Volume 37, Issue 7, July 2002

From the Enormous to the miniscule
        Glass Etching can Accomodate an Array of Projects
by Steve Warner

There are 3,066 counties in the United States. The largest is North Slope Borough in Alaska, encompassing 87,860 square miles. The smallest is Arlington County, Va., at 26 square miles.
Now imagine a U.S. map approximately six feet by eight feet with all 50 states and every single county outlined—in etched glass!

That was the challenge that Vision Art Systems of Frederick, Md., had to meet when given architectural specifications for an interior glass panel. The work is now the centerpiece of the National Association of Counties' (NACO’s) lobby at its Washington, D.C., headquarters.

Vision Art Systems sandblasted a glass panel of the United States for NACO’s lobby.

Gigantic Challenge
With the size of Arlington County on the scaled map about as small as a baby aspirin, the job was rather painstaking, according to Russ Rowland, VAS systems coordinator.

“There had to be a major quality-control effort on this piece of glass because of the amount of detail involved,” he said.

The work was done on half-inch, clear-tempered glass with the background sandblasted to a full-surface opacity, leaving state and county outlines clear. The pattern was created by a computer-driven vinyl plotter that accepts 30-inch-width rolls that are sprocket-fed for exacting cuts. Even so, there is still a tolerance level as to what can be rendered on glass. 

“Detail less than 1/16 of an inch is best avoided,” said Rowland. “Not only can vinyl stretch when it's laid out on a piece of glass, but tiny particles, film and dirt can play havoc with the process and a portion of the glass that was to be clear gets sandblasted.” 

Sometimes the opposite occurs. In automated etching of a pattern on glass, the vinyl acts as a resister that leaves the glass clear where it is laid down. But foreign matter, such as glue residue (from the vinyl) can act as a resister as well. It can really get tricky when intricate designs have to be 

In the case of the work created for NACO, the position of every county had to be checked manually for accuracy. When something was missing or had shifted slightly out of place, corrections would have to be made on the vinyl before the job went through the sandblaster. 

“Once a piece of a glass has been etched, there's usually no going back. Mistakes can be costly,” Rowland said.

It was well-worth the effort, according to Jaqualine Byers, director of research for NACO. “We love it. It gets a lot of attention, even people off the street come in to admire it and ask us questions,” she said.

Amazing Possibilities
Automated etching has become amazingly sophisticated, enabling architects to dream up just about anything and have it rendered in glass. Our company has blasting equipment that can control density or the amount of opacity, the depth of carving for multi-layered effects and shades of frost from light to dark. Often glass is carved on the non-viewing side to create unique textured and three-dimensional effects.

Rowland comes from an art glass background, having worked with his artist/wife, Sharon, to produce commissioned carved and stained glass pieces for a diverse clientele. “Now, commercial work involving etched designs has become extremely popular,” Rowland said. “With the development of co-polymer sealant, etched glass is typically much more cost-effective than decorative laminated glass, yet still easy to clean and keep clean. Surface etching does not alter the structural character of the glass,” he added. “In fact, our sandblasted glass has been independently tested and it meets ANSI Z97-1 standards.”

Our company has produced work that adorns both interior office space as well as exterior applications. The rendering of logos and architectural design schemes in glass can create beautiful and dramatic effects. Clients often consult with VAS on just what can be done and how it might look. 

“It's sometimes necessary to provide a miniature mock-up in glass,” Rowland said. “Not all clients know exactly what they want, so we help them with the artwork and specifications for a job.”

Architects love designing with glass because it can be combined with lighting to create different moods and themes within an environment. It's true that art glass application is bounded only by the imagination. 


Steve Warner is the public relations agent for Visual Art Systems division of Custom Glass Services Inc. Frederick, Md. 


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