I looooove to walk around flea and farmer markets—hunting for “finds” that I can capture and drool over in delight like Gollum and his “Precious.” Some of the things I’ve always enjoyed collecting over the years are vintage skeleton keys—I love how they’re all different, have their own personalities, and reflect a sense of gentler days gone by. I didn’t really know what I would use them for, but I kept collecting them, figuring something would eventually come to me. (I need HELP, people! Is there such a thing as a “Collectors Anonymous” program? LOL)
When I started making my own glass beads, I was over the moon when I discovered that people were using skeleton keys to create unique lampwork pendants. Bingo! But it took me over a year to give it a try—because as many a kindred collector knows, it’s hard to give up a special object you’ve been hoarding for so long! ;-D But several months ago, I took the plunge and made some Key Beads—and I think they turned out rather well!
This type of project is a little more difficult to do if you’re a novice lampworker because it can be awkward to turn the key evenly as you work—but it’s not that hard if you take your time and work slowly. First of all, you need to make sure the key is made out of a hard metal like steel or brass that can stand up to the high temperatures of the torch flame. Then you need to thoroughly clean it with some soap and water and a wire brush to get rid of any crusty build-up or rust. I don’t like to clean mine so hard that it loses the nice vintage patina that gives it character—just enough so my bead release will stick properly.
There are two ways you can go about adding a bead around a key:
1) Heat up the key like you would a regular mandrel and add the glass directly to it. The bead will be permanently attached to the shaft and will not be able to move.
2) Dip the entire key shaft into bead release, let air dry completely, and then heat up and form your bead on it. The advantage of this method is that after the bead release has been cleaned off, the bead will be loose and able to spin freely. I prefer this method because I love being able to play with the bead while I’m wearing it as a pendant.
With either method, you need to properly anneal your key bead immediately after finishing it. Otherwise, you may have problems because the metal and glass may contract at very different rates if they cool down too quickly.
One of the trickier issues to deal with is how to hold the oddly shaped key so that you can work with it in the flame? I use a simple handmade steel tool made to hold short lengths of glass rods, clamped around the barrel end of the key. Some people use hemostats, and there is a mandrel tool made specifically for key beads you can buy from Etsy seller Jelveh Designs HERE. I also read about a lampworker who sticks a regular mandrel directly to the key with the bead release so that they’re sort of “glued” together as they dry. I might have to give that a try next time!
Even if you’re not into making glass beads, I can see many wonderful possibilities for similar designs using other materials such as polymer clay, paper mache, or felt. Leave it as is for a classically simple design, or add a couple fun doodads, ribbons, or charms to create a more eclectic look—the sky’s the limit!