Glass engraving explained

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In his 2005 book ‘On a Glass Lightly’ about his life in the glass industry, Simon Whistler mused that he imagined glass to be light held between two surfaces. Following this analogy, he saw glass engraving as the art of releasing light with maximum effect.

Simply described, glass engraving is using a specific tool to mark the surface of crystal and glass. Here are a few techniques and the tools they use, from hand engraving to machine engraving.

Point or line engraving

This was also once known as ‘scratch’ engraving, and, as the name suggests, involved scratching the surface of glass with a diamond point or tungsten carbide point. Sometimes the point was on the end of a scriber and sometimes it was hand-held. The result was a contrasting line which was able to catch the light and give it sparkle.

Stipple engraving

Stipple engraving is a technique done completely by hand without the use of machinery. It uses a very hard point, such as a diamond or tungsten carbide, which is repeatedly tapped onto the glass surface. The close-knit dots make up the pattern, and by varying the closeness of the dots, it is possible to vary the tone and shading of the design. Highly intricate and delicate patterns are possible using this method, and properly backlit pieces will show off the ethereal quality of stipple glass engraving.

Drill engraving

Here, a rotating burr attached to a drill is used to create patterns in the glass, very similar to hand engraved pieces but able to achieve deeper cuts, creating an almost 3D effect. Sometimes known as ‘flexible drive engraving’, the drill is similar to that of a dentist, with a flexible drive shaft and pendant motor.

Copper wheel

This is a traditional glass engraving technique requiring a belt-driven lathe and inter-changeable spindles, each mounted with a copper wheel. The different sized wheels each create various shapes and size of cut. A mixture of grit, paraffin and oil is used on the wheel, and the finer the grit, the more delicate the cut. Many glass engravers also use diamond and stone impregnated wheels. This type of glass engraving produces extremely precise cuts and most traditional designs were achieved by this method.

Sandblasting or sand engraving

In this industrial technique, grit is blasted onto the surface at very high pressure. It’s usually used in mass production, but an individual engraver can achieve unique and distinctive results using stencils and controlling the depth of cuts and shading.

Graal or ‘holy grail’

This tricky technique involves combining glass blowing and engraving. A Swedish invention, graal consists of a blown glass bubble with layers of coloured glass over clear. The glass is then engraved, with cuts penetrating each layer to reveal the colours beneath, after which the object is reblown into the desired shape. The technique is considered the ‘holy grail’ of engraving methods.

As an art form, glass engraving can be beautiful and striking, using a range of skilful techniques and creating lasting pieces to be enjoyed for years and years.

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