Volume 36, Issue 3, March 2001
It was not long after glass was developed that the ancients found that the physical properties of glass could be altered with certain types of acids. In particular, hydrofluoric acid was found to eat away the glass and produce a frosted effect, similar to grinding or blasting with sand. This discovery lay dormant for eons, until late in the 1800s when artisans in Italy and later Spain realized they could alter the effect of the etching by varying the acidity and length of time the glass was exposed to the caustic. Today, many examples of this skill survive in Europe as finely crafted glass creations. One of those craftsmen was Pasquale Meli, who as a young man worked for his uncle in a stained glass studio in Catania, Sicily where he learned much about glass and etching with acid.
In 1965 when Meli was working at a mirror factory in Northern Italy, he began experimenting with the methodology of producing large sheets of acid etched glass. His experiments led the factory to begin producing these large sheets in 1967. Two years later a factory in Spain bought the technology and opened a plant to create these sheets of glass. Additional factories eventually opened in Venezuela and Spain. Today, these few plants manufacture a variety of choices in acid-etched glass, providing the nucleus of the world’s acid-etched glass production.
In 1984, Meli and his son Giuseppe moved their families from Italy to Barcelona, Spain, where they started their own company, Sociedad Espanola de Vidrios Artisticos, S.A. (SEVASA). They began by producing solid-coverage, acid-etched glass in large sheets. Wanting to do more than just frosted glass, Meli developed methods by which the glass could be etched deeply into the surface, with precise consistency and exacting detail. Produced in large 6- by 10-inch sheets, this type of glass can be cut and fabricated for any number of potential uses. Today, Meli’s company produces more than 35 different patterns of etched glass for a marketplace that stretches from Asia to North America
Acid-etched glass begins as float glass, and while the specific production methods are closely guarded, production lines similar to those used in mirror manufacturing are used to apply the acid to the glass. The acids are extremely caustic, and must be handled with great care and knowledge. (This is not something to try in your garage.)
The etching hardens the glass, and produces an ultra-smooth surface that resists soiling. By altering the acidity and the amount of exposure time, various degrees of opacity or clarity can be obtained. Virtually any thickness of glass can be etched, as well as most colors of float or mirror. The result is a soft, frosted patina in the glass surface, which can be very fine, similar to non-glare glass or completely opaque, but translucent like sandblasted glass.
The similarity to sandblasted glass ends abruptly. Acid-etched glass is consistent in appearance, with no areas of heavy or light etch to detract from the look. More importantly, acid-etched glass can be handled without fear of leaving fingerprints, and can be cleaned with water and a soft cloth without marring the surface or leaving cloth residue behind. This allows for cutting and fabrication in the glass studio or shop, with the ability to complete a job without waiting for more glass to be sandblasted. Some people find tempered, acid-etched glass a solution to the difficulties they may experience when sandblasting tempered glass. The cutter merely cuts the glass, provides the proper edgework and the glass can be tempered without fear of damaging the surface. Since the properties of acid etched glass are virtually the same as the float glass it began as, many craftsmen who use it find tempering to be trouble-free.
As a product of value, there are many attributes of acid- etched glass. Aside from the fact that the finish is consistent and smooth, it is also durable, easy to clean and keep clean. No sealant is used to protect the surface, and none are recommended. Harder than the float surface, the etched side resists scratching. The glass is produced in stock sheet sizes, allowing for good yield in cutting. The distinctive acid-etched designs are unattainable with other manufacturing methods. All acid-etched glass can be fully tempered, laminated, bent, drilled, beveled or edged without any visible effect on the pattern or etch.
Current trends in this market segment are also full of potential. Because the glass has one smooth, float side it can be readily laminated to other types of glass, providing a myriad of options to the designer. Etching of colored glass or mirror has proven to be a popular variation, and painting on the float surface can create an extraordinary effect. Some acid etchers welcome the opportunity to fashion new patterns and designs specific to customer needs. The potential for creativity is limited only by the imagination of the individual.
The fact is, if you think about acid-etched glass as being functional and utilitarian, yet decorative at the same time, there is no limit to the ways it can be used. Doors, windows, interior walls, storefronts, skylights, partitions, bath and shower enclosures, cabinets, tabletops, shelving, furniture, art glass, balustrades, clerestories, canopies, signage, elevator cabs, stair treads … the list goes on. Because of the inherent qualities of the raw material, the beauty of the glass can last a lifetime.