How to Make a Replica of 1900-Year-Old Glass Fish: A Brilliant Video from the British Museum

All due respect to the British Museum, but the title of its “How to Make a Glass Fish Replica” video, above is a tad misleading.

I’m sure no malice was intended, but “making” a DIY fish-shaped vessel reminiscent of some 22 found in the ancient Kushan storerooms at Begram, Afghanistan is no one’s definition of an easy craft project. (Unless you’re willing to fudge with some Elmer’s, some blue felt, and an empty peanut butter jar…)

Glass Specialist Bill Gudenrath of the Corning Museum of Glass is an historian of glassworking techniques from ancient Egypt through the Renaissance and clearly expert at his craft, but he doesn’t appear to be too keen on supplying explanatory blow-by-blows. Nor would I be, bustling around a red hot glass oven, without so much as a Johnny Tremain-style leather apron to protect me. I’m not even sure I’d want the distraction of a video camera in my face.

But if, as the title implies, the goal is to produce a duplicate of this whimsical 1900-year-old guppy, the process must be broken down.

From what this casual viewer was able to piece together, the steps would go something like:

1. Twirl a red hot metal pipe in the forge until you have a healthy glob of molten glass. Apparently it’s not so different from making cotton candy.

2. Roll the glass blob back and forth on a metal tray.

3. Blow into the pipe’s non-glowing end to form a bubble.

4. Repeat steps 1-3

5. Roll the pipe back and forth on a metal sawhorse while seated, applying pinchers to taper the blob into a recognizably fishy-shape.

(Don’t worry about its proximity to your bare forearms and khaki-covered thighs! What could possibly go wrong?)

6. Twirl it like a baton.

(Depending on the length of your arms, your nascent glass fish may come dangerously close to the cement floor. Try not to sweat it.)

7. Use scissors and pinchers to tease out a nipple-shaped appendage that will become the fish’s lips.

8. Use another poker to apply various bloops of molten glass. (Novices may want to practice with a hot glue gun to get the hang of this – it’s trickier than it looks!)  Pinch, prod and drape these bloops into eye and fin shapes. A non-electric crimping iron will prove handy here.

9. Use blue glass, tweezers and crimping iron to personalize your fish-shaped vessel’s distinctive dorsal and anal fins.

10. Tap on the pipe to crack the fish loose. (Careful!)

11. Score the distal end with a glass cutting tool.

 (This step should prove a cinch for anyone who ever used a craft kit to turn empty beer and soda bottles into drinking glasses!)

12. Smooth rough edges with another loop of molten glass and some sort of electric underwater grinding wheel.

Optional 13th step: Read this description of a furnace session, to better acquaint yourself with both best glassblowing practices and the proper names for the equipment. Or get the jump on Christmas 2017 with this true how-to guide to producing hand blown glass ornaments.

Not planning on blowing any glass, fish-shaped or otherwise, any time soon?

Explore the somewhat mysterious history of the 1900-year-old fish-shaped original here, compliments of the British Museum’s St John Simpson, senior curator for its pre-Islamic collections from Iran and Arabia.

Related Content:

Modern Artists Show How the Ancient Greeks & Romans Made Coins, Vases & Artisanal Glass

Glass: The Oscar-Winning “Perfect Short Documentary” on Dutch Glassmaking (1958)

How to Bake Ancient Roman Bread Dating Back to 79 AD: A Video Primer

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Her play Zamboni Godot is opening in New York City in March 2017. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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