The Life of a Bead

January 23, 2014 , In: Ceramic Clay, Clay
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.

Caroline Dewison

Caroline Dewison is a lifelong addict of anything creative. She settled on ceramic beadmaking 3 years ago and can be found most days at the bottom of her garden playing with mud in her studio. She draws her inspiration from the natural world and wishes there were more hours in the day to explore all the ideas in her sketchbook. You can see more of her work on her blog - blueberribeads.co.uk.
  1. Reply

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

  2. Reply

    Very interesting! Thanks for sharing the process.

  3. Reply

    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. Reply

    Thanks for the inside look at the process! It's amazing what goes into each and every little bead…no matter how simple or complex.

  5. Reply

    Fascinating! Thanks for the peek into the process!

  6. Reply

    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. Reply

    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. Reply

    Yay for Clay! Good overview of the process!

  9. Reply

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

  10. Reply

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

  11. Reply

    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. Reply

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

  13. Reply

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

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