"All beads are thoroughly cleaned." You see variants of that language on almost every lampwork bead sale and auction site. What does that mean? The beads sure look clean in the photos, right?
Handmade lampwork beads are made on a stainless steel rod, or mandrel. The problem is that molten glass fuses very well to stainless steel, and the only way to remove it is to break it off, piece by piece (or to give up and retire the mandrel). Just ask any lampworker about his collection of beaded houseplant stakes (the bottom mandrel in the picture) or her collection of jaggedly broken beads (the top mandrel in the picture). The solution is to use bead release, a thin sludge made of kaolin, aluminum hydrate, and other substances such as graphite or fireclay. Coating one end or the middle of the mandrel with bead release means that the lampworker can build a bead on the bead-release, and when cool break it free of the mandrel without chipping or breaking the bead (the middle mandrel in the picture).
The problem, of course, is that while the bead release breaks free of the mandrel (in theory; ask any lampworker about his or her collection of mandrels with fused glass....), it sticks to the inside hole of the bead and has to be cleaned out. Thoroughly. This is nasty stuff, after all. One mark of a good lampworker, therefore, is his or her clean bead holes. For comparison, check some of the mass-produced lampwork that you can find at generic art and craft stores. Often you will see a thin line of white inside the bead, a sure mark that it has not been cleaned.
The second picture is a new tornado bead that I just made, before I cleaned it. As far as my work with this technique goes, I am pleased with my improving skills. The bead's ridges are well-defined and even, and most importantly, it didn't crack along the center hole. It is still not perfect; the back side drooped a little, and I'd like to improve further the ridges' precision. But it is a saleable bead.
As far as cleanliness, the bead looks okay .... until you look closely. The hole is very visible in some spots and almost invisible in others, and is very cloudy. "But it looks fine," you say. "In fact, the hole is much more visible in the second picture, where the bead is clean!" And it is. But if you notice, the hole is "more visible" because it is clean. In the first picture, the hole disappears behind the design elements because of the opaque bead release. In the second picture, you can see all the design as well as the clear hole. Plus, there is no bead release to flake off as a thread, metal string, or other stringing material rubs against the bead hole. Just imagine how attractive a bead with "dandruff" is on a black turtleneck ...not to mention the dangers of actually breathing in this stuff.
How do you clean beads? There's many different methods. Beadmakers often swear by their rotary tools and accessories such as the BeadReamer or wire brushes. I use rod saws split in half for 3/32 and larger holes. Other people use pipe cleanersand a multitude of other items. Whatever works well for you is the best technique :) For clear beads, I like to use Jenny G's Spiffy Bead Cleaner, sold by The Venerable Bead, which keeps bead holes sparkling clean without the number of scratches a BeadReamer or a rod saw can create; I used it for my newest tornado bead.
Whether you're a lampworker or a lampwork purchaser, insist on clean bead holes!