On my Easter trip to Scotland, I arranged a visit to a place which I hadn’t been to since I was a wee nipper – Caithness Glass. The factory and visitor centre is in Crieff, Perthshire, and I remember being dazzled by the sight of craftsmen blowing hot glass and plunging implements into roaring furnaces to make stunning glass pieces when I was young.
I read on the Caithness Glass website that they offer visitors the chance to make their own glass paperweight – this certainly appealed to me! I presumed I wouldn’t get to actually influence all that much, but I was happy to have the chance to see close-up how glass items were made.
I arrived at the visitor centre and was introduced to Martin, one of the craftsmen who works at Caithness. He showed me around the workshop, pointing out the furnaces, the kilns, the workstations. He said that the first job was to choose the colours for the pattern inside the paperweight.
The colours are formed by granules of coloured glass – displayed on a series of shelves in colour order. Martin told me that the coloured pieces work much in the same way as pottery glazes – some of them melt at different temperatures, giving different effects. Also, some of the granules are fine, like a coarse sand. Others look more like ice cream sprinkles, or are as coarse as gravel – all of these will affect the melting and mixing speeds of the colours, so will affect how the finished piece looks.
I was given some metal trays to collect colours on. I chose a fine, pale grey, a coarser pale yellow and a granular, dark blue. We set them out on the worktop by the furnace for mixing into the glass.
Martin collected a big blob of molten glass on the end of the pole, and began turning it evenly, to ensure it stayed centred on the pole. Every so often, he would hold the pole still, so that the glass would bend to one side. He would then flip it over, to keep the glass moving properly. He then gave me the pole, and together we rolled the molten glass in each of the coloured trays, to fix my chosen colour flakes to the molten glass. Then, the whole pole went back in the furnace to heat the mixture up to a good temperature for working on.
Martin then asked me to sit down and begin rolling the pole against the metal rails – this allows the glass to start cooling whilst keeping its shape. I was given a wet, wooden, curved mold, which I used to shape the top of the glass blob whilst cooling it slightly. He was a very patient teacher! I was surprised at how heavy the glass was, so it took a little getting used to – I eventually got the hang of the technique to roll the shape.
I couldn’t see the colours which had been added, but Martin explained that all the colours disappear whilst molten, and would return when the glass cooled.
I was then given a metal spiky tool, which I used to poke dents all over my blob. Martin explained how this was going to create air bubbles in the finished design. More glass was added, and then we went back to cooling and shaping the glass again.
Using large metal tongs, I created a neck to the glass blob, which would become the base of the paperweight. After a while, the glass had cooled to around 900 degrees (!) so I was able to use a sharp knife to score a line around the narrowest part of the neck. Martin then took the pole over to the cooling kiln, and firmly tapped the pole against the worktop – the finished paperweight cleanly broke off, like magic!
Glass is brittle when it cools too quickly, so at this point, it went into a cooling kiln, at a degree of 500 degrees, so that its temperature could lower gradually over the next 24 hours. Then, it could be removed from the kiln to continue to cool.
The whole experience took around 25 minutes, and it was great fun! I feel like I really learned a lot! It was great being in the real workshop where all of the Caithness paperweights are made, and to be making my item alongside other craftspeople making items for commercial sale. Martin was a great teacher and answered all of my incessant questions. He even agreed to being in a workshop selfie!
You may be wondering why it has taken me so long to post about my glassmaking experience, as it took place 6 weeks ago. Well, as I was in the process of gallavanting around the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, the lovely staff at Caithness said they would send my paperweight home for me at the beginning of May.
I eagerly awaited its arrival, but sadly, it did not appear! I became increasingly despondent as I checked the post box, day after day. I checked with Caithness to check it had been posted on time, and it had. After checking with the post office to no avail, I came to the conclusion that it had been lost in the post. How disappointing!
However, just last week, I received a phone call from Caithness. My paperweight had been on a jolly tour of the postal service of England and Scotland, and had arrived back at their factory. It was sent once again and arrived here last week. I am so utterly delighted with it! It’s not only a wonderful souvenir of my holiday, and a memory of a fantastic experience at the workshop, but also I love the way the colours swirl around inside the globe.
The wonderful people at Caithness even engraved the base of my paperweight with my name and the date that it was made – preserving my amazing holiday for years to come.
…and perhaps my favourite feature – from this angle, it looks like it’s smiling!