Melting New Life into Old Marbles

Sulphide repair before and afterMany old marbles are so damaged that only a hint of their original beauty remains. Sadly this is common, especially with the larger and very collectible old German handmade marbles.

But thanks to glass artists like Rich Shelby, these beat-up antique marbles are getting a second chance to look young again.

Rich was no stranger to working with glass when he stumbled upon marble repairing. He had been lampworking glass beads for 10 years when, about three and a half years ago. he decided to try his hand at making marbles. His years of experience prepared him for his unexpected journey into repairing vintage marbles. As Rich tells the story:

“I was in charge of the 4th annual Orange County Marble Show in March of 2010.  Knowing that there would be contemporary marble makers there like myself along with vintage marble collectors, I needed to do a quick study of the vintage marble collecting hobby. It is because of this that I had the opportunity to meet and work with my friend, Mr. Bob Jackson.

Bob had a few old collectible marbles that were chipped, dinged, and/or foggy on the surface and generally very worn. He asked me if I could “fix” them. That is when it all started – my quest to repair his battered old marbles.”

Rich soon found himself quite busy on this exciting new quest. In the six months since, he has repaired about 400 marbles and re-melted another 300. The distinction between a repair and a remelt is quite important, as Rich relates:

“A repair makes the marble as close to the original design as possible. It corrects and fills in the dents, pot marks and chips to a smooth surface without messing up the design. A re-melt is when you combine 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5 marbles into one big new marble and change the design. Some changes can be slight but others – you can’t recognize any of the original marbles one bit.”

This Akro Agate corkscrew was a clean and simple repair.Every repair job presents new challenges and requires both science and art. If you ask Rich about the science, he will happily tell you about the Coefficient of Expansion (COE, or how to determine the ways different colors of glass will react) and even how by aligning the molecules of the different colors of glass he can prevent them all from breaking.

In order to have a chance for a good repair, Rich says he needs as much “wiggle room” as possible on the surface of the marble. This means if the colored swirls are on or too near the damaged area, he may recommend polishing the marble instead of attempting a repair that could harm the original design’s integrity. In all cases he always says, “If the person has any emotional feelings about the marble, I never suggest any repair.”

These badly damaged old slag marbles were remelted to combine into beautiful new marbles.Certain old German handmade marbles like sulphides and some old swirls can repair to almost like-new condition. On the other hand, the colors in opaque machine made marbles behave unpredictably under the torch and may bleed or change color. But sometimes they too can be repaired remarkably well.

When repairs are impossible or the customer wants something entirely new,  remelting is a second option for bringing new life to damaged marbles.  The results can be delightful. In a remelt, Rich takes two or more marbles back into their molten state and combines them. As the different glasses and colors mix together, they form new patterns and are literally reborn as shiny new but old marbles.

Despite years of practicing the art and science of working glass, Rich has learned time and again one important lesson, which he uses as something of a motto-disclaimer: “Glass will do what IT wants to do!”

If you have more questions or have marbles you may want repaired, you can contact Rich Shelby by e-mail at Rich will also be  organizing and attending the 2011 Orange County Marble Show in March.
Update 2018: Rich Shelby has retired from marble making due to health issues.

3 Responses to “Melting New Life into Old Marbles”

  1. lawrence blood Says:

    Great Article-Good Job Rich. Love that slag remelt!

  2. Christine Hansen Says:

    Great article, and I love Rich’s approach to working with these old beauties!

  3. Ennis Everson Says:

    Hi, I have an antique 3/4″ german 360 lutz marble I would like to have repaired. This marble has many pin pricks and surface cracks. This marble was made like an indian but the colors are sub-surface. There are no large chips in the surface but there is a sliver of glass missing in one spot. I have read and agree to your terms. I realize that disasters happen but I feel your process of melting is the only way to save this little gem. Please consider repairing this marble for me. Thank you.

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Marble Trivia

An Old World glass chemist named Arnold Fiedler is responsible for the vivid color combinations that Christensen Agate and Akro Agate marbles are famous for.