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A look at how to make hand blown glass marbles

Updated on April 13, 2016

Hand made marbles with dichroic glass centers

A newly finished glass marble with a dichroic glass center
A newly finished glass marble with a dichroic glass center | Source

Marbles are not a new thing

Marbles are not a new thing. Marbles and other small round objects have been around for years. In fact, archeologists have found small round clay marbles in ancient Egyptian tombs they believe were used for marble games. Marbles have also been found in every major civilization throughout history. They have been found in Aztec ruins, Pueblo's in the American Southwest, in the ancient Roman and Greek civilizations and throughout Europe. Marbles have even been found in the homes of many historical figures. Marbles are believed to have been used in games, religeous ceremonies, as tokens and for decoration.

Not all marbles are marble

Marbles have been made from many things over the centuries. Wood, clay,stone, glass and metal have all been used at one time or another. The word marbles comes from the stone marble, which is a popular choice for marble making. Alabastar and agates are also popular choices and have lent their names to specific marbles like "allies" and "aggies". Over time glass has come to dominate the marble market. Glass making has been around for over 5,000 years and has been part of the marble story for nearly the whole time. The art of glass making dates back to early Mesopotamia, Phoenecia and Egypt. Later, glass making reached a peak in Italy during the middle ages and renaisance periods. Artisans perfected their techniques in manufacturing and recipes for the glass they were using.

Hand made glass marbles

Germany came to dominate the marble industry in the 19th and 20th century. The country's hand made marbles were the finest in the world and are sought after by collectors today. In the late 1800's glass marble making began to shift into American as Europe's finest craftsmen left home to seek a new life in the New World. One glass blower, James Leighton of Akron, Ohio created a tool that allowed American glass makers to make marbles with only one pontil, a big advantage over European craftsmen. These highly collectable marbles are called "transition marbles and mark the step between early hand-made glass marbles and machine-made marbles.

America dominates marble industry

Around the turn of the century Martin Frederich Christenson, a Danish immigrant, created a patented machine that made marbles. His invention soon dominated the manufacturing of marbles and overtook domestic production and imports of hand-made German marbles. Today, hand making glass marbles regained popularity. The entire craft of glass blowing has reached new heights as modern artists, studios and glass works appear in towns and cities around the world.

The Lycurgus Cup

The cup is green when viewed when light come from outside the cup and red when the light comes from inside the cup.
The cup is green when viewed when light come from outside the cup and red when the light comes from inside the cup. | Source

Making a dichroic glass center for a hand made glass marble

Pieces of Dichroic glass destined for the insides of marbles.
Pieces of Dichroic glass destined for the insides of marbles. | Source
A two inch chip of Dichroic glass coated in a layer of clear glass.  This will become the core of a new marble.
A two inch chip of Dichroic glass coated in a layer of clear glass. This will become the core of a new marble. | Source
Spinning the dichroic glass chip and creating the swirled center of a marble.
Spinning the dichroic glass chip and creating the swirled center of a marble. | Source

Dichroic glass, an ancient art with a modern twist

Modern glass making has made some big leaps as other sciences seek to improve lenses and other optical devices. One advance in the industry was made by, no surprise here, NASA and its contractors. The space agency developed new ways to create and manufacture dichroic glass for optical filters. Dichroic glass sounds like a new thing but really dates back to at least the early modern age, around 300-400 AD.

Dichroic simply means "multiple colors". It is glass that has been fused with multiple micro layers of metals, oxides and silicates that give it the "dichroic" effect. The primary dicroic effect is multiple colors. Dichroic glass has two distinct colors and many variations, depending on the light and the angle of view. The Lycurgus Cup, on display at the British Museum, is believed to have been made in the 4th century AD. It is a Roman glass cage cup and the only intact example of early dichroic glass. The cup looks red when seen one way and green when seen another.

Making modern dichro

Making modern dichroic glass is a complicated process. The same metals, oxides and silicates used by traditional glass makers are vaporized using an electron beam in a vacuum chamber. The vapor is blown onto clear glass, where it condenses. The condensing vapor forms a crystals on the surface of the glass that give it dichroic properties. The layer of crystallized colors can have over 25 micro layers and is about 800 nanometers thick. Imagine a sheet of glass with millions of flakes of color in it. Now imagine that as a sheet so thin you can not see its edge and that is like the layer of colors that create the dichroic effect.

There are over 40 variations of colors of dichroic colors. The light you see when looking at a dichroic glass is a complicated equation of reflected light minus the light that passes through the object. Dichroic glass can be fused with other glass and is a popular choice among modern glass artisans. The multiple firings needed to fuse and create a new glass object cause unique patterns to form in the dichroic coating. The patterns can be duplicated to an extent but each finished piece is 100% unique.

Some other uses for modern dichroic glass include optical filters for satelites and telescopes, LCD projectors and 3-D movies.

Making a hand-made glass marble

Adding a blue background to the Dichroic center.
Adding a blue background to the Dichroic center. | Source
Attaching the Dichroic core to what will become the marbles top.
Attaching the Dichroic core to what will become the marbles top. | Source
The Dichroic core is attached to the new rod and broken off of the original one.  The core is being shaped prior to having more glass built up around it.
The Dichroic core is attached to the new rod and broken off of the original one. The core is being shaped prior to having more glass built up around it. | Source
Adding more glass.  This is more dark blue for the background effect.
Adding more glass. This is more dark blue for the background effect. | Source
Once the marble is basically complete and round decorations can be added.  You can see the dots, these are different colors, they all look red because of the heat.
Once the marble is basically complete and round decorations can be added. You can see the dots, these are different colors, they all look red because of the heat. | Source

Step by step marble making basics

Aaron Whitley is a local Asheville, NC glass artists and marble maker. He operates Land of the Sky Glassworks and let me sit in and watch him making marbles one day. I was impressed with the ease of skill he used when handling the glass. It was literally like putty in his hands, only really hot and attached to a punty.

  1. To make the core, start with a small, flat chip of dichroic glass. The bigger the chip, the bigger the core. For the first try Aaron recommends using a small piece because dichroic glass is very expensive. Attach the chip to a punty that has been prepped for the job.
  2. Next, heat up the chip until it begins to craze. This is when the surface of the glass chip begins to melt, this gives the dichroic glass a fluid, almost 3-dimensional affect.
  3. Once the chip is crazed build a layer of clear glass on to the flat sides of the chip, encasing the dichroic glass.
  4. Next, attach a punty to the other end of the dichroic core, heat up the core until its fluid without over heating, and twist it into a little dichroic chunk. When the core is the right shape, to me it looks like a little red hot tater tot, let it cool a little and detach one of the punties.
  5. Once you have the core of your marble made it is time to attach it to a clear rod of glass. This rod attaches to what will be the front, or top of your marble and will become a large portion of the marbles body. Marble cores are not limited to dichroic glass. Hand made marbles are crafted in thousands of variations, some with a history all of their own.
  6. Cut the core from its punty and polish the pontil. Now build up a backgroung of color that will set off the dichroic center. Darker colors work best, here Aaron is using a dark blue to build up the core and create the back ground.
  7. Once the background is completed it is time to build up more clear glass around the core, completing the body of the marble. Keep the glass hot enough to work but not too hot. Maintaining a round shape without any edges is very important in marble making.
  8. As you add glass around the core continue to heat and roll the marble into a round shape.
  9. Once the marble has been built up to the right size additional patterns can be added to the outside. Here Aaron starts with a pattern of different colored dots. They are smoothed into the body of the marble and then twisted with a small clear punty.
  10. The nearly completed marble is heated and shaped, heated and shaped, carefully making sure the marble is round and smooth.
  11. When the marble is nice and round and has cooled down just a bit it can be removed from its pontil. Then a little firing polishing with a torch helps smooth out the remaining punty.
  12. The finished marble then goes into the kiln for a few hours. After that comes a long, slow cool down.

Cautions:

  • it is very important to keep the glass hot but not too hot. It should be workable but should not be too soft or it will not keep its round shape. It is also possible to damage the dichroic glass core by over heating it.
  • Be very careful of air bubbles. They are very easy to trap inside a piece of glass and can be extremely damaging. " It is easier to keep a bubble out than it is to get a bubble out" according to Aaron.

Spin the dots with a clear stick of glass for add effect.  They can also be streaked or dragged in different directions.
Spin the dots with a clear stick of glass for add effect. They can also be streaked or dragged in different directions. | Source
Fire polishing. This helps to make sure the marble is smooth and even on the surface.
Fire polishing. This helps to make sure the marble is smooth and even on the surface. | Source

A few tips for making glass marbles

  1. wash everything before you use it with alcohol and clean cotton rags. This includes tools, glass rods and punties, pieces of dichro or other core pieces like opals. Cleaning your work surface of dust is also a good idea. Any bits of dirt, dust, oil or fingerprints can affect the finished marble. This is also true when taking pictures. A nicely polished marble may not show off a fingerprint until you see it in the picture.
  2. Keep all your tools handy and clear work table. You may use 6 or more punties when making a marble and as many hand tools.
  3. The best way to make a really round and smooth marble is to practice. If you want to get really good Aaron says you "can come hang out in my studio and make a couple hundred, you'll get really good".
  4. Be careful! Working with glass is dangerous for many reasons. Aside from burns and cuts there are other dangers associated with the propane burner system, ventilation and eyesight. Around Land of the Sky Glassworks "we don't talk about cuts, it's just part of the art."

The marble is nearly finished.  Shaping is the final step and will help get out any imperfections in the surface.
The marble is nearly finished. Shaping is the final step and will help get out any imperfections in the surface. | Source
Shaping and cooling, shaping and cooling...
Shaping and cooling, shaping and cooling... | Source
Shaping the finished marble.  After this step all that is left is cutting it off the stem and firing it in the kiln.
Shaping the finished marble. After this step all that is left is cutting it off the stem and firing it in the kiln. | Source
This is the bottom of the finished marble.  You can see that it is still glowing red hot in the center.  it will go from here to the kiln for a few hours and then a long slow cool down.
This is the bottom of the finished marble. You can see that it is still glowing red hot in the center. it will go from here to the kiln for a few hours and then a long slow cool down. | Source
The finished marble.  The dichroic glass center creates a galaxy like swirl with real depth in the center of the glass.
The finished marble. The dichroic glass center creates a galaxy like swirl with real depth in the center of the glass. | Source

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    • profile image

      tom peragine 4 weeks ago

      Remaking old glass marbles from German end of cane drops is turning out to be a big headache! Without the proper torch with oxygen, your wasting your time; Bench torches are costly. I tried propane, but shattered 5 out of 7 cane drops; The glass is old and chipped that love to shatter.

    • Glass-Jewelry profile image

      Marco Piazzalunga 4 years ago from Presezzo, Italy

      I did not really understand what they were used glass marbles.

      Obviously knowing and working with Murano glass I know exactly what are the Murano glass paperweight, which have an obvious use, but I am not clear if there is a relationship between the two types of objects.

      I tried to ask some of my friends glassmasters, especially elderly ones, if they knew of the existence of glass marbles, but unfortunately groping in the dark.

      Where to find information about their practical use?

      Beautiful article! Thank you for sharing this additional information, and congratulations for the pictures of rare beauty.

      Marco

    • Paradise7 profile image

      Paradise7 4 years ago from Upstate New York

      Terrific hub. I had no idea making a marble was such a complicated process! Thanks for the info.

    • FullOfLoveSites profile image

      FullOfLoveSites 4 years ago from United States

      Wow... very cool hub. Hand-made marbles... I have no inkling about that before. I also love marbles and I wish to have my hand at creating one for myself. Voted up and useful, and shared. :)

    • torrilynn profile image

      torrilynn 4 years ago

      I think this is very cool and amazing. i like hands on activities and this seems like this is something that would be fun to actually do or try to create. I love marbles and creating things. Nice hub. Voted up.

    • DzyMsLizzy profile image

      Liz Elias 4 years ago from Oakley, CA

      Wow--what a fascinating article! Great job, and excellent photos! I had no idea marbles were still made by hand anywhere.

      I've never played marble games..for some reason, when I was a kid, that was a 'no girls allowed' scenario; strictly a boy's game. That did not stop me from liking marbles and collecting pretty ones to admire, although I never got into the terminology of types.

      I've always been fascinated by watching glass blowers and glass artisans crafting fanciful works. Voted up, interesting, beautiful, awesome and shared.

    • The Dirt Farmer profile image

      Jill Spencer 4 years ago from United States

      Me? No, it's a zinnia.

    • Sharkye11 profile image

      Jayme Kinsey 4 years ago from Oklahoma

      Wow! Very interesting hub! I am very amazed by the patience this must require. Thanks for the great facts and wonderful pictures.

    • TMHughes profile image
      Author

      TMHughes 4 years ago from Asheville, NC

      I love your profile picture, Is that a dahlia?

    • The Dirt Farmer profile image

      Jill Spencer 4 years ago from United States

      Beautiful marbles, great hub! Just visited Blenko Glass Co. in Milton, WV, last week where craftspeople still blow glass by hand & make all sorts of things, from stained glass windows and windchimes to lamps and water jugs.

    • TMHughes profile image
      Author

      TMHughes 4 years ago from Asheville, NC

      Thank you, it was fun to write and I have enjoyed the responses from you and the others. Thank you.

    • ChristinS profile image

      Christin Sander 4 years ago from Midwest

      what a comprehensive and interesting hub. I've always loved glass and wanted to learn more about how things like marbles are made. As a child I had a collection of them. :)

    • TMHughes profile image
      Author

      TMHughes 4 years ago from Asheville, NC

      I do to! Thank you so much!

    • Francesca27 profile image

      Francesca27 4 years ago from Hub Page

      I love marbles! This article must have taken you a long time to make... and I thank you for doing it.

    • TMHughes profile image
      Author

      TMHughes 4 years ago from Asheville, NC

      Thanks for the comment. I really didn't either. I always wondered how they made things like cats eyes and spaghetti's and the other marbles I used as a kid.

    • happyturtle profile image

      happyturtle 4 years ago from UK

      Truly fascinating article. Thanks for putting this together. The photos really add to the article as well. To be honest I didn't know so much effort went into making marbles.

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