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, Pueblos 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, religious 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. Alabaster 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 Renaissance periods. Artisans perfected their techniques in manufacturing and recipes for the glass they were using.
Handmade Glass Marbles
Germany came to dominate the marble industry in the 19th and 20th centuries. The country's handmade marbles were the finest in the world and are sought after by collectors today. In the late 1800s, 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 glassblower, James Leighton of Akron, Ohio, created a tool that allowed American glassmakers to make marbles with only one pontil, a big advantage over European craftsmen. These highly collectible marbles are called "transition marbles and mark the step between early hand-made glass marbles and machine-made marbles.
America Dominates the 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.
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 dichroic 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 glassmakers are vaporized using an electron beam in a vacuum chamber. The vapor is blown onto clear glass, where it condenses. The condensing vapor forms crystals on the surface of the glass that give it dichroic properties.
The layer of crystallized colors can have over 25 microlayers 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 satellites and telescopes, LCD projectors and 3-D movies.
Step-by-Step Marble-Making Basics
Aaron Whitley is a local Asheville, NC, glass artist 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.
- 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.
- 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 effect.
- Once the chip is crazed, build a layer of clear glass onto the flat sides of the chip, encasing the dichroic glass.
- Next, attach a punty to the other end of the dichroic core, heat up the core until its fluid without overheating, 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.
- 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 marble's 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.
- Cut the core from its punty and polish the pontil. Now build up a background 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 background.
- 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.
- As you add glass around the core, continue to heat and roll the marble into a round shape.
- 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.
- The nearly completed marble is heated and shaped, heated and shaped, carefully making sure the marble is round and smooth.
- 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.
- The finished marble then goes into the kiln for a few hours. After that comes a long, slow cooldown.
- 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 overheating 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.
A Few Tips for Making Glass Marbles
- 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.
- 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.
- 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".
- 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."
Linda on September 12, 2018:
I love colorful marbles, all sizes. I display them in bowls and jars. They are art and a beautiful conversation piece
andreja on March 28, 2018:
I love it
tom peragine on April 19, 2017:
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.
Marco Piazzalunga from Presezzo, Italy on December 26, 2012:
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.
Paradise7 from Upstate New York on December 14, 2012:
Terrific hub. I had no idea making a marble was such a complicated process! Thanks for the info.
FullOfLoveSites from United States on December 13, 2012:
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 on December 12, 2012:
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.
Liz Elias from Oakley, CA on December 12, 2012:
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.
Jill Spencer from United States on August 26, 2012:
Me? No, it's a zinnia.
Jayme Kinsey from Oklahoma on August 25, 2012:
Wow! Very interesting hub! I am very amazed by the patience this must require. Thanks for the great facts and wonderful pictures.
TMHughes (author) from Asheville, NC on August 23, 2012:
I love your profile picture, Is that a dahlia?
Jill Spencer from United States on August 23, 2012:
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 (author) from Asheville, NC on June 05, 2012:
Thank you, it was fun to write and I have enjoyed the responses from you and the others. Thank you.
Christin Sander from Midwest on June 05, 2012:
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 (author) from Asheville, NC on June 04, 2012:
I do to! Thank you so much!
Francesca27 from Hub Page on June 04, 2012:
I love marbles! This article must have taken you a long time to make... and I thank you for doing it.
TMHughes (author) from Asheville, NC on June 04, 2012:
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 from UK on June 04, 2012:
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.