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How to Work in Beveled Glass
Forming, Designing, and Fabricating
By Seymour Isenberg, Anita Isenberg
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 1982 Anita and Seymour Isenberg
All rights reserved.
Equipment and Materials
In order to bevel you will need several specific items. First is the beveling machine. You can choose among several that are on the market. The interest in beveling has grown so much that a number of manufacturers have begun turning out machines for students and hobbyists as well as, or in place of, the larger, more massive commercial models.
What Is Beveling?
Reduced to basics, beveling is a process whereby the edges of a piece of glass are angled from some point on the surface to the rim. The process accentuates refraction of light. Light waves, which travel in straight lines, strike the surface of the glass and are reflected in a scattered pattern, which to the eye shows glistening and sparkle. Those coming through the glass bend, breaking up into their constituent colors. Thus a prism effect is produced, an actual coloration of the glass edges, which can throw a wash of color onto the floor or walls of the room depending on where the glass is placed. The effect, to say the least, is striking and, at most, overwhelming. While beveling in the past has been looked on as a decorative rather than a fine art, craftsmen working with the techniques today, combining their imagination with the principles, have come up with results that are little less than astounding. As usual, the glass does most of the work in providing dramatic effects, but even the novice can find practical works of art coming to life under his or her hand. From this aspect alone, the craft is immediately rewarding. As technique is refined with further use and experimentation, beveling becomes another essential modality in the armament of the craftsperson who works in glass as a total artistic expression.
Beveling machines all operate in much the same way. The differences between them lie mainly in the areas of cost and convenience. The machines are meant to do two things to the glass: to shape the bevel (that is, to grind away excess glass until the proper angle is achieved) and to repair the damage that has been done to the surface of the glass by having had that angle ground into it. Both activities of the machines are propounded by the nature of glass itself. When glass is ground, it becomes opaque, sandy, and it will not transmit or reflect light to any practical degree. Therefore, the surface that has been ground must be rejuvenated to its former clarity. The first process is called "roughing," the second, "smoothing," the third, "semi-polishing," and the fourth, "fine polishing." We like to retain the distinction between polishing stages, although they are often combined as "polishing." Beveling machines are specifically meant to give you, in the most efficient manner possible, both steps of the process. Roughing is done at a single step or "station," but polishing is done sometimes in two, but usually in three, steps.
It is possible to buy a machine that is actually three machines or four machines in one, each unit being a separate entity. Or you can acquire a roughing station or a polishing station alone. These single-purpose units may serve well in commercial enterprises where a great deal of work is being mass produced, but they are barely acceptable in hobbyist studios. Here, some type of machine that combines all the necessary units would serve the purpose best. Our own choice, admittedly arbitrary, is the Denver Glass Machinery's Studio Model Beveler, which we use throughout the book, together with Denver Glass's IB-16. Both of these machines demonstrate almost all that can be done with the beveling process, not only so far as beginners and hobbyists are concerned, but also for studios interested in going into beveling as a production enterprise.
Cost of course is always a restrictive element. Here, too, our choice of machines are those that give reasonable satisfaction for the money. In addition, the cost is not out of the range of the average hobbyist. At the same time, it is essential to point out that there are other machines on the market, some of which are mentioned in the Appendix.
Since the beveling process is not a complicated one, it is more than possible for you to build your own machine. A lot depends on how skillful you are, however. One warning: Don't start the job if you don't feel qualified. For one thing, you can, as one individual we know of did, discover so many unanticipated complications that building the machine, rather than using it, becomes the hobby. If you think you still want to try, before you start inquire carefully about the cost of the necessary individual components—especially the wheels. You may decide it is cheaper in the long run to buy a machine.
Of course you may feel that before going to the expense of buying a beveling machine, or going to the expense and trouble of putting one together yourself, you would prefer to rent one. Some glass studios—although not many at this time—do have a rental service. One is the Bolton Studio in Houston, Texas. Undoubtedly other studios, as beveling becomes more and more of a hobby, will follow David Bolton's lead in this respect.
Finally, you can always buy a used machine. Although there is not exactly a surplus on the market, every so often a few appear in classified ads in hobbyist or glass journals.
Before you invest in a used beveler, you should ask a few questions aside from whether or not it is the right style for you. However, some things are obvious enough even to an inexperienced eye. Does the motor (or motors) work properly? Are the belts in good shape? Are the water hoses properly placed? The hoses should be clear of any electrical connections. Most important, what are the wheels like, and how many come with the machine? The wheels are the most expensive single elements of any beveling machine. At the same time, buying a used beveling machine is like buying a used kiln. There isn't all that much that can go wrong, and you could end up with a real find for comparatively little money. However, the demand for these items is increasing, so if you are going to look, start looking now.
Electricity of course is not a piece of equipment, and it may seem odd to mention it here, but it is an important element in the beveling process. Most of us take electricity for granted. In beveling, you will be working with electricity and water. Manufacturers take this into consideration, and factory-made machines come properly grounded. It is a factor that you must remember to include in any "home-made" unit you either purchase or put together yourself. Water is far too good a conductor of electricity to allow for any possibility of an accident.
Not as potentially lethal a problem by any means, but still an annoying one if it arises, is purchasing a machine for studio use and finding that it doesn't work off a 110-volt house current as you assumed. Instead, it takes a 220 line. You can have an electrician bring a 220 line in for you, or you can use a 110 power converter, which converts a three-phase to a single-phase line, but it is still one more thing to do, as well as an additional expense that you may not have expected. This could start you off on your new hobby in a somewhat bitter frame of mind. If you begin this way, it is our experience that things in general start to go sour—and you may end your new career before you even begin. Since it is usually the little things that get to all of us, and since it is simple enough to check on this beforehand, check this in the beginning.
One of the joys of beveling is working with material that would otherwise be useless, transforming simple, common glass into an object of beauty. Plate glass is easy enough to find. To start, you can pick up scraps from your local glazer. Or you may have odds and ends of glass already lying about your studio. You can pick up old and new plate glass from salvage yards. The same holds true for mirror, which is fun to bevel and gives fascinating effects. And of course, if worse comes to worst, you can always buy your glass. The point is that you don't absolutely have to. You usually will be using small pieces of glass, and such odds and ends should be easy to find no matter where you live. You certainly shouldn't be reduced to start your beveling experience by cutting up the top of the living-room coffee table for a supply of plate.
Plate glass comes in various thicknesses—from 3/16" (most stock bevels) up. It is nice to know that there is a wide range of choices when it comes to thickness. The design and style of bevel depends as much on the thickness of the plate as on the pattern of the cut. Most automatic machines (such as the massive line bevelers) use 3/16" plate and make what is called a "skin" bevel. This has a fairly thick edge, since only a minimum of glass is removed from the surface. There isn't that much of a prism effect here. The degree of slant of the angle determines the quality of the prism. To get a good prism effect, the glass would have to be additionally ground by the machine. However, the process would mean additional wear on the heads—and in some cases the manufacturers, who seek to do the bevels as cheaply as possible, aren't willing to do this. This is one reason why machine-made bevels can be rather disappointing.
You don't have to be afraid of wearing out the wheels on your beveling machine. Use thick plate glass to get a dramatic effect. A steeper angle (thicker glass) gives the best prism. The glass used in many old windows is 5/16" plate. The thickness range of many workers today runs ¼" to 3/8", and a number of artists like to work even in ¾" or 1" glass, which includes colored dalles glass. Old plate glass, in particular, gives a warm sheen to the bevels because of the excess iron content in the glass. You may want to use this in conjunction with new plate, which provides a colder, bluish sheen.
You may also want to experiment by mixing different thicknesses of plate glass within a single project, using the variances for emphatic touches. Almost any combination of glass and thickness can be conjoined. The beveling can provide a common touch or set one group of elements apart from others. It is up to you. Once you acquire the technique, you will discover that it will quickly become part of your artistic "grammar."
Stained glass can also be beveled. Usually flashed glass is used, since here the dramatic result of the second color (or clear glass) on the edges is probably what you are after. Most stained glass is about 1/8" in thickness, so it isn't possible to get a very steep bevel.
In beveling stained glass, the same procedures are used as in beveling plate. You may want to bevel colored glass that is not flashed, just to achieve a subtle shading of the basic color as a decorative frill. There is nothing wrong with doing this, although most of the work that we have seen has been disappointing. The distinction between the beveled and unbeveled surfaces is mostly shown by light passing through the glass, and even here we do not find the result to be worth all the effort. Of course, you may like it, but it works best in glass thicker than 1/8"—in dalles, for instance.
Masks and Safety Glasses
More people talk about masks and safety glasses than actually use them. It is true that they can get in the way of normal physical performance—such as breathing and being able to see. Since you will be working with wet surfaces while beveling, you may find that a mask isn't all that necessary. However, a mask is absolutely essential when dressing a wheel, especially a felt one, and this item should be kept in the work area.
While plenty of glass dust is produced in the beveling procedure, very few particles get into the air because the dust has been combined with water from the machine. However, no one can give you a guarantee as to how much does get in the air and, consequently, into your lungs. Therefore, during routine beveling, a mask is strictly an individual preference. When working "dry," however, it would be foolish not to wear a mask. Both cork dust and felt dust are extremely irritating and dangerous, and both are in the air in heavy proportions when either of these wheels is being dressed (or "turned").
Safety glasses are something else again. Beveling is basically a messy operation. Especially when using the cork wheel and pumice, the pumice tends to fly about, spattering hair, skin, and eyes. In this case, safety glasses come in handy. Of course you will have to keep wiping them off, which can be a nuisance. Again, individual preference will have to carry the day. To avoid at least some of the dust stand alongside rather than directly in front of the wheel.
Aprons, Towels, and Rinse Buckets
Because beveling is a messy affair, it is not something to be done in your best suit or frock. The polishing aspect is especially a challenge so far as trying to keep the material on the wheel rather than on you. Cerium oxide and pumice are bad enough, but jeweler's rouge is particularly nasty, and many craftsmen don't like to use it at all because of the cleanup time it requires. Therefore, it is best to wear some sort of work apron even over your work clothes. This way, when you leave the studio, all you have to remove is the apron, and you won't be carrying debris from the wheels to other parts of the house.
Towels, of course, are very useful, and paper towels are absolutely essential. You can wrap your hair in a bath towel if you don't have a cap handy. And paper towels are indispensable for wiping off your bevel so that you can look for facets, a process that you will be repeating over and over. They are also good for cleaning your hands and glasses, whether safety or regular.
A dip bucket, or rinse bucket, is a useful item to have, and you should have a different one for each wheel. Separate buckets will help to avoid contamination from one wheel to the next by carrying up dirty water on the glass. Contaminating your wheels can be a disaster so far as good beveling is concerned. It is also a good idea to have the various wash buckets alongside you, rather than on the floor. Then you won't have to keep bending over whenever you rinse. The more comfortable you are, the more time you can spend beveling, not stretching cramped muscles.
Every time that you change wheels, make sure that you wash the glass well. It doesn't matter so much if you transfer from a finer grit to a coarser one—that is, go from cerium oxide to, say, pumice. But it does make a great deal of difference if you transfer coarse grit to a stone that uses a finer one, as in going from the roughing to the smoothing station.
Cutters and Pliers
You should have several cutters on hand that are specific for plate glass. Most glass-cutter manufacturers make cutters with wheels specially suited to plate, and it is important that you use one of these rather than one that was made for some other glass. While you will probably be able to use another type, you will be making your job more difficult in the long run. It is just as easy to start doing things right in the beginning as it is to do them wrong.
For beveling, you will need two kinds of pliers: a plate-glass-breaking pliers and a running pliers. Both of these items are standard in the armamentarium of the stained-glass craftsman, and you can continue to use what you have for plate glass as well. However, if you want to use fairly thick plate for more than merely occasional diversions, you should acquire a running pliers that is more substantial than those used for 1/8" stained glass. This will relieve some of the pressure on your hands, and you want to keep your major effort toward beveling, not glass scoring and breaking.
Pittsburgh Plate Glass makes fine heavy-duty running pliers that are exceptional in their ease of running long score lines on heavy plate. You might find it more than worth your while to invest in a pair. As shown in Figs. 1-7 and 1-8, we tape the jaws of our PPP (Pittsburgh Plate Pliers) to avoid the possibility of the jaws scratching the glass.
As for breaking out the score, the pliers you already may be using for stained glass will be sufficient. You may have to work harder at the procedure depending on the thickness of the plate you use. We use our Diamond glass breaker and running pliers for anything up to 1/4". Above that we use our PPP to run the score.
Zinc Came Versus Lead Came
Anyone who repairs beveled glass windows has to be struck by the fact that most, if not all, are done with zinc came rather than lead. This doesn't mean that lead came was never used on beveled windows; it does mean that usually little, if anything, is left of them to repair. Lead came is too malleable to sustain the weight of the heavy plate. Pieces of this glass tend to fall out as the window begins to sag.
Excerpted from How to Work in Beveled Glass by Seymour Isenberg, Anita Isenberg. Copyright © 1982 Anita and Seymour Isenberg. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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