In the fifties, we would make a yearly trip to my father’s parents’ house in Ohio. This was before the Interstate system and seatbelts and it was a long haul. Once there, we had a hard time finding how to fit ourselves into a world not designed for kids.
As the oldest of the grandchildren (and a male) I would occasionally get special treatment. One trip — which turned out to be the last time I saw him, my grandfather took me into the basement for a welcome lesson that changed my life.
He was born in Sweden into an environment I still cannot remotely imagine. As a child he was apprenticed to a master crystal cutter, who he stayed with for ten years before entering Minnesota. He was born left-handed but because his teacher was right handed he had to relearn how to use his mind with his hands. Thereafter, he would say that he would see left handed (and in Swedish) but cut glass right handed.
This trip to the basement was so that he could pass on to me what he knew as best he could in a crash course. I was only 10, but he knew he was dying. His workspace was remarkably rudimentary. Unpainted concrete walls and floor with a large concrete utility sink in the center with possibly 8 inches of settled, snowy white glass powder sludge in it under a couple inches of clear water.
A bare bulb hung overhead with a carbon lamp ready to shine from the right. A rugged small electrical motor pulled a leather belt that turned an armature to which was affixed one of the several dozen abrasive wheels. It was turned on by a grey industrial switch screwed haphazardly to a two by four holding the basin; previous attempts at steadying were now ancient shards of masking tape.
Suspended from the ceiling was a potato chip can with a hole in the bottom into which a carefully rolled rag was stuffed, a cylinder with a pencil in the main part so that it could direct a steady drip of water onto the business end of the setup, that revolving grinding stone. A conical screw jammed alongside the pencil in the hole could be adjusted with a handy screwdriver.
Grandpa had dozens of these stones in this, his private shop. Though I visited his factory a few times, I think his shop at work had been dismantled by the time I came along. Some wheels were at 5 inches in diameter, some twelve, the color ranged from rust red-orange to nightmare black with every shade of grey in between. Part of the craft was in shaping these, which he did with carbide and diamond tools on the same mounting used to grind glass. Many were simply rounded, so that he could make the grapes of his personal design. Others had one or more peaks to make distinctive strokes. Textures abounded, so that he could make a frosted finish or one highly polished.
Some of His Champagne Glasses
My lesson was in two parts. One you can probably imagine involved the simple art of applying stone to glass. You’d make some rudimentary marks with grease pencil and have to work looking through the glass as the surface away from you was abraded away. I won’t spend any time recounting that bit — just a boy and his grandpa. It is the second part of the lesson that stuck with me, and it had to to with that lefthanded man making righthanded art.
You cut glass for two reasons. One was for the superficial people, those who paid for fine leaded crystal and who expected to see fine decorations on it. They didn’t care what, so long as reinforced their specialness. This glassware was exceptionally thin and light, he explained. As a result, the scores could do little more than draw embossed decorations. It was for the rich who expected such things, and I understood that some of his glassware was used in the White House. (I’ve since learned that frequently using this glassware will poison you, impairing your judgement.)
A much better reason to cut crystal was to build shaped prisms in the glass to make them come alive as the light was released from its prison of invisibility so as to stream dancing colors. But for this you need thick, heavy pieces of glass. His shop was famous for glass paperweights and ashtrays, but those were not designed to allow direct sunlight to pass through. The ideal object was a glass lamp. He had two blown (into molds) in his factory of exceptionally heavy lead content. These were for a special project.
These are heavy, ugly monsters straight out of a Victorian prophouse, but they are ideal for this purpose. The glass is thick and will allow deep scores. The profound lead content makes the index of refraction very high so the light is strongly bent, strongly enough that by the time the prismatic spreads go through one side of the lamp, they hit the prisms of the other side as already colored light, so with careful planning, one could cut crosswise and create a symphony that the tiniest movement of the sun would make sparkle. He described the art of creating such designs, intuiting the paths as they merged. But that was not the most magical part.
The magic was in the deft movement of the spinning stone against the manipulated glass. Blown glass, and especially high lead content glass has a grain from the blowing process, which he well knew, since he trained the blowers. The annealing process introduced another ‘grain’ running near and perpendicular to the surface. These affected the refractive properties, but could be exploited with a third anomaly introduced in the cutting process.
It turns out that with plentiful flows of cooling water, and by pressing the glass gently, one could do ‘cool’ cutting where the glass was simply removed, exposing the ends of the existing grains, the same way a saw exposes the grain of wood in a board. This was desired for a few effects depending on what you wanted, but not many. What you really wanted was a new surface with properties like the original uncut surface. Imagine instead of growing a tree and then slicing it, you forced it to grow in the shape you wanted so that the grain would flow around the cuts. Glass was simply slow moving fluid, he said, and you had to respect that; allowing it to flow properly was central to working with the flows of light.
And to accomplish that, you had to constrain the flow of cooling water on the cutting stone by tightening the screw in the can ever so sensitively. And you had to manage the ‘flow’ of the stone on the glass, working it hard enough so that the surface literally was on the balance between being abraded and melting. It took him five years of practice to learn this, he said — to balance the flows, anticipating the flows of light.
It took him a second five years to get the handedness right and that was the thing he was most anxious to demonstrate. A machine could be taught to cut a desired shape with glass on stone, and I am certain that in the years since this has become common. But it took someone whose soul was attuned to the cutting to move the glass diagonally across the stone so that one side of the groove was nearly melted and the other side was cool.
The handedness — right handedness — was central to engineering the flow of light through the sharp prisms and the apparently reverse handedness on the other side of the lamp. The carbon lamp — shining from the left (so as to be on that side’s right) — was to help monitor in this exceptionally demanding work.
He guided me in this on a practice piece. We cut my initials on a beer glass, the same initials as my Dad who visited upstairs in ignorance of the miracle happening below. I fortunately have that same glass still, though the prismatic effect cannot be seen because it is cheap calcium glass and my hand was unsteady. But I got the principle in the flows of my mind and carry it still today.
He had already made the two lamps using this technique, one for each of his two surviving sons, and he showed me some of the tricks he used in that work, tricks which alas I forgot before darkness fell. But he felt the lesson would be worthwhile because I was already older then than he was when he was apprenticed, and I seemed healthier and more eager than was then.
My Grandpa‘s glasscutting setup, intended for me, was dismantled and given away shorty after he died. No one paid any attention to a petulant preteen. Many years later, after my grandmother’s death, I visited the house, already denuded by heirs. In a dusty corner I found his screwdriver, the one that controlled the water flow, tossed as a useless object. I picked it up and still cherish it.
In my creative life, I have often made use of his prismatic handedness, often in abstract constructions, and this has given me power. I have one of his magical lamps now and have built a house around it so that direct sunlight can hit it and spray fractured sprites over curved walls. Righthandedly.
The Lamp for His Son
He lives, his ten years of learning and forty-five years of work after that. He lives in the glass, some of it good, and in my heart, work and hand. What a blessing. Some day I hope to pass on something as magical.