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The Creative Can of Beans

Part One of a Three Part Tutorial

So you've worked in glass for years.  You're incredibly fulfilled.  You've made thousands of projects that have made other glass artists turn green with envy.  Your soldering skills are without par, your glass cutting expertise is unparalleled.  You've even caught yourself admiring your own work, overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of your glass creations.  Why, just last week you landed a commission job that paid so much money you're considering having to add onto your house to have a place to put it.  Everything would be perfect, if only…

You know the feeling.  You've got scraps of glass all over the place, you've got a kiln that ought to be able to fuse glass, and now you've got the urge to put the two together.  Or maybe that cousin you thought was calling to ask for money stopped by and gave you an old (working!) kiln he found in the ditch behind his house.  Whatever the reason, you just know you've got to figure out how to use all those leftover scraps of glass you have laying around.  Have I got a solution for you!

Go buy a can of beans.  No, not just any can of beans.  A steel can.  (Steal it if you want, but don't say I told you to.)

Then get yourself a magnet (I stole mine from the refrigerator) and head for the grocery store.  Run (no scissors, please) to the canned goods aisle and pry loose the magnet from where it's stuck to the car keys in your pocket.  Now wander up and down the aisle, testing the cans to see which ones stick to the magnet.  The best cans to use are tall, with slightly rounded (even tapered) edges on the bottom.  When you find one you like, buy it.  Buy two if you're feeling extravagant.  I like cans of beans, but you might like cranberry sauce or tomato soup.

When you get back to the safety of your kitchen, open the can.  Discard the contents or use them if you must.  (See chili recipe in next tip.)  Now rinse out the can.  Remove the paper label and then head down to your glass studio.  (This assumes the studio is somewhere other than your kitchen.  If not, please don't eat the beans while you're working with glass.)

Here's where the kiln comes in.  Get some kiln wash.  (No, it's not next to the Turtle Wax at the car wash.  It's at your local pottery or glass supplier.)  Sometimes your kiln wash will come already mixed, but usually it's a powder you have to mix with some water.  Once that's done (4 or 5 parts water to one part powder), use a brush or sprayer to apply the kiln wash to the shelf that came with your kiln.  Let the shelf dry.  Now place the empty can on the shelf.  Place it upside down, so that the bottom is on the top.

For this next step you'll need a pair of gloves that can withstand some heat. If you don't have a pair, go to your local hardware store and get a pair of welder's gloves.  They should cost about ten US dollars.  (If you're in the US, of course – if you live somewhere else, your local retailer might insist on another currency.)  Welder's gloves are very useful up to a temperature of about 500 to 600 degrees Fahrenheit (about 300 degrees Celsius) – after that, they can sometimes be used for short periods but will become uncomfortably warm because the leather they're made from retains heat (poor cow).

Now it's time to fire the kiln.  The empty can's in there, right?  You remembered to clean it, didn't you?  Now vent your kiln by propping the lid up about an inch.  Then turn the kiln on and let it fire until it reaches around 500 degrees Fahrenheit (260 degrees Celsius).  You can probably fire as fast as your kiln allows, but the folks who make kiln elements prefer that when you first turn cold elements on you let them get used to the heat by not firing them full force straightaway.  I usually fire a few minutes, then rest a few minutes when the temperature gets around 250 Fahrenheit, then fire hard again the rest of the way.  Your kiln may give off a little smoke as the heat increases.  This is due to stuck on paper and other contaminants (such as glue) being burned off.  Don't worry, just let the temperature heat until it reaches 500 degrees F/260 C.

Now you get to do something that's potentially dangerous.  Not as dangerous as eating mercury-tinged tuna or botulism-tainted beans, perhaps, but something to be careful about nonetheless.  You get to open the kiln and remove the hot can. (Can you say ouch?)  So do it this way:

Wear the gloves.  Wear a long sleeve shirt, made of cotton, not synthetic fiber.  Wear safety glasses.  Now turn the kiln off.  This is important enough to say again:  turn the kiln off.  Depending on the model, you may have to unplug it to make certain that the elements aren't retaining electric power.  If in doubt, unplug the kiln.

Now reach into the kiln and carefully (I said carefully) take out the can.  Place it on a surface that withstands heat.  (And extra kiln shelf or a cement floor works fine.  A stack of newspapers doesn't.)  Get a brush and some kiln wash (it helps if you've already laid this out) and apply it to the sides (and bottom) of the can.  No need to apply it to the inside, but make certain the sides and bottom get covered.  The kiln wash will sizzle as it is applied.  The water in the kiln wash will evaporate and the good part (it'll be chalky looking) will stick to the can.  Leave the can to cool. (You can set it back in the still-warm kiln if the kiln wash is a little wet and you want it to dry quicker.)

Now we're ready to get to the glass.  (I bet you'd forgotten this was about glass, hadn't you?) 

Click here to go on to the next part of this tip.

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Copyright 2005 Brad Walker.  All rights reserved.

This article was originally written in 1999 and became the basis for the Warm Glass website.  It has also been published in Common Ground: Glass, the newsletter of the International Guild of Glass Artists.  There are at least three more parts, all coming soon to a computer near you.

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