Brief description of the history and process of brilliant cutting glass
The art of hand-engraving glass is hundreds of years old. In United Kingdom brilliant cutting became very popular during the Victorian era, and towards the end of the 19th century most glass companies had, at least, one full-time brilliant cutter. They worked in close collaboration with other craftsmen, such as silverers and bewellers. The machinery in those days was crude and therefore the skill level of the engravers had to be unbelievably high, to be able to produce the stunning brilliant-cut pieces they did. The styles of brilliant-cut items have varied between countries and developed over time. However, the basic principles of glass engraving have remained the same.
Materials and tools
Various types of glass can be brilliant cut. Usually we use 4mm or 6mm low iron float that has most of the impurities removed, giving it superior clarity, especially when silvered. The glass is hand-cut to the desired size by using a tungsten wheel, lubricated with cutting oil. The glass edge can then be either left clean cut, polished edge, or arrised – the sharp edges taken off with a stone. After inspecting the glass for scratches or imperfections, it is then ready for the actual brilliant cutting.
According to the effect needed, a stone wheel is used to create the desired effects on glass. The stone wheel is shaped by hand, using an industrial diamond and pieces of old wheels, to have a particular effect on glass. Typically 3 or 4 different shaped stones are used on one design, sometimes more.
The brilliant cutting process
Once we have agreed a design with our client, it must be drawn onto the glass in reverse, as the carved side will be the silvered side. This is done using a paint pen, which dries quickly and remains on the glass during the rough stone cutting as the glass is exposed to water.
The stone wheel is turned via a spindle-pulley system, originally using a foot pedal but in later years a simple electric motor. During the brilliant cutting the stone is constantly moisturised with water to prevent the stone and glass from heating up. The engraver holds and moves the glass against the weel, controlling both the shape and depth of the cut. Mastering this process takes years of practise and hard work.
The cuts on the glass at this stage have a dull or matt finish. In some cases, this can be the desired effect, but mostly they will be polished. This is done using a wooden wheel, turned to shape by hand with a sharp chisel. A mixture of pumice powder and water is applied to the wood which removes any stone marks within the cut. The result is a polished effect, but not as bright as the glass itself.
Some engravers will use a felt wheel and jewellers rouge, which is also known as cerium oxide for the final polishing of the glass. It is used by opticians, jewellers and most automated glass machines. However, we use cork wheels instead of felt. The reason for this, is that in over 30 years of experience, they perform better in our opinion. The ‘mark-off’ is the final check in bright light to look for any unacceptable work marks.
Every piece made is unique, even on duplicate designs and some of these minor differences are what gives each piece its own ‘fingerprint’. Once any blemishes or slip marks are highlighted, they are removed with the cork wheel. The decorated piece of glass is now ready for silvering, hand-frosting or simply to be glazed as is.
At GlassCarve we use the same traditional methods of engraving as the brilliant cutters in the Victorian era. The unique, mesmerising aesthetics of brilliant-cut glass can not be achieved with any modern technologies!