The Dying Arts
Looking Back on the Glass of Yesterday
by Dez Farnady
Skilled craftspeople are truly a thing of the past. The master craftsmen who made the polished stone mosaic tabletops of the Italian renaissance inlaid with birds and flowers have never been replaced. Like the skilled masons of the pyramids whose methods have not been discovered to this day, the fine craftsmen of our business are disappearing and taking their secrets with them. Do we even know or care how the gothic cathedrals were glazed a thousand years ago? We know what those workers did because we can see that, but how did they do it? Where did the glass come from? Where did the tools come from? What were the tools?
We are living in an age when a computer-optimized cutting table can cut 180-square feet of glass into a dozen patterns and shapes in a matter of minutes. Even on a bad day the computer optimization cuts the waste down to under 20 percent. The patterns may vary from simple rectangles to circles and octagons and all you do is watch the bridge fly back and forth across the face of a 17- by 11-foot sheet of glass to score the desired patterns. Unskilled workers fresh off the street can break out the glass and rack it so it can move down to another automated line.
The heavy glass fabricators cut, polish, notch and drill ½-inch and ¾-inch glass like it was butter. What do you want? Beveled tabletops? Mickey-Mouse-ear cutouts on shower doors for hinges? Fancy notches on heavy glass for complicated entry-door patch hardware? Whatever you choose, machines can cut it in minutes. Water jet cutters can cut out the letters of the alphabet in ½-inch glass in as little time as it takes to draw the perimeter of the letter.
The Way We Were
I suppose we need all this stuff because it is becoming harder and harder to find skilled glaziers who can fabricate glass. Man is too expensive to do what the machine can do faster and cheaper. Most glaziers today are considered good if they can throw in storefront fast or install a door and be out of there in time to go measure another job before the day is over.
I am not nostalgic for the old days, but the diminishing skill of the craftspeople will leave a hole in the intangible aesthetic that was once the art of glazing. For example, more than a decade ago a glazing contractor was already bemoaning the fact that he could not afford to re-glaze an old building because it included hundreds of small lites of glass, steel sash, putty-glazed. He no longer had an old glazier who could “run putty” like they did in the “old days.”
There has always been magic in watching a skilled craftsperson ply his trade with smooth and efficient movements that result in quality work as pleasing to see as the fabrication process was to watch. They could score a lite of heavy glass or a piece of mirror and run it for a clean break as straight as the best machine-cut you have ever seen. Some could hand-polish a radiused edge with speed and grace and the results could match those of any machine. The machine that cost more than a man could earn in a year may not be so much fun to watch, but it can out-perform three men in speed and efficiency. Besides, today you couldn’t find three men to do the job that well anyway.
I suppose nostalgia is a disease of the old, but don’t despair because all things come back in one way or another. While the skilled craftsperson are gone some of the skill has returned in another form. The leaded glass panes of the cathedral have returned in the form of art glass in fashionable entrance doors at handsome prices, and the skilled glazier has turned into the “glass arteest.” The heavy-glass fabricator is back as the sandblaster or glass carver who now creates the fish-gulping swan or the semi-nude cutie on those expensive shower doors. And while there are not many of them, they are the keepers of the flame.
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