Barbara Baker: Kaleidoscope maker

Written by David Green.


It’s said that if 20 objects are inserted into the base of a kaleidoscope and the tube is turned 10 times a minute, it would take 4.6 trillion years to work through all the possible configurations.

Whether or not this statement has any validity is of no importance to kaleidoscope maker Barbara Baker of Clayton. However, she surely appreciates the seemingly infinite array of designs seen when peering through the glass tube of a kaleidoscope.

“That’s what always fascinated me about them, even as a kid. You would never see the same thing twice,” she said.

Once an image passes by, it’s gone for good. You’ll never get it back.barbbaker

she enjoyed the basic cardboard tube style kaleidoscope from childhood, but she never considered building one herself until she started doing stained gall work.

Even that came by accident.

“A friend was teaching a class in stained glass and needed a quota of students,” Barbara recalls. “I said I’d take the class, and I liked it.”

She kept with it, and after a couple of years, she saw a kit for a stained glass kaleidoscope. She gave it a try and that, too, was a success.

For nearly 20 years now, Barbara has produced kaleidoscopes that she sells at craft shows, sticking with same basic design she first learned.


Barbara takes three stained glass rectangles and solders them together to form a hollow triangle. she then takes three sections of mirrors—each slightly smaller than the glass pieces—and tapes them to form another triangle.

These front reflecting mirrors aren’t the sort you find above the bathroom sink. The typical mirror bounces an image off the shiny surface and then up through a layer of glass.

A front-reflecting mirror doesn’t have the glass on top.

“The result is that the image is clearer,” Barbara says.

The mirror assembly is inserted into the glass, a clear glass lens is placed on each end, and solder is applied to seal the lenses in place.

This, obviously, isn’t the traditional round kaleidoscope with small bits of plastic trapped in one end. Barbara’s design is more elegant, and the end result is more stunning.

One of her kaleidoscope designs features a wire holder for a large marble. Spin the marble by hand and the kaleidoscopic effect begins.

kaliedBarbara creates another version that incorporates collections of pressed flowers trapped between two clear lenses.

“I press the flowers myself,” she said. “You can buy them, but it’s a lot more fun to go out and find them.”

Violets, pansies, sorrel, Queen Anne’s lace, mustard—there’s a variety of petals that retain their color when dried.

Another version is what Barbara calls a domed wheel. Two curved lenses form a hollow space where colorful beads, shells, charms, bits of broken glass, etc. are placed.

Finally, she creates a color wheel of stained glass. Barbara saves and sorts the scraps from other glass projects—she makes jewelry boxes, sun catchers, Christmas ornaments and more—and arranges the scraps onto a template.

When the circle is filled, she transfers the pieces into a domed wheel. Solder and wire help create a more intricate design, and sometimes she’ll add a small nugget of glass for interest.

“The light does different things with the nuggets.”

All of Barbara’s color wheels are placed onto a thin brass rod that’s soldered onto one end of the tube. The rod is threaded so a cap can be screwed onto the end. This makes the wheels interchangeable, providing a variety of designs that can be altered day by day.

A traditional kaleidoscope has frosted glass on the far end of the tube to diffuse the background. Barbara’s are clear on the end and the background becomes part of the design.

From her kitchen table, a glance out the window brings the bare branches of a maple tree into the image. Turn a little to the west and the red of the old barn takes its part in the design.

When she’s at craft shows, shoppers often peer through a kaleidoscope and utter an “Ahhh.”

“I think there’s something therapeutic about a kaleidoscope,” Barbara said. “It’s just relaxing.”

Barbara could use some relaxation time herself. Her job doesn’t leave her as much time as she’d like for her art.

“I figure one day I’ll retire, then I’ll have the time to mess around.”

It’s been an interesting 20 years with something she just happened to stumble across. But with her interest in glass, it was a great match.

“It was in my neighborhood, if not right up my alley,” she said.

    - March 26, 2003
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