If you’ve ever admired Waterford crystal pieces, the House of Waterford Factory Tour will not disappoint. The crystal factory is located in Waterford, Ireland and is well worth adding to an Ireland Itinerary. By walking the factory floors, you’ll get a first-hand view of how the crystal is made step by step, from wooden moulds to the actual blowing of the molten crystal next to fiery ovens. You’ll watch master tradesman cut the designs perfectly by hand with incredible precision, and see details in the up-close views of hand engraving. The tour ends with a visit to the retail store where you can admire many of the designer collections and even grab a souvenir to take home!
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EVERYTHING TO KNOW ABOUT WATERFORD CRYSTAL IN IRELAND
Special thanks to Failte Ireland, TBEX, and House of Waterford Crystal for allowing me to tour and try my hand at cutting glass. Also thanks to Dooley’s Hotel for my accommodations. All opinions are my own. This post also contains affiliate links. I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe would be a good fit for my readers. This comes at no added cost to you!
HISTORY OF WATERFORD CRYSTAL
The House of Waterford Crystal conjures up thoughts of luxury and legacy. From their trademark seahorse, it is revered worldwide. It has an interesting history that involves different owners, closures and re-openings.
Founded in Ireland in 1783, by two brothers William and George Penrose, the pieces were highly regarded until the factory fell on hard times in the 1850’s and ultimately ended with it closing its doors.
After WW2, under new owners, Waterford was brought back to life. Highly trained and skilled laborers were brought in from other European countries like the Czech Republic. During this time, Miroslav Havel (head designer) created his famous Lismore design, which would go on to be the world’s best selling crystal design.
Waterford fell upon other difficulties over the years and has seen other management changes. Several factories in Ireland have closed over the years, but they’ve also opened new sites, like the House of Waterford Crystal in the center of Waterford. Here you can see the famous trophies being made, along with other delicate pieces.
From hanging chandeliers in Westminster Abbey to the famous New Years Eve Ball in Times Square, Waterford Crystal has made a mark on the world. With over 200 years of history, it’s worth seeing such amazing handiwork and skill in person!
WHAT WILL YOU SEE ON A WATERFORD CRYSTAL FACTORY TOUR?
The factory tour in Waterford city gets you up close. It’s truly an experience though, complete with a tour guide and many stops along the way. It’s been thought out really well. It’s quick, but concise, and allows for lots of information to be passed on without being too overly educational and dry. The tour I went on was in English, but there is a thick Irish accent which sets a charming tone. Here are the stops you’ll make along the way:
ENTRANCE TO THE FACTORY
This hall features a brief history into the famous designs and patterns Waterford is known for. You’ll get to see the famous William Maddock Clock. You’ll also see some of the classic designs, as well as pieces that the skilled artisans have to complete perfectly to become a “Master Craftsman”.
THE VIDEO LOBBY
This room is hard to describe. It’s almost like an octagon shaped room with multiple large screens that are showing various videos of the Irish landscape. It gives you a sense of being inside a crystal piece with all the facets, curves, flashes of light, and carvings. It’s really amazing and sort of like a house of mirrors in a way. This one area of the tour is very much a 21st-century experience. I’ve included a photo of multiple screens below to give you a sense of what I’m describing in a much better way than my words do!
THE MOULD DEPARTMENT
Here you will see some of the wooden moulds and wood tools used to shape some of those world-famous championship trophies. The Waterford factory uses beech and pear wood because of its resistance to heat. However, they only last a little over a week and more have to be made.
GLASS BLOWING AREA
This is your first taste of feeling like you’re in a true factory. It certainly has an industrial vibe to it. You can see the flames from the ovens, which are heated to 1400 degrees Celsius. It’s pure magic to watch a professional take the basic ingredients of silica sand, red lead and potash and turn them into shape right in front of your eyes. Drinking glasses are made of something different because of discoveries about lead over the years. When the fiery piece comes out of the fire it’s bright orange. The blower will blow and shape it with the wood tools and you will see it start to stiffen and become a lighter amber color as it slowly loses heat. There is something so mesmerizing about watching these fellows as they swing the rod with the crystal piece, blow and mold an incredible shape right before your eyes.
THE COOLING OVENS
They don’t get a lot of attention, but they are important. Each blown piece is placed here after being shaped. The cooling ovens are between 400-480 degrees Celsius during the day, but overnight, it is brought down to room temperature. Once slowly cooled, the pieces move onto the next station.
This is just the first step of quality control. The crystal pieces will go through six during their journey. Every piece that was made and cooled the day before will be personally inspected for any signs of flaws. What happens if a piece doesn’t pass? The piece is actually smashed and then sent back to the furnace! Remelting is the ultimate recycler!
The marks here are done by hand and even just watching a YouTube video of a Waterford artist drawing the markings is remarkable. The markers have all the designs memorized and literally use a marker to show the cutters where the cuts should go. Talk about a steady hand!
There are two types of cuts done, a flat cut and a wedge cut. The cuts are made on a diamond spinning wheel. The cutters train for a minimum of 8 years. That’s a true apprenticeship there! I was able to try my hand at cutting and it’s very tricky. You must get the pressure against the spinning wheel just right. Press to hard, and it could go straight through the crystal!
Cutting to me was very precise, with lines and cross points and lots of geometry. Sculpting then is the exact opposite. It’s a 3-dimensional art form! Think of Michelangelo sculpting on marble, and replace that with glass. They also use wheels and other tools. A piece that starts from a glass block can take a few days to months to turn into a finished design.
When I hear engraving, I think of names on trophies. We know Waterford makes plenty of those. But engraving goes so much beyond just putting a name on a piece. The engravers use copper wheels in a variety of sizes the way a painter uses paint brushes on a canvas. The details they etch into the crystal are simply stunning. One piece, shown in a picture below, depicts the 4 seasons as you look at each side. Every single detail is there! This area also showcases many stunning final pieces, including a duplicate of Waterford’s master cutter’s tribute to 9/11 which is truly touching.
THE RETAIL STORE
Your last stop is a fantastic shop where you can purchase one of these lovely pieces to take home with you. Or you can just get a closer look at some of the intricate designs and appreciate the marksmanship that goes into each of the pieces.
More about the Waterford Crystal Factory in Waterford in County Waterford:
WATERFORD FACTORY STORE
You don’t have to purchase a tour to visit the Waterford retail store. So even if you only have about 20 minutes available you can pop in and take a look around. You might even find a piece you can’t resist taking home!
Sadly I didn’t have a chance to visit the cafe, so I can’t give a review here. The cafe is open 7 days a week for breakfast and lunch. They offer standard cafe fare like coffee and hot chocolate, desserts, pastries, sandwiches, soups, and wraps.
WATERFORD TOUR FROM DUBLIN:
There seem to be slim offerings for a day tour from Dublin when I looked online, however, I did find one! This tour features the Waterford Crystal Factory Tour and Kilkenny and it takes just over 12 hours.
DOING IT ON YOUR OWN: A train from Dublin is easy to catch several times a day from Heuston station to Plunkett Station. It takes approximately 2 hours 20 minutes, calling on stations in towns also good for exploring like Kildare and Kilkenny. Buses are also available and of course you can always rent your own car , just remember they do drive on the other side!
TOUR FROM KILLARNEY:
Searching online I could not find any tours directly from Killarney.
DOING IT ON YOUR OWN: There are several train options from Killarney to Waterford (Plunkett Station). The quickest most direct train is 3 hours 45 minutes with 1 change in Limmerick. Again, if you are a family or couple traveling, or just like the freedom it offers, you can always rent a car.
OVERNIGHT ACCOMMODATIONS IN WATERFORD IRELAND:
Just one kilometer away from the Waterford complex is Dooley’s hotel. This family-run hotel is just over the bridge from the train station and is located on the historic Merchants Quayside. The Viking Triangle is within walking distance, so you’ll have plenty to see while touring Ireland’s Ancient East. It’s right on the water too! You’ll enjoy views of the ships on the River Suir. My room had a fun monkey hanging out in the shower– made out of towels of course! I enjoyed a delicious dinner in The New Ship Restaurant, located on site. I’m still dreaming about that lime brûlée!
Watch this video to learn more about Dooley’s Hotel!
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Happy Travels My Friends!