This is a hugely important week for Waterford as it opens an exciting new chapter in reclaiming its sparkling title as the Crystal City. With a never say die attitude but rather looking to a bright new future coupled with admirable spirit of enterprise, imaginative positive action and a resilient determination boldly led by the City Council, Waterford has cause to celebrate. Congratulations to all concerned. So, I thought I would mark the week by looking at some of the history of glass making itself and some of the processes involved.

3,500 Years of Glass

Glass, that remarkable substance born of sand, alkali and fire, has fascinated and served humankind for more than 3,500 years – ever since some long-forgotten Middle Eastern artisan stumbled upon a way to control its manufacture. From quite beautiful luxury items prized by the pharaohs, glass has evolved into highly sophisticated functional uses deeply imbedded in the fabric of our twentieth century civilization. One doesn’t have to look beyond the confines of his own household to realize the vast variety of ways that glass serves everyday needs.

Glass used decoratively can take many forms. It can be made opaque or transparent, clear or coloured, brittle or soft, durable or fragile. It can be moulded or blown, cut, engraved, enamelled or painted. In the hands of an artist, it becomes a medium that permits an almost limitless variety of techniques in the quest for a finished object of great beauty.

‘Cut Glass’ defined

Let’s single out only one decorative technique, explore its demands and scope, and perhaps learn to admire and appreciate the end product. Let’s limit our attention to “cut glass”, which must be carefully defined. “Cut glass” is glass that has been decorated entirely by hand by use of rotating wheels. Cuts are made in an otherwise completely smooth surface of the glass by artisans holding and moving the piece against various sized metal or stone wheels, to produce a predetermined pleasing pattern. Cutting may be combined with other decorative techniques, but “cut glass” usually refers to a glass object that has been decorated entirely by cutting.

Cut glass can be traced to 1,500 B.C in Egypt, where vessels of varying sizes were decorated by cuts made by what is believed to have been metal drills. Artifacts dating to the sixth century B.C. indicate that the Romans, Assyrians and Babylonians all had mastered the art of decoration by cutting. Ever so slowly glass cutting moved to Constantinople, thence to Venice, and by the end of the sixteenth century, to Prague. Apparently the art did not spread to the British Isles until the early part of the eighteenth century. The Penrose family brought the process to Waterford around this time.

Making leaded crystal for cut glass

First, the formula consisting of silica, potash, lead oxide (and perhaps other ingredients) was melted in a ‘monkey pot’, or furnace, until the temperature reached 1300 degrees Celsius, at which time the red hot, molten glass (called “metal”) was ready to be worked. Four workmen were required to work each glass pot. The first, called the “gatherer”, collected a ball of molten glass (called the “gather”) on the end of his blowpipe, a hollow tube about four feed long. He blew air into it, let it cool a few hundred degrees, and then rolled it on a metal slab called the ‘marver” to permit the glass to consolidate. Nest, the “gaffer”, who was seated in an armchair, blew the “gather” into the desired shape. His assistant, the “servitor”, reheated the glass when it cooled too much, and helped the gaffer add stems, feet, handles, or other parts to the piece, as required to finish it.

The fourth member of the team, an apprentice called the “carry in boy”, lifted the finished item with pinchers and carried it to the “lehr”, or annealing oven, where the piece was gradually cooled to room temperature. It could take as long as nine days in the lehr for cooling to occur without risk of the piece shattering before being ready for cutting. Once cooled, the “metal” or “blank” was simply a smooth, shaped piece of leaded crystal, without decoration of any kind that was now ready for the next team of craftsmen.

The process of cutting glass

When the blank was brought from storage for cutting, it was first marked by a designer with outlines of the decoration. Cutting was begun by the “rougher”, who held the blank against a rapidly moving beveled metal wheel, kept constantly moistened and cooled by a fine stream of wet sand dripping from an overhanging funnel. He followed the designer’s marks, making incisions by pushing the glass down against the wheel. He was blind to the contact of the wheel with the glass, except for what he could see through the glass – looking from inside to outside. He learned to judge the dept of the cut simply by the sound of the wheel and the “feel” of the piece in his hand. Various sized wheels were used to make the many different-sized cuts required to complete the design.

Next, the piece went to the “smoother”, who went back over all the rough cuts with stone wheels called “craighleiths.” The smoother also initially cut some of the small lines on the motifs, as indicated by the design. Finally, the “polisher” finished the piece by polishing each cut with wooden wheels made from willow, cherry or other softwoods. Rottenstone or pumice was used with the polishing wheels to give a lustrous appearance to the cut, leaving no imperfections on the gleaming surfaces. The craftsmen of Waterford of many generations proudly and expertly carried on and perfected these great skills.

Waterford is full of men who could have told us all of the above about glass and much more. Praise be, that from this week some of them will again have the opportunity to display their finely honed craftsmanship to the world.

Failte Ar Ais,