Have you ever seen an old pane of glass? Maybe it was during a tour of an antique home, or maybe you found a glass window panel in a junk shop downtown. You might have noticed that the quality and appearance of the glass is far different from the perfectly smooth panels we have in our homes today. But what makes these glass panes looked warped or wavy? It’s not a design choice, it actually has to do with how the glass was made. Let’s take a look.
Glass: A Marvel of 19th Century Technology
It’s a common line of thinking that wavy glass is a result of the glass aging, or being weathered by the elements. This does make a little sense, as the elements can affect materials like glass in a number of ways. But that’s not the real reason behind wavy glass.
If you didn’t already know, making glass is really difficult, even with modern technology. It’s only been in the last few decades that we’ve been able to make glass consistently and effectively with machinery. Until then, it was largely made by hand.
Back in the 19th century, having a large or even medium-sized pane of glass was extremely expensive and time-consuming. But to meet the demands of changing architectures, glassmakers deployed two distinct ways of making glass.
Before manufacturers could use machines to make glass, individual panels were made by individual glass blowers. One of the most cost-effective ways to do this was to make crown glass. The glass is made by blowing it into the shape of a hollow globe. The globe was then heated and spun, which helped to make the glass flatten out into a disc. From these discs of glass, square panels could be cut. The center of each of these panes was thickest in the center, getting thinner as they moved to the outside edge of the panel. The result was that each pane had an appearance, not unlike a bulls-eye.
The 19th century was remarkable for the speed at which new technology and machinery were developed. As such, new manufacturing techniques were developed for a variety of products, not just glass. One of these ways to make glass was by extruding a huge tube of glass. It was common to see tubes of glass stand nearly 40 feet tall before they were cut into more manageable 10 foot tubes. These tubes were then slowly heated and flattened. Once flat, smaller panels could be cut and placed into a frame.
While tube glass created larger panes of glass, the flattening process wasn’t always precise, and wavy or bumpy glass was fairly common. That’s because the heat wasn’t always evenly applied across the entire pane of glass.
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