulted were impossibly intricate and very, very beautiful. Perhaps the greatest master of montage is West German flameworker Kurt Wallstab, whose work is internationally acclaimed for its beauty and perfection. Montage vessel
Montage vessel by
Kurt Wallstab of
Greisheim, Germany
Lampwork by Lucio Bubacco
Detail from "Closer to Thee" 1995
Cast glass with flameworked figures,
by Lucio Bubacco - Murano, Italy.

Venetian lampworkers also clung stubbornly to their traditional soda glass formulas, primarily for color compatibility. The Moretti factory there continued to produce a broad spectrum of brilliantly  colored cane, which the local lampworkers were busily mastering to create brightly colored pieces of a quality unequaled anywhere in the world. Modern masters like Lucio Bubacco, Vittorio Costantini, and Gianni Toso still carry on the Venetian traditions and techniques.

In Czechoslovakia, a remarkable woman named Vera Liskova elevated borosilicate lampworking into fine art. Her large striking abstract sculptures captured the imagination of art critics and collectors during the 1970’s until her untimely death in 1979. Liskova’s influence can be seen today in the work of several prominent Eastern European lampworkers who have gained international notoriety including Anna Skibska and Barbara Idzikowska from Poland.

In other parts of the world, the industry of scientific apparatus-making was responsible for the spread of lampworking skills. Everywhere an apparatus factory appeared, there appeared soon after lampworkers who made art or novelties. Because of the scientific industry, lampworking has an established tradition in countries such as China, India, Egypt, Australia, and Japan. Some of the finest contemporary lampworkers in the world come from these countries.

In 1965, John Burton, an Englishman living in America, received a Guggenheim grant and used it to travel to Europe, his purpose being to visit all the glass factories in hopes of finding a way to bring glassblowing to the common people. When he returned to America, he seized upon Pyrex as his material and lampworking as his chosen technique. Adapting what he saw at the factories to the small scale of lampworking, Burton developed his own method of blowing glass in a flame in what came to be known as John Burton's method. He successfully made small vessels and sculptures on the ends of glass blowpipes, and used his background as a metallurgist to find and mix chemicals to the borosilicate glass to make compatible colors.

In 1968, Burton started a glass workshop at Pepperdine College in Los Angeles with Margaret Youd as his instructor. The students in those workshops carried on and added to John's explorations into making borosilicate color and developed more than 200 formulas of their own. One student in particular, Suellen Fowler, passed on the formulas to Paul Trautman, who was interested in manufacturing colored glass for lampworkers on a broad scale. He started Northstar Glassworks, which today is the largest manufacturer of colored borosilicate glass in the world. Few personal relationships have had a greater impact on modern lampworking than Burton-Fowler-Trautman.

Dragon by Suellen
Sea Dragon with Pearl by Suellen Fowler
- Berkeley, California, 1998 5.5x3.2"

About the same time that John Burton was touring Europe, a young East German man named Hans Godo Frabel was completing his apprenticeship with Jena Glaswerke in Mainz, West Germany. In 1965, he moved to the United States and got a job as a scientific glassblower in Atlanta, Georgia. In 1968, he realized his lifelong dream to use lampworking as a true art medium and founded his own studio and gallery. He specialized in the depiction of everyday objects in glass in unexpected contexts: a sculpture of coat hangers, a row of giant glass nails pounded into a plank with a glass hammer frozen in the air in mid-strike, a faucet with a drop of water suspended at the end. Frabel’s innovative approach to lampworking was an inspiration to a generation of lampworkers, many of whom copied him shamelessly, but all of whom were deeply influenced by him. All across America, young lampworkers followed Frabel’s example and tried, with varying degrees of success, to emulate his approach.

One of these acolytes was Ginny Ruffner, who had just graduated with a degree in fine art from the University of Georgia in 1975 when she got a job working for Frabel producing his studio pieces. Her background was in painting, but she saw something in the glass that intrigued her. She worked for Frabel for five years, developing her ability, then set out on her own and began exploring her own vision of lampworked glass as a serious art medium. Her work was so unique in its approach, so undeniably creative, that she received almost immediate acclaim. By sandblasting the glass, she found that she could then paint on the surface. The etched surface allowed the paint to adhere to the non-porous material, and suddenly, the possibilities were endless.

by Ginny Ruffner
Ginny Ruffner - Seattle, Washington,
Balance Series - 1995
Lampworked glass, mixed media .

Using the lampworked glass sculpture as her canvas, Ginny painted on every surface of the piece until it was completely covered with images. The results were undeniably art, and, for the first time, lampworking was recognized as a medium for fine art by critics, gallery owners, and collectors. Ginny had cleared the way, and soon the path was filled with young artists, emboldened by her success.

The old image of the lamp-worker was swiftly replaced by this new breed of daring and innovative artists who were not afraid to break rules and turn their backs on tradition.

By 1986, lampworking was being taught in institutions like The Pilchuck Glass School and the Penland School of Crafts. These classes filled with an eager new breed of lampworker, educated in universities, with a background in the arts, and absolutely no desire or intention to follow the traditional path of the novelty lampworker. The old-timers watched in bewilderment as the ‘glass curtain’ came crashing down. Books and articles were written describing what had been kept shrouded in secrecy for so many years. New periodicals devoted specifically to lampworking such as Glass Line came into being just to help share information and make lampworkers aware of each other. Lampworkers everywhere embraced this new openness, and, as a result, they all learned and progressed together.

In the past ten years, a revolution of sorts has taken place in the lampworking industry, not just through the acceptance of the art public, but in the vision lampworkers have of themselves. The old ways have seemingly gone up in a puff of smoke. Secretiveness has given way to open sharing of ideas and techniques. Traditional themes have given way to outrageous forms of expression and endless experimentation. The ‘purity’ of glass itself has fallen to the power of multimedia. The tradition of second and third generation lampworkers has given way to art-educated artists who choose lampworking as their favored medium. Sophisticated lampworking instruction is being given at Haystack School of Crafts, Urban Glass Center in New York City, and The Studio at the Corning Museum of Glass. Lampworked art is being shown and sold alongside the more traditional mediums of glass blowing and casting, as well as painting and sculpture, in the finest art galleries in the United States, Europe, and Japan. Around the world, flameworking artists of all nations share a hunger for knowledge, both technical and esoteric, that will drive the development of this medium for years to come.

About the Author: Robert Mickelson apprenticed as a professional lamp worker in the 1970's and sold his own designs at craft fairs for ten years. In 1987 he took a class with Paul Stankard and learned of the potential for lamp working as fine art. He gave up craft shows and focused on glass creations sold through galleries. His work is exhibited at the Smithsonian Institution, the Corning Museum of Glass, The Toledo Museum of Art, the Carnegie Museum of Art, and many other prominent museums and galleries. He has taught at the Pilchuck Glass School, Penland School of Crafts, The Studio at the Corning Museum of Glass, and The Pittsburgh Glass Center. He has filmed and produced two videos on his flameworking process and has published numerous technical and historical articles on flameworked glass.


1.    Rosemary Lierke, "Early History of Lampwork - Some Facts, Findings, and Theories," Glastech.Ber.65, 1992: p. 342.

2.    Dudley Giberson, "The Volcano Dream," GAS Journal, 1995, p. 77.

3.    Dudley Giberson, "The Volcano Dream," GAS Journal, 1995, p. 77 - 78.

4.    Dudley Giberson, "The Volcano Dream," GAS Journal, 1995, p. 77 - 79.

5.    Dudley Giberson, "The Volcano Dream," GAS Journal, 1995, p. 77 - 78.

6.    Rosemary Lierke, "Early History of Lampwork - Some Facts, Findings, and Theories," Glastech.Ber.65, 1992: p. 345 - 347.

7.    "The Story of Glass," The Corning Museum of Glass, New York, and The Victoria and Albert Museum, London, The Reed Interactive Group, 1995.

8.    "The Story of Glass," The Corning Museum of Glass, New York, and The Victoria and Albert Museum, London, The Reed Interactive Group, 1995.

If you have enjoyed this article and want to know more about lampworking you should find Bandhu Scott Dunham's book about it very interesting. It gives detailed advice on glass compatibility, studio set-up, safety, as well as technical advice on glass shaping and a gallery of contemporary glasswork. Contemporary Lampworking: A practical guide to Shaping Glass in the Flame (3rd Edition 2003). Click on the title to get more details.

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