Copper wheel engraving
Glass engraving using lathe mounted copper wheels and grit paste. .
|Historic area of significance
|Bohemia, Germany and the Czech Republic
|Area currently practised
|London, Stourbridge, Edinburgh
|Origin in the UK
|Current no. of professionals (main income)
|Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
|Current no. of trainees
|Current total no. serious amateur makers
|Current total no. of leisure makers
|Minimum no. of craftspeople required
After a small trade in Egypt and the Middle East developed from hardstone engraving and used also on glass once it became available, t(T)he Romans developed copper wheel engraving on glass, particularly during the time of Augustus (0-100CE) when glassblowing flourished and demand for cut agate and hardstone vessels and objects outstripped supply – glass being easier to cut with the same tools. It survived as a craft in the Middle East, mainly on hardstone (e.g. the Fatimid crystal ewers and similar in the V&A) until it was revived (rediscovered) as a technique by Caspar Lehmann in seventeenth century Dresden and Bohemia when working on window panes for the Elector’s Court in Dresden, using Pietro dura lathes and tools. These lathes were adapted and made larger for working on glass and became popular with Dutch and British glassmakers with the rapid expansion of their glass industry. Coal fired furnaces discoloured the Italian style glass of the period and so lead was added to clarify it, resulting in more perfect and softer glass, suited to wheel engraving and polishing. It thrived in Europe thereafter, though largely the British used Bohemian masters for their top quality pieces.
After the First World War, demand for decorated glass declined and by the 1960s, taste for wheel engraved glass was only for reproduction work, not contemporary. Her Majesty The Queen presented wheel engraved work to foreign dignitaries until the 1970s and then taste at the Palace changed. The decline in the UK in the 1970s came alongside the development of ‘studio glass’ where small furnaces were used by artists to produce artwork rather than production pieces and the market for this overwhelmed the limited market for glass itself. Students were only too happy to learn sandblasting and blowing glass rather than the five year effort of learning copper wheel glass engraving.
Cutting and engraving glass with lathe mounted copper wheels smeared with a grit paste is older than glass itself, originating in early Babylon or Egypt with cut gemstones. The belt driven lathe carries a range of interchangeable spindles, each carrying a copper wheel of varying width, diameter and profile, to suit the cut. Cut from copper scrap, with a hole drilled in the centre, the wheel is placed at the end of a steel spindle (either reamed or with a rebate). The end of the protruding steel spindle is then hammered over to form a simple rivet while the lathe turns – a moment when even the most experienced engraver holds their breath.
A loose paste of emery or carborundum grit, oil and paraffin is applied to the turning copper wheel. The soft copper carries the slurry sufficiently well to carry the abrasive into the stone or glass surface and is easy to re-profile using a sharp mild steel blade or file. Coarse grit and fast speed on the lathe are used for rapid and large scale excavation, fine grit and slower speeds for more polished, delicate work.
The engraver makes a set of wheels to suit his/her (their) needs for a particular work. Most engravers also use fine stone and diamond wheels if these are available. Polishing, with a cork wheel mounted on a screw headed spindle, with a slurry of pumice powder and water, is followed by a fine polish with cerium oxide with water on a hard felt wheel. In earlier times, lead wheels were used for this last task.
Stourbridge techniques are still very traditional whilst artists like Katharine Coleman and Alison Kinnaird use colour overlay and their own drawings and designs more in line with contemporary applied arts and design.
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
- Training issue – The main problem is the time required to learn the skills involved which include being able to set copper discs on the spindles, centre them and get them to run perfectly true, profile them and maintain them. This is some 5 years, compared with about a year with modern but more limited diamond wheels (sintered diamonds). This still does not deter music students from learning, but it does in the crafts where ‘easier’ techniques naturally appeal.
- Training issue – The cost of equipment – lathes are no longer made in Germany and even the ones from Czechia are expensive. It costs some £8-10,000 to set up a basic lathe and wheels. While this would not deter a music student from buying a decent instrument, it is a hindrance in the crafts.
Training issue – There is a lack of facilities for training. Colleges may not have lathes and those that did have disposed of them as they no longer complied with their Health and Safety regulations. Stourbridge College, where the skills were taught, has been closed. The Department of Glass at Edinburgh College of Art no longer runs classes though the department was founded by a copper wheel glass engraver.
Training issue – There is a lack of practitioners to pass on skills and there are too few artists practising the craft to inspire future generations. Most students will use modern drill and blasting rather than wheel engraving which they find too slow and onerous.
Market issue – The classes in the last forty years have been focused entirely on reproduction of antique glass and engraving styles rather than making contemporary work which might sell and be collected in a market where pricing sustains the cost of such slow work.
Market issue– The few surviving glass manufacturers no longer produce wheel engraved glass.
Market issue – The technique is now regarded as too slow for commercial purposes. The final products are very expensive compared with other methods of decorating glass.
Craftspeople currently known
- Alison Kinnaird MBE
- Katharine Coleman MBE
- Steven Piper
- Denis Mann
- Wilma Mackenzie
- Junko Eager
- Ainsley Francis
- Greg Sullivan (Ireland)
- David Powell – making work for family and friends during his retirement
There are several competent glass engravers in the UK but they are using other tools such as drills or sintered diamond wheels on lathes. The skills are still taught formally in Germany, Poland & Czech Republic, where students can go to pursue some years of training.
The Glass Engraving Network is a worldwide information network for glass engravers, specifically wheel engravers (diamond, stone and copper wheel) and have been running touring exhibitions in Europe (Gravur on Tour 2015-2016) and Back on Tour (2019-2020), some 150 pieces by European masters from some 12 countries shown in museums in UK, Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Czech Republic, Estonia and Finland in 2015/16 and Finland and Germany 2019/2020. Courses and workshops for interested glass artists in nearby glass schools/colleges have run alongside the exhibitions.
The Copper Wheel Engravers are a new group based in Ireland around Greg Sullivan and together we are training and promoting the craft. Greg was an engraver for Waterford Crystal until they ceased employing wheel engravers.
The Art of the Wheel – Katharine Coleman on YouTube
Dreiser, Peter, and Matcham, Jonathan, (2006) Techniques of Glass Engraving, 2nd ed, (London: A&C Black), p.168, ISBN 0-7136-7516-0.