This school year, I moved to a middle school library position, in a school with over 1100 students. I had to start over collecting materials and building capacity for makerspace stations, but since older students typically have better fine motor skills and are generally more independent, I've been able to get it up and running faster than I initially could in an elementary school.. Take a look at my earlier post about using Perler beads for an overview about what to buy and why to use these in the library.
This time, I didn't have as many parent volunteers wanting to hang around to help iron the projects, and I wasn't quite ready to turn it over to student volunteers, so I did the ironing myself. I wanted to add a few notes of advice to anybody out there who wants to add this to your library space. It might seem like a lot of detail, but if it saves you some trial and error, that's excellent.
Materials for the Student Station
Just as in my earlier post about Perler beads in the library, there are some supplies that make life easier when you set up a station for fuse beads. You will need:
peg boards - more than you need, because when students in your first period class fill those design boards, those boards won't be free again until you have time to iron those patterns
fuse beads - preferably sorted by color to allow students to be more creative and specific with design choices
Note: it is infinitely easier to buy beads pre-sorted by color than to try to sort the cheaper multicolor containers, which is very time-consuming.
Also note: stock up on extras of popular colors, especially red, white, black, brown, and yellow.
You'll need a way to store and put out your beads - the small trays in many pre-sorted kits get mixed pretty quickly. Find some secure containers with lids and put out a variety of colors, holding some in reserve that you can put out for students who really want six different shades of green and ask for that.
At The Station
I keep my fuse beads at one table, with a few guidelines in a display stand. The fuse bead station includes:
The display stand directions ask students to
Time To Iron the Perler Bead Projects
I don't pretend to be the most crafty person out there (see my No Sew Class Curtains post for evidence), so if you are very capable and/or meticulous, you're probably not my audience. If you have no idea whether you can do this and it's stressing you out, I'm here to tell you you can, and here's how:
The Heat Press
First, you are going to need a heat press to iron the designs (this melts the beads together so they stay in the shape of a keychain, earrings, ornaments, shelf decor, or whatever the intended purpose is.
I got this heat press on Amazon (no affiliate link) - it's the same one I had at my old school, except that it's blue. I like it a lot because it has an automatic shutoff feature, and it comes with a special heat stand. It's not too heavy and the cord isn't a problem.
I will say it does not heat perfectly evenly across the surface of the iron, so you will have to move the iron around a lot across the pattern to ensure all the beads in each design are fused.
See how there are two green bars in the photo below? Level 2 is the perfect temperature for ironing bead projects. It takes about 2 minutes after you plug it in and press the button twice to reach that temperature. Don't start ironing until it's warm enough (or you'll have beads all over the place.)
A Couple of Heat Press Things
I originally wanted two or three of these, because I thought that parent volunteers could work at the same time and deliver the finished projects basically on demand. They are a bit pricey (around $45 - sometimes less if you catch a deal), and the ironing takes up a lot of space. I ended up preferring just the one since I do the ironing myself, and I never have enough space - I can't have a design station and two ironing stations all the time, along with everything else going on in my library. Also, you need some patience and a little time in between stages to finish the projects, so on-demand isn't the best plan for project delivery.
At my last school, I had an ironing blanket (be sure to get a flat one, not one with a bumpy quilted surface) to protect the tables and countertops. I don't have one at my new school, but it works okay since the heat press has its own stand. I'm careful about the counter surface when I use the heat press, and I don't iron on wood table tops.
The Parchment Paper
At my last school, I bought a package of 6-inch square parchment paper to place on top of the beads right before I iron with the heat press. I can re-use the same parchment paper many times until it gets worn out.
However, this time I bought 8-inch squares, and it makes a big difference in a successful outcome - if your parchment paper is slightly larger than the pegboard, it works best.
Ironing Steps to Success
I'm not a very patient person, so I rushed a lot of my early ironed designs - I just wanted to get all the projects done. This did not work well, so I wish you more patience than I had when I started!
1) Workspace Set-Up
Have a large clear work space on hand for ironing, and 5-6 pieces of parchment paper nearby. It's also good to have one semi-heavy object (like a discarded middle grade novel) for each design nearby. Keep student designs in a secure location until you are ready to iron each one so you don't bump into them and spill beads everywhere (I like these flat plastic 12 x 12 inch cases, also from Amazon by Iris).
Preheat the heat press (mine works best at Level 2). Take one bead design and set it carefully on your workspace, and cover that gently with parchment paper.
Caution: If you let one side of the design drop too hard on the surface, or brush the parchment paper onto the beads, or start ironing before the heat press is warm enough, you will have beads everywhere, and then you will either need to re-construct the design or deliver bad news to the student.
Be sure the parchment paper goes around at least an inch past all parts of the design - and better yet - an inch past all edges of the peg board. (8-inch pre-cut squares of parchment paper can be re-used for many designs.) Once you place the iron on the parchment paper (which is on top of the beads), you don't want the parchment paper to shift until everything is melted together and stable. So use your finger and thumb of your non-dominant hand to anchor the parchment paper in one corner, and place the iron in the center of the design, gently gliding outward in each direction.
Caution: Do not stop ironing and lift the parchment paper too early. You CAN lift the iron from the beads during that time to look through the parchment paper, and you CAN rotate the pegboard to get at tricky spots, but you DON'T want to lift the paper and have some partially melted beads pop up (stuck to the paper) and refuse to re-set again.
It is trickier to fuse single lines of beads than to connect fuller patterns, so I try to discourage students from patterns with a single line (unicorn horns, stick figure legs, tower spires, etc.), Sometimes, as with the red heart outline below, it works, but these finished designs are more fragile than solid ones.
Use the heat press, ironing in different directions continuously, for about 30 seconds on smaller designs and about 45-60 with larger designs. Don't just set the heat press on the paper and leave it, but keep the iron moving across the center and edges, making sure each bead is at least a little squashed.
Then, without moving the parchment paper at all, cover the design with your heavy object, like a damaged book - this will keep the design flat. If you skip this step, the design is likely to bend a little as it cools. Move on to iron 3 or 4 other designs and cover them with books, too. After about 5 minutes (don't rush it), you can remove the book and check on the design.
You can look at the beads through the parchment paper (but don't move it!) to see how the beads are fusing. Some people prefer to see the beads with their round holes throughout, and some prefer to have a more flat surface (as with the pink heart above). You can iron this side some more if you see anything loose, or if you want the beads to flatten a little more. Cover with a book to flatten and cool again before proceeding to the next step.
After about 5 minutes of cooling under the book and parchment paper, if you remove the book and look through the parchment paper and everything on that side seems connected and sufficiently melted, you can remove the paper carefully. If it's still sticking to the design, it might be too warm and you need to wait a little longer. After you remove the paper, check again to be sure there are no loose beads and everything is connected before removing the design from the pegboard and placing it upside down on your workspace.
So before it was pegboard, topped by beads, topped by parchment paper, topped by book.
Now it's counter, topped by half-ironed beads (already-ironed side down), topped by parchment paper.
Iron this side of the design by gliding on top of the parchment paper again, just like you did on the first side, making sure to get all the edges and skinny spots. It might take a little less total time on this side, depending on how cool the design is, how big it is, and how hot your iron is. When everything seems sufficiently melted (don't move the parchment paper), cover with a book on that side to let it cool.
Continue to iron the back sides of your other designs, and after about 5 minutes of cooling time, remove each book, look through the parchment paper, and if everything seems connected enough, remove the parchment paper from the design.
If the design is still a little warm, you might want to leave it covered by an old book until it cools, so that it doesn't bend and hold the bent shape. If any parts seem a little loose, you can cover them with parchment paper and re-iron them, but it is difficult to attach beads that have completely separated once they are off the peg board.
When you look at the pink part of the tulip above, you can see that some of the beads in the lower center area are rounder and not yet connected to all the other beads around them, while the upper part has beads that are better connected on all sides. This is from a specific tulip peg board, and you'll find that some shaped peg board designs are more challenging to work with than others.
Ideally, you'll have complete designs and be ready to distribute them to the students who made them.
3) Storage and Sticky Notes
As soon as students finish a bead design, I keep the sticky note with their name and design description next to the pegboard inside the flat storage case. Do NOT let them leave un-ironed designs out in the open, even inside the cases. It's too easy to bump them and destroy the designs.
When I'm ironing designs, I take the sticky notes and position them near my ironing space, replacing them on top of the books I use to flatten each design as they cool.
When the designs are finished, I keep the sticky notes next to the finished designs on a pick-up table near the circulation desk. Usually kids come in and check for their designs and pick them up, but sometimes I email students to let them know their designs are ready. The sticky note step seems like an extra, but I'm always glad I know who the design belongs to if it's been sitting in the library for a few days.
Space is always an issue, so I try to make time to iron in big batches once a day. It frees up the peg boards and it frees up space in the plastic storage cases. Then I need the students to get their designs to free up space on the craft pick-up table (where we also have completed student buttons and Shrinky Dinks), so having a system for this - and letting students know what to expect when they turn in their peg board patterns - has been helpful.
Students come up with some really creative designs - even 3D patterns. Although some of my middle school students did these projects when they were younger (at home or at camp), many seem to enjoy working on them. The time to create and talk together is often a relaxing interlude in their busy schedules, and it brings them back to the library for other programs and opportunities, too.
Makerspace Schedule and Station Management in Middle School
A quick word about offering Perler bead designs as a station - I definitely don't have them out every day.
Once a week I have a craft day before school, and I have the beads out as an option if I have enough parent volunteers that day. Students don't need help to do the designs, but the clean-up and turning in their designs gets a little rushed and I'll end with a mess if I don't have supervisory help. On the other days before school (days when I don't have club meetings), students come in to the library to study, read, talk with friends, or just have quiet time before going to class. The craft mornings are a special extra.
I also had a crafts and treats party as a reading celebration for participants in a reading challenge, and the beads table was open for that. This gave students a little extra time than they could have during a typical before-school station session.
And I did whole-class makerspace stations right before winter break = just as final exams and sports practices and auditions and performances were stressful and bunched together for students. This brought in a lot more designs than usual - we have over 1100 students. But not all of them chose to do beads, so it was still pretty manageable to iron all the projects, even in a busy season.
The end result for me is more about the making than what they made - it's the process, the maker mindset that matters more than the product. I'm glad that they went home with designs they enjoyed, and it was fun to see others impressed by what they made. But all of it is a part of a bigger goal of building a welcoming place in school, where kids can meet and talk and create together, in addition to reading, researching, and writing.
I've had the privilege of working with hundreds of students and families in IA, CT, NC, MO, TX, and Canada. I love being a teacher-librarian!