Glassblower using newspaper paddle

A Dartington glassblower uses a newspaper paddle to shape a piece of blown glass

A letter in the Financial Times about a month ago piqued my interest. It stated that the characteristic salmon pink pages of the FT play a unique role in producing hand-made crystal glass at Dartington crystal. Since I was about to go on holiday to Devon, and had planned a trip to the Dartington factory anyway, I decided to do a bit of investigating myself.

In the FT letter, the correspondent says that the  reason for using the pink pages of the FT is so that no trace elements are transferred to the crystal ‘when the protective newsprint is peeled away’, as they might be with other, bleached, newspaper.

This sounded a little implausible to the chemist in me. If the newspaper was only being used for protection, surely any interaction with the crystal glass would be confined to the ink, or any contaminants left from the paper processing, rubbing off on the surface? The possibility of significant chemical reaction between the glass and the newsprint at room temperature seemed remote at best.

A tour of the factory quickly confirmed my hunch. The role of the newspaper is much more than simply protective, but perhaps quite surprising. It is an integral tool in shaping blown glass. The yellow-handled paddle in the picture is actually made up of a wad of newspaper.

newspaper paddle

This yellow handled paddle is actually a stack of newspapers

As the glassblower blows and shapes a globule of molten glass into a tumbler (in this case) or any other object, part of the process involves dipping that paddle into a bucket of water and holding it up to the red hot glass. At the same time he rolls the blowpipe backwards and forwards to ensure the glass is the right shape and consistent thickness.

Newspaper is absorbent and cheap to replace, making it ideal for making these paddles. However, being in contact with glass at several hundred degrees means the paper does burn away slowly, so it’s important it doesn’t transfer contaminants to the glass in its semi-molten state, which could then create imperfections in the final product.

So that begs the question, what is it about the FT that makes it the preferred choice of glassblowers? Is it something to do with the chemical processing of the paper? Is the paper bleached less ferociously than its white cousins? Or does the dyeing process mean any residues from the bleaching are washed out more thoroughly? Or is it simply tradition with little scientific backing? Speaking to some of the Dartington staff I got some vague answers about the ‘quality of the paper’, but it would be interesting to know if any of our readers have more insight.

If you have never watched a glassblower at work, it is quite an amazing experience. The apparently effortless skill of a master glassblower is breathtaking. No wonder it takes around 10 years to reach that level. But, as with glassblowing for chemistry equipment, it is a skill that is slowly dying out – Dartington is one of the last commercial-scale producers of hand-blown glass in the UK.

Phillip Broadwith

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