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I've answered many email messages asking general questions about glass fishing floats.
Where do they come from?
Are they still used?
What colors and shapes do they come in?
Where and how can I beachcomb for them?
How much is my glass float worth?
To help answer these questions, I'm putting together this page to give a short introduction to glass floats. This is just a start, and to find out more, you can browse the other pages on this site, or check out the books I've reviewed in the Books section.
When reading about glass floats, feel free to visit the glass float gallery and collections page for examples of many of the types of glass floats described.
Also, don't miss the special page on Glass Float Trademarks.
One final note, this page is under construction and I expect this portion of this web site to grow substantially over the course of 1998.
Glass floats have been used by European and Asian fisheries for well over 80 years, possibly much longer. Although several European countries have used glass float on occasion, they are less common than glass floats from the Asian countries, most notably Japan followed by China, and Korea. Glass floats have been manufactured up to at least the year 2000 and possibly even today in small numbers. They are also currently being used in Japan and possible China so they are still commonly beachcombed all over the Pacific, although in much fewer numbers than in the 60's, 70's, and 80's.
Glass floats are classified based on several attributes: Primarily shape, size, color, markings, and condition.
The above pictures show a glass cylinder that was probably used for science instruments. In the picture with the round floats, I believe that both of these were made by Pittsburg-Corning, however the left one was used for fishing while the right one was for science instruments.
Two extremes. The float on the left is only 1.5" in diameter. The float on the far right is 18.5" in diameter, about as big as they come. Compare this to the float right next to it, which is a 14-15" diameter float which is still considered quite large by many. About 1000 of the tiny floats would fit into the biggest float!
Glass floats come in all colors, from completely clear to completely black (opaque). Most Asian floats range from light blue to light green with blue-green (or aqua) being the most common color. I personally have blue, green, blue-green, amber, clear, dark green, olive green, light brown, and gray floats. None of these colors are particularly rare. Rarer colors include orange, black, cobalt blue, very dark green, red, and purple.
Larger molded floats are almost always made from a two piece mold. A relatively recent introduction that is growing more common is the two piece molded Chinese floats of 8-13" in diameter, often referred to as "garbage balls" because they always have a heavily indented button seal and are often misshapen.
Some floats are found with nets and some without. Originally all round floats had nets, but as they were lost the net either initially was lost or it may rot away over time. On the local beaches of Japan, it's very common to find the floats with the nets still attached. In the Pacific Northwest, the nets are less common, although larger floats still often have the net attached.
There are many types of nets attached to floats made from all manner of materials. Nylon, hemp, or other natural fibers are used. Nets are used from ropes with a wide variety of thicknesses and colors and woven in a variety of patterns and densities. The classic thick hemp rope used decades ago is probably the one type of net that is considered most special to many glass float collectors. This net can almost totally obscure the glass float itself.
Rolling pin floats typically did not have nets, but where attached with ropes tied to the knobs on the ends of the floats. Presumably, the ability to attach these floats without a net was the motivation for making rolling pin floats.
Some floats have a manufacturers trademark on them as they were made by a number of countries including Japan, Korea, China, even Russia, and most countries had several different manufacturers. On larger floats this mark is either on the button seal or on a separate seal bearing the mark. On small floats, the mark is usually on the button seal except for the mold float which has a numeral on the side or on the top.
To get a sample of the types of trademarks in my collection, take a look at the Glass Float Trademarks page.
About 20% of all round floats have some type of trademarks. For rolling pin floats the percentage with trademarks is less. Of the 60 or so small rolling pin floats in my collection, I only have two or three with markings, or about 4% of the rollers.
Considering that most real fishing floats are beachcombed,
they have been through quite an adventure: Used for fishing, lost
at sea for weeks, months, or even decades, beached on sandy, gravel
or even rocky beaches, sometimes re-floated to be beached somewhere
else, and eventually picked up by a lucky beachcomber. It's no
wonder that most glass floats show obvious signs of wear:
The left float is completely and heavily frosted. The right float shows the effects of getting frosted while it still had the net attached.
Do They Still Make Floats
Yes they still make and use glass floats. The Japanese don't make nearly as many as they did in the 50's and 60's but they are still in use. It appears that the Chinese are making quite a few large molded floats and these have actually become more common in recent years. In general, it appears that glass floats are only a fraction as common as they were 30 years ago. With the population of the coast so much higher and with fewer floats, it's no wonder that it is much harder to find floats these days.
Check out Charles Woodward's pictures in galleries and collections and Greg Liljestrom's beachcombing adventures. There you will see the piles of floats ready for use by the local fishermen. Greg actually visited one of the last places in Japan where floats are still hand blown and filmed them blowing floats. Now if I can only find Greg's new email and beg him to send me a copy of that tape!
Although last, this item is very important. I've put it last because it's a bit of a gray area.
So what makes a real glass float? This point can be debated, but my definition is one that was blown by a manufacturer that makes glass floats primarily for the fishing industry.
However, there is a continuum of "authenticity" and everyone draws the line somewhere. Too me "authentic" has as much to do with the magic and romance of beachcombing and the mystic of something as fragile as a glass float that has traveled thousands of miles over a period of years as it does the actual physical characteristics of the float itself. Taking the "beachcomber factor" into account, I'll list my rating of authentic starting with the "most authentic" to the "least authentic":
1) Hand blown glass float blown by a traditional manufacture, used for fishing, lost at sea, and beachcombed from somewhere in the Ocean, thousands of miles from the original fishing location. A mold blown also falls into this category although glass float purists prefer free-form hand blown floats. Also, if you've found it yourself, that makes it all the sweeter!
2) Glass float used for fishing, but found on local beaches that are in close proximity of the actual fishing location.
3) Glass float used for fishing, but purchased from fisherman instead of actually being beachcombed.
4) Glass float manufactured for fishing, but purchased before they were ever used for fishing.
5) Glass float made by a traditional manufacturer, but never intended for fishing, sold as a tourist item or on a contract by a collector or importer. These can be of odd colors or shapes for a collector who wants to own some "rare" floats and trade them for possibly more authentic rare beachcombed floats.
6) Glass float made by a manufacturer that only makes floats for the tourist trade. These may or may not resemble real fishing floats.
7) Glass floats are unlike those actually used for fishing and are purely made as cheap imitations for tourist gift shops. These typically are machine made of thin glass and in a variety of sizes and colors. Although machine made, they usually don't have a seam.
I'll probably get flamed from glass float hunters in Japan for putting them second, but again, I'll defend the mystic and rarity of finding glass floats in the Pacific Northwest compared to some areas of Japan where they wash up by the dozen just to be reclaimed by local fisherman to be used again.
My personal tolerance ends with class #5: If the floats was never intended for fishing, then it doesn't feel authentic to me. After all, they aren't expensive to manufacture. It reminds me of how the hobby of stamp collecting was destroyed in the 70's, with numerous countries manufacturing "postage stamps" that were never intended to be used, but just to be sold to collectors... just so much paper with pretty pictures on them. Encouraging rare floats to be made just for sale and collecting is unfortunate and deflates the value of glass floats actually used for fishing.
If you are looking for floats and wish them to be as "authentic" as possible, look for these signs:
1) If the float is made from glass that is free from bubbles, it's probably not real. I've seen "curio shop floats" mixed with real floats in shops and antique stores before.
2) If the float has no signs of wear and tear, this increases the odds that it was never actually used. I have seen collections of floats supposedly all "found" in the same general area over a period of years, but the one or two really odd colored floats had absolutely no signs of wear, interestingly enough, while all the other floats all had significant wear and tear.
3) The more odd the shape, color, or size, the more risk thats it is not real. I have heard that there are examples of trinary floats (three floats fused together) that are probably not real. There is a suspicion that someone imported several of these there were specially made for collecting. I know of people who have had glass floats made for them from a glass blower. One person had some 18" diameter floats, a size that is very rare for real floats. I also know of someone that has had a large red float blown for them. In both of these cases, they were blown by Japanese glass blowers, so they are authentic hand blown Japanese glass floats. They just weren't made for fishing.