Dreaming of sea glass

Sharon Jessup Joyce

Blog broken glass

Having achieved my lifelong dream of an ocean-front vacation property, one of the first things I wanted to do was make sea glass. When I Googled “making sea glass” I got back dozens of hits about using a rock tumbler to make fake sea glass. But I wanted a method for using the actual ocean to make authentic sea glass, and I couldn’t seem to find anything on the internet about how to do it. It was obvious I needed to break glass and get it into the ocean. The harder part was devising a method to keep shards of glass from floating around the Atlantic, to be harvested by someone else.

My plan, concocted with the help of Sarah, our son’s girlfriend, another (generally more successful) creative type, included ten easy steps:

1. Buy a suitable length of sturdy line (nylon rope).
2, Buy some window screening.
3. Buy or find some attractive coloured bottles.
4. Smash the bottles.
5. Pick out large and nicely-shaped shards.
6. Put chosen glass pieces in screening.
7. Tie screening up with line.
8. Wrap line around tree at shoreline.
9. Throw parcel into ocean.
10. Check regularly, and eventually harvest my lovely sea glass.

I accomplished #1 and #2 easily, buying climbing line, which cost less than I expected, at a sports store, and screening at a hardware store. So far, the project had cost under $20.

Completing #3, acquiring bottles, was the most expensive part of the process. An intelligent approach would be to collect empty (and free) bottles in interesting colours. But I wanted to get on with it, so I decided to buy products just to get the bottles that contained them. The motherlode for beautiful coloured glass is the liquor store, so I wandered the aisles one afternoon, admiring rich blues, delicate greens and even a pinkish-red.

“Having a party?” a staff member enquired brightly, noticing the Skyy Vodka, Bacardi White Rum and Bombay Sapphire Gin bottles in my cart.

“Making sea glass,” I replied, squinting at the two slightly different shades of cobalt-blue bottles I was holding up to the light. “Which shade is nicer?” I asked her.

“Can I ask a question about some wine when you have a minute?” A young man had approached the staff person just as she pointed to the bottle in my left hand. “I like that one a bit better.”

The young man looked perplexed. “Um…you know one is wine and one is vodka, right?” he asked.

“She just wants it for the bottle,” the staffer explained. The young man paused for a moment, then pushed his cart away without asking his wine question

With my new friend’s help, I finally settled on the three bottles I already had in my cart. I would add a Perrier bottle I had at home. That gave me dark green, pale green, cobalt blue with a nice hint of purple, and light, clear blue. I decided to allocate the liquor as a grocery cost, as a kindness to the project budget.

Blog liquor in mason jarsI was really looking forward to #4, breaking the bottles. The only thing I like better than throwing things is breaking things, so I was humming happily as I assembled my hammer, a large supply of paper bags and old newspapers, and the now-empty bottles. Oh, about that. I put the liquor in clean Mason jars, which I conscientiously labelled. When our daughter Olivia saw the filled jars, she said it looked as though I had been making moonshine.

While I was getting organized, my husband was doing some legitimate chore or other. Laundry, I think, or maybe he was hanging pictures. Bob tries not to hover when I do things involving sharp or heavy implements, but restraining himself from hovering costs him enormous and often visible effort. This is because I have a considerable history of cutting, burning and bruising myself when doing anything other than reading quietly in a chair. Observing my preparations, he asked me to describe my planned method for breaking the bottles. He tried to do it in a casual, husbandly, just-interested-in-the-project sort of way, but I wasn’t deceived, especially when he left the room and returned with several of our less attractive cloth shopping bags.

“You could wrap the bottles in newspaper, put the newspaper parcels in the paper bags, and put the paper bag in these old cloth bags,” he suggested hopefully. That actually was a good idea, so when I took everything out to the deck, I included the cloth bags. I didn’t take the dog, who watched me reproachfully through the door. Cutting myself is one thing, but I don’t take chances with Spenser.

Blog broken glass and hammerIt was almost as much fun to break the bottles as I thought it would be, but my plan to tap the bottles near their bottoms, to prevent the middle of the bottle from breaking into zillions of tiny pieces, was thwarted by liquor bottle design. It turns out the punt (the correct name for the bottom), being thicker and curved, is harder to break, as is the narrow neck. Each of the four bottles I broke, one at a time, required multiple gentle-to-medium taps with the hammer, and it was only when I tapped closer to the middle that I heard the satisfying crash of breaking glass. That sound, and the sensation of the smooth glass giving way under my hammer, were easily the most fun parts of the project.

Step #5, picking out useful pieces of broken glass, was also fun. I had unusable glass powder and tiny fragments, as well as large curved pieces from the neck and punt that were just too big or too oddly-shaped. But there were lots of other pieces of broken glass that were a good size and shape. Interestingly, a lot of pieces were more or less triangular, which may explain why so much sea glass jewellery is triangular. Despite my attempts to be careful unwrapping and sorting the glass, I did get a few small cuts, one of which must have been deepish, because it bled for an irritatingly long time. I also got a couple of glass slivers, which I was able to remove (having developed very good sliver-removing techniques through much practice).  A website I saw later about another project using broken glass advised wearing heavy leather gloves. Good idea.

I set aside some other promising pieces of glass in yet another useful Mason jar, and carefully quadruple-wrapped the remaining broken glass in newspaper, putting it in new paper bags and the old cloth bags. Bob watched the containment process carefully, while pretending to be focused on unpacking the dishwasher. He didn’t offer helpful tips, so I think my disposal methodology was likely sound. Either that, or he redid it when I was out of the room.

Blog sea glass ready to go into oceanFor step #6, putting the glass in the screening, I doubled the screening to reduce the risk of sharp glass cutting its way through a single layer. It was heavy-duty screening, and I tested its ability to withstand the sharpness of the glass by poking with my finger at various glass points through the screen. It remained intact, as did my fingertip.

Blog Spenser helping with sea glassI let Spenser play with the line, to compensate for leaving him in the house during the fun parts. Figuring out how to tie the screen “bag” shut with the line, and  secure the line to a tree (steps #7 and #8) with enough length to keep it in the water, turned out to be the hardest steps. It didn’t help that it was a windy day, and our shoreline has large, difficult-to-navigate rocks at the spot where it also has a conveniently-located tree to use to secure the line to shore. After considering different strategies, Bob and I ended up adding a few rocks the size of golf balls to the parcel to weigh it down. We doubled the line and experimented with looping it around the tree. After being scratched by pine needles, we decided to loop the line around a nearby large rock, about the size of a kitchen range. We used both ends to tie up the screen parcel, knotting the line multiple times around the neck of the parcel to make something that looked like a clumsy drawstring bag.

Blog sea glass longer shotI completed step #9, throwing the parcel into the ocean, with a combination of hope and anxiety. The wind and water were wild that day, so when I went down to the shore the next morning to check on the parcel, I half-expected to find it gone. But there it was, sitting securely in front of the big rock,though it was no longer in the water. The tide had receded, leaving the parcel of glass behind. For the next few days, Bob and I trotted down our wooded path to the water twice a day to throw our future sea glass back into the sea. Each time, Spenser barked madly and had to be dissuaded from going after it. Finally, we realized a good-sized rock on top of the parcel would keep it in the water, allowing the tide to surge in and out around it.

The first part of step #10, check regularly, was easy as long as we were at the house. Sadly, we are there only a handful of weeks each year, and we rent it out as a weekly vacation property through the warmer months. We will be able to let our glass-and-screen parcel stay in the ocean only when we are at the house, or when the house is vacant.

“So how long is it going to take, do you think?” Bob asked me.

I was on the internet, trying to find out, wading through dozens more sites about using rock tumblers. Other sites burbled about how much fun it is to look for sea glass along the shore. Still others told me something called beach glass comes from bodies of fresh water, and is not as desirable as sea glass, which comes from salt water. It was all very educational, but it didn’t answer the key question: when would we have our very own sea glass, from our very own shoreline?

And then I found the answer. Years. Actually, decades. More bad news: it seems that sea glass is formed by broken glass pieces bouncing freely around in the water. My little screen parcel, kept by line and rock in one spot, may eventually yield sea glass, but it will take even longer than if the glass was free-range. But I’m not giving up and resorting to a rock tumbler. Instead, I’m going to keep putting the parcel in the water whenever I’m at the house, and leaving it there through the winter when the house is vacant. I’m committed to the project. Maybe in a decade or so, if the glass shards look unchanged, or I get tired of removing, checking on and replacing the parcel, I can use the glass pieces in another project.

Later that day, I bumped into the liquor store employee, who greeted me cheerfully. “I can’t wait to hear how your sea glass project turns out! Make sure you keep me posted, okay?” I agreed warmly. She’s such a nice person. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that she and I will be long gone before our carefully-selected bottles ever become sea glass. Perhaps my future grandchildren will make necklaces from the bottles she helped me choose, and sell them to her future grandchildren.

In the meantime, I’ve discovered something useful. The Mason jars of rum, gin and vodka are the perfect size for the freezer.

Spenser on duty

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