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Glass Fishing Floats

Author: Maria Matson
Issue: October, 2012, Page 36
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Unfazed by rain, sleet or cold coastal winds, Stu Farns-worth spends many a dark, wee hour combing the beaches near his Oregon home for glass fishing floats.

“I have been chased up into the dunes by 30-foot swells, and I’ve run from telephone pole-sized boom logs rolling my way. But to have your flashlight shimmer off a piece of sparkling glass makes it all worth it,” Farnsworth says. “When I come across one, I think: Where did it come from? How old is it? Is it valuable? Is it rare? And to think I am the first one to pick it up after its long sea journey.”

Fishermen have been using glass fishing floats since the 1840s to help keep their nets vertical. In the rough ocean conditions where they do their job, the glass floats often slip out of the netting or, perhaps, are tossed overboard to free up space on the boat. Once adrift, they bob along, nudged by ocean and wind currents for thousands of miles and countless years until the perfect combination of high tide plus strong winds washes them ashore.

It was the Norwegians who started the wave of glass fishing float manufacture and use. In the early 1900s, Japanese crab fishermen began using them as well. Then, China, Korea, Britain and a host of other countries began producing economical and buoyant glass floats. In time, Japan came to be the largest user and producer of floats. And, as more commercial fishermen began using them, the range of colors developed to help differentiate the various fisheries, and float makers experimented with sizes and shapes to help support nets designed for specific types of fishing.

According to Jim Workman, this is an extremely rare 10"-in-diameter blue ‘ka tsu’-marked float. To his knowledge, only two have been accounted for by collectors, and he is proud to have one in his collection.
According to Farnsworth—owner of some 300 glass floats and co-author of Glass Fishing Floats of the World—the first Asian glass floats rolled onto the U.S. West Coast around 1920. Since then, they have become objects of admiration for a large community. The most common floats are hollow glass orbs in shades of green, made in Japan from recycled sake bottles. But there also are European, American, Scandinavian, Korean and Taiwanese floats to be found. And, in addition to green, floats might be blue, orange, cranberry, amber, black or clear. Purple is the most coveted color of all.

They could be the size of a tangerine, baseball or grapefruit, or as large as a volleyball, basketball or beach ball. Some spheres are more egg-shaped; others are sort of squashed, like a pumpkin. Glass floats shaped like rolling pins, sausages, bullets and torpedoes— in a range of colors—are highly collectible, too. Collectors might focus on a particular maker’s mark or a certain shape, color or country of origin.

“Most collectors are Japanese-float collectors,” says Tom Rizzo, a collector and master of The Sea Hermit website. “My main focus has been collecting European and Scandinavian floats. I’ve learned that the greatest variety of markings, shapes and history are in Norway. As the years have passed, and new collectors, finders and sellers from Norway have joined the ranks, we have happily discovered that in Norway and Sweden there are many rare shapes, colors and makers’ markings that, before just a few years ago, were unknown. They are coming from older families’ heirlooms, barns, basements, attics and boat houses.”

A variety of roller floats includes, from left: a “sausage-shaped” roller, a netted shark roller, “rolling pins” (in atypical olive green and brown), an uncommon “torpedo” roller, a mini-jumbo roller, an un-netted shark roller and a “blue fatty Tohoku” roller that Jim Workman found in Kaaawa, Hawaii.
For the persistent and patient, glass floats can still be found on the shores of the Pacific Northwest, Alaska and Hawaii, and many beachcombing collectors believe the 2011 tsunami in Japan unleashed innumerable floats that eventually will make their way to our shores. But you don’t have to live near a beach to experience the thrill of the hunt. “Since moving to the East Coast, for the last 12 years my beachcombing has been done on the eBay beaches,” says Rizzo. “And many floats have joined the collection via trading with other collectors.”

In Goodyear, Arizona, with the desert at his doorstep, Jim Workman has a collection of 50 medium to large floats and hundreds of small ones. They fill his office, continue on into a utility room and out into the garage. “I lived in Hawaii in the ’70s and ’80s and used to find glass floats while I was beachcombing,” he says. “And I’ve been to Japan six times and brought home floats. The best place for someone here to find them is on eBay; after all, not everyone can get to Japan and walk through fishing villages. Just search ‘glass floats,’ and start looking and learning.”

What to look for:
Stu Farnsworth, co-author with Alan D. Rammer of Glass Fishing Floats of the World, offers the following advice for beginning collectors:

Floats are classified in three ways: authentic, contemporary and curio. Farns-worth says that authentic floats are actual used floats, characterized by heavy glass and imperfections in the glass such as; chips, dings, scrapes, pits and other signs of use. About 30 percent will have an embossed marking.

“Contemporary floats were never made to be used,” says Farnsworth. “These floats also consist of heavy glass and generally come in an array of beautiful colors but show no signs of use; the glass is usually flawless.” These floats were made in the late ’50s to late ’70s for restaurant use and to sell in shell shops and antiques stores.  He says they are still collectible because of the quality of the glass and their age.

Curio floats come in many beautiful shades of color as well, but the glass is paper-thin. Most were made in the late ’70s to mid ’90s notes Farnsworth.

Further recommended reading includes Beachcombing for Japanese Glass Floats, by Amos L. Wood, and three books by Walt Pich—Beachcombers Guide to the Northwest; Glass Ball; and Glass Ball Marks: A Field Guide to Identify Characters on Oriental Glass Fishing Floats.

According to Jim Workman, jumbo rollers (pictured here) come in various sizes and were blown in the early 1900s to replace previously used highly buoyant wooden barrel floats. The jumbo roller in the back measures 20" by 8" and is highly sought after, he says.

This rare 9.5" “blue dot” is still tethered to part of the main line of rope used to secure several floats on a net.
Each of these floats is just 2.5" in diameter. The cobalt and cranberry seals are marked “otera,” meaning temple.

Where to find them:
Antiques on Central; Lilly Bear Antiques; J. Levine Auction and Appraisal; 

Photo courtesy Chihuly Studio
Glass master
Glass blowing is an intense art—think molten glass and 1,500-degree furnaces. But from a glass blower’s perspective, crafting a smallish glass ball is pretty basic stuff.

Even a glass master like Dale Chihuly is captivated and inspired by glass fishing floats. “They always intrigued me,” he says. “I used to collect them on the beach when I was a kid in Washington. Then, in the ’90s, I went to the island of Niijima, which is an overnight boat ride off of Tokyo, where they have a little glass school. While I was there, I saw fishermen using glass spheres to float their nets, and I was reminded of the Japanese fishing floats.” Soon after his return to the States, he began work on a series of what he calls “round balls.” 

They are certainly that, and more. With some measuring 40 inches in diameter, they were, Chihuly says, “extremely difficult” to craft because of their scale. “The idea was to make them big and to use a lot of color in different ways,” he says. “I decided to call them Niijima Floats. I liked the idea of connecting them to this experience of being in Japan.” He uses the floats in water, garden and outdoor installations, such as the one pictured at left from Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Garden.
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