Heisey #4045 Ball Vase, Wide Optic, 7 inch, Sahara with #469 Mermaids etch

Heisey Etchings and Carvings Display 2015-2016

by Walter Ludwig

We have mounted a new display in Gallery 3 of the King House. This display highlights the full range of etchings and carvings done by A.H. Heisey & Company during the time that the factory was open. Etchings, Carvings, and Cuttings were the three main ways that the company enhanced their plain ware to give them more pizzazz and make them more attractive on the market place. The three techniques are differentiated by the means of applying the decoration onto the blank. Etchings were done with acid, carvings by sand blasting, and cuttings were done with a wheel. Etchings and carvings were much more mechanical and could be done by unskilled workers who were specially trained. Cuttings took a greater degree of skill which required artistic ability and years of training to fully learn the craft. Our display focuses only on the first two of these processes.This display will remain until after the Spring Auction. Do make an effort to see it before it is dismantled.

Heisey #507 Orchid etching plate
Heisey #507 Orchid etching plate

Heisey did not open its etching department until about 1916, roughly about the time that Heisey opened its blownware shop. The earliest etches done by Heisey were needle etches which were produced on a needle etching machine. These machines did a mechanical trace of a repetitive design on the piece to be decorated. All of the items decorated at this time were stemware and barware. Because the designs are simplistic and could be produced with a machine, designs were not always exclusive to a particular company, so unless you can positively identify the piece of glass as Heisey the presence of a particular etch is not enough to assure Heisey attribution. For the most part needle etches were not produced after the 1920s, but a few pieces of Sahara 3394 Saxony are known with 50 Dresden etch.

Heisey #515 Rose etching plate
Heisey #515 Rose etching plate

Another etching process used by Heisey was pantographic etching. The earliest Heisey ones were done around 1920. This was another mechanical process using a machine to transfer a design to a piece of glassware. In this case a stencil was traced and the pantographic machine reduced the drawing to the size necessary for the piece of glassware. These designs were again repetitive however allowed for a much more intricacy in the final product. For some designs parts could be left out producing a variation of the design which would be assigned a different number.

The vast majority of Heisey etchings were plate etchings. The earliest plate etchings were devised around 1916. These earliest etchings are more likely to be put on pressed pieces, but blown pieces were soon added. The process of producing a plate etching involves first making a metal etching plate with the design in relief. A coat of resist was then applied to the plate. A tissue paper was laid over the resist and then transferred to the item to be etched. Beeswax was applied to the areas not being etched and the item was then dipped into an acid solution which etched the piece.

Two additional plate etching techniques were double plate and silhouette etching. In double plate etching the design is broken into two pieces and the etching process is gone through twice. The background or cameos were etched first and then a second etching would be done over the first to produce a framed effect. Heisey’s 503 Minuet etch shows the result of this process. The silhouette etching process was a patented process developed by Heisey to produce a different effect. The process was developed in the early 30s and arrived just in time for the repeal of Prohibition. This means that much of Heisey’s barware of the era displays this new technique. Rather than the delicate etches that were produced by the regular plate etching technique these designs were deeper and shown only in silhouette.

Matte etching produces a frosted effect on the whole piece or only part of a piece. It has been said that treatment was often used to save a piece that had a production defect, but many very attractive pieces were produced this way.

The carvings Heisey produced were achieved by sandblasting. A stencil would be placed over the glass and then resist applied to the remainder of the piece. A continuous narrow stream of sand would be aimed at the piece. Varying the time of exposure could produce different depths of decoration producing a pleasing effect. This technique was first used in the 1930s and many attractive Art Deco designs were produced this way.

Besides regular production pieces Heisey produced many custom etches for different customers. One of the most famous was for Fred Harvey and his restaurants. Besides producing wares in Harvey Amber many crystal pieces were produced bearing several variations of the Harvey crest. Other special etchings were produced for railroad lines, fraternal organizations, military, companies, and social clubs. A special line was produced for Howard Wolfe, owner of the Columbus Dispatch and a personal friend of E. Wilson Heisey. These pieces were for use at his vacation home, the “Wigwam,” and his yacht, the “Sea Wolfe”.

We also have etched pieces that were done by other companies on Heisey blanks, including pieces from Lotus and Dorothy Thorpe.

I will now go into more detail on the production of etches at Heisey.

Needle Etchlng
Needle etching is the simplest form and involves the placement of a prearranged pattern on a piece of glass. Heisey produced several needle etchings in the very beginning of its production of decorated glass. These etchings are numbered between one and fifty-two.

#9001 Trefoil needle etching, circa 1919
#9001 Trefoil needle etching, circa 1919

Needle etchings are easy to differentiate from the others, in that, being mechanically produced, they are necessarily made up of groups of simple lines, zig-zags, curves, etc. Great variety can be achieved, but basically, they always contain the same elements of design.

In this method the piece of glass is first covered completely with melted beeswax. When the wax has cooled the piece is positioned in a revolving clamp while mechanically operated steel needles, which look exactly like sewing needles, trace a design on it, removing the wax coating. After the design has been cut through the wax, the piece of glass is immersed in an acid bath which produces a design by eating away the glass where the wax has been removed. After the etching process is completed, the wax is removed with hot water and reclaimed for future use.

Pantograph Etching

etchings4Another method of decoration used by Heisey is pantograph etching, which is somewhat more complicated than needle etching. It is more elaborate and slightly more expensive to produce yet is still a mass-produced type. These are numbered between 100 and 200.

A pantograph is a device by which a drawing can either be enlarged or reduced in size. Pantograph etchings are done on a machine which does basically the same thing in applying designs to glass. The etching design is cut oversize into a large steel plate. A worker traces the design with a stylus, covering the entire outline, and each movement is followed by a small needle against the wax-covered piece which has been clamped to a revolving platform. One or several dozen pieces can be prepared at the same time according to the size of the machine. After the design is scratched through the wax, the glass is immersed into the acid bath which produces the etching.

This method provides more variety and intricacy of design than needle etching but is still basically geometric in shape or limited to outline type etchings. It might be noted that the operator could leave out part of the tracing so that all of the design might not appear on the glass article. It is apparent that this was deliberately done in case of #163 Monticello and #164 Salem to make two different patterns from the same plate.


Plate Etching
By far the most popular of the acid-type decoration, plate etching was done extensively for many years. It was more elaborate than previous methods and permitted unlimited artistry. These etchings are numbered between 300 and the low 500’s which indicates that large quantities were made.

The first step in the process was the designer’s drawing, a different size for nearly every item from the tiny cordial to the large pitcher. The design was put onto a metal plate photographically and then etched to develop the design in relief. The plate was then used to make acid-resist patterns.

Several workers were involved in the etching process. First a printmaker spread a coat of black acid-resistant “ink”, usually beeswax and lampblack, on the plate using a broad-bladed knife to press in into the steel engraving, also using the knife to remove the excess. He then covered this with a piece of special tissue paper and rubbed it firmly with a thick felt pad to transfer the ink to the paper.

etchings6The paper pattern was then handed to the first of four girls working at an adjacent table. It was her job to check the pattern for marks or thin places, then cut around the pattern and hand it to the next girl. She fit the pattern which had to be centered exactly to the piece of glass, making sure there were no wrinkles in the tissue. A third girl used a piece of felt to transfer the acid resist to the glass by rubbing the paper firmly. This had to done very carefully since each mistake would show up on the finished piece. The fourth girl at the table dipped the glass into a container of water mixed with alcohol which loosened the paper so that it could be pulled off easily leaving the black design on the glass.

Large wheeled carts containing tiers of removable wooden shelves were filled with the glass and taken to another area. Here girls applied melted beeswax on all surfaces of the glass which were to remain un-etched.

Next the glassware was immersed into a bath of 60% solution of hydrofluoric acid mixed with two and a half to three parts water for a period of fifteen to twenty minutes. The beeswax was then removed with hot water, as in the other etching processes, and was reclaimed for future use. The design would be etched only in the areas not covered with the black acid resist or the beeswax.

As can readily be seen, this process required more workers, more time, and several etching plates so that it was natural that it was more expensive. Many of the most famous etchings were done by this method.

Plate etchings were made circa 1916 until 1957 though only three remained when the company went out of business. These were Orchid, Heisey Rose, and Plantation Ivy.

Heisey #503 Minuet
Heisey #503 Minuet

Double Plate Etchings
Double plate etchings were so named because two plates and two etching processes were required to make them. Some of these were sometimes referred to as “Cameo” etchings. The end result does resemble a cameo mounted in an ornate frame suspended from a band and connected to other cameos with swags of light chain. In the cameos are figures of people or animals etched into the lightly frosted background which was the result of the first etching process. In a few cases the frosted areas were backgrounds for flowers, etc.

The design for double plate etching must be done in two steps. First the background of the cameo or medallion is lightly frosted. When this process is completed, another pattern is placed on the glass so that the frame and central figure is centered exactly over the frosted area. The etching process is repeated with this second design being etched deeper than the frosted area.

These etchings are delicate and enchanting and are among the most popular with today’s collectors.

The novel surfaces which were obtained by this process were due to the fact that the designs were silhouettes having wide areas, and also because strong acid solutions were used for long periods of time. After the article was placed in the vat the acid reacted with the glass to form insoluble salts which clung to the surface. The salts apparently did not deposit uniformly throughout the area and consequently the acid did not eat to a uniform depth. It ate more readily where there was little or no deposit of the salts and more deeply in the center because the salts were more easily washed off in that area.

The figures, though actually below the surfaces of the glass, had the appearances of being raised. The lack of uniformity and the transparent areas presented a pleasing effect. The larger articles are better examples of the very deep etching that are the smaller items.

Heisey Flat tumbler with Fox Chase etching
Flat tumbler with Fox Chase etching

Silhouette Etchings
These are referred to in most catalogs as “Deep Plate” but we have chosen to call the “Silhouette” etchings. This is what they were called in the patent for the process and we hope to avoid confusing them with other etchings done by a different technique.

On July 8, 1933, Ronald Wooles, then the head of the etching department, applied for a patent for a new etching process. The patent was granted on June 2, 1936. In the meantime, many patterns were made using his new process.

In ordinary plate etching the design consisted of a series of relatively thin lines along which the acid had operated to etch the glass. The acid being more or less concentrated along sharply defined narrow lines produced what appeared to be a series of channels with comparatively abrupt sides.

As with plate etching the first step of the new process was the drawing of the design. However the drawings were silhouettes or solid black figures and the new idea was to etch out the whole design rather than just the outline was usually done. The exterior outline of the drawing was delineated by the interior outline of the acid resist which entirely covered the article except for the area to be etched.

When the article had been covered with acid resist, except for the pattern area, it was dipped into a solution of two parts water and one part 80% solution of hydrofluoric acid for forty-five to sixty minutes. This process produced a silhouette design upon the glass which was rough and sometimes glassy in appearance possessing various degrees of transparency in different parts of its areas. The rough surfaces were devoid of any lines but were more heavily frosted in some places than in others. By touching the design it became apparent that the surface was of irregular depth with a tendency to deepen in the center. In some cases the center was nearly devoid of frosting and, in fact, was almost clear.

Heisey basket with matte etching
Heisey basket with matte etching

Matte Etching
In this process the surface to be frosted was subjected to a weak acid solution for a short period of time in order to produce a light matte finish. The frosted area was of substantially uniform character. By using the acid-resist on the bowl of a goblet, certain portions of a bowl or candlestick or any other item, areas of the glass could remain unfrosted. Sometimes part of the frost or etching could be polished off leaving clear areas which gave a pleasing highlighting to an item.

The #600 series was done by this etching method, as well as most of the frosted areas on a wide variety of Heisey glass items.

Carvings were done by a sand blasting process very similar to that used for carving tombstones. First a drawing or stencil was made of the desired design. Then a rubbery coating which could resist the sand was applied to the glass. The coating was carved away with a sharp knife where the pattern dictated and the exposed areas were subjected to sand blasting which left a roughened surface which appeared to be frosted. The depth of the carving could be varied by the operator of the sand-blasting machine. After part of the carving had been done, some of the resist could be cut away and the design changed or shaded by further sand blasting.

#5003 Nimrod carving with frosted band
#5003 Nimrod carving with frosted band
Heisey #4044 New Era two light candlestick, with #5010 Vanity Fair carving
#4044 New Era two light candlestick, with #5010 Vanity Fair carving