Handmade: Kaleidoscope maker doesn’t toy with art

Jocelynn Brown
The Detroit News

The word “toy” is often associated with the term “kaleidoscope,” but John Hirtzel, an artist who’s been crafting the glass filled tubular instruments for the past 20 years, refuses to believe that’s how most people view them.

The Farmington resident says, “I think some people just aren’t aware that there’s a whole world of kaleidoscope makers.” As an active part of that world, Hirtzel spends every Monday morning at the Livonia Senior Center (15218 Farmington, Livonia) teaching others the joy of kaleidoscope-making, an art form believed to have started more than 200 years ago in Scotland by Sir David Brewster.

“A kaleidoscope is almost a metaphor in that it takes bits and pieces of glass and you look at them through mirrors and they become beautiful patterns,” he remarks. “We work with glass, but we use a lot of different objects in the chamber, mostly colorful beads, scraps of glass and small objects with color, and when you look at them through the scope in the object chamber, they become an organized pattern, and each (kaleidoscope) is different as long as the objects in the chamber are different.”

Hirtzel is a 15-year member of the Brewster Kaleidoscope Society (, an international group consisting of artists who design and create kaleidoscopes, interested galleries, shops, collectors and museums. In the past, he has attended the group’s annual conventions where about 150 artists and collectors gather to share ideas and “scopes,” Each meeting starts with the singing of a “kaleidoscope song,” written by one of the members.

“We have workshops, classes and a hands-on building of a scope. A large number of our members are from Japan because they’re very artistic people. Their craftmanship is exquisite,” says Hirtzel. “Next year’s convention is in Kyoto, Japan. The thing about the society is that everybody makes kaleidoscopes but from different material, such as glass, wood and brass. It’s a community of highly artistic and skilled individuals. We enjoy getting together as a society, sharing ideas and friendship. I visited the studios of two or three of the best kaleidoscope makers while attending annual conventions.”

Making kaleidoscopes has been a natural progression for Hirtzel because for the past 40 years he’s been creating miniature free-form stained glass sculptures as houses, boxes, sailboats, flowers, free-standing animals, and even nightlights. However, he finds building a kaleidoscope a bit more challenging, pointing to the fact that it’s “a very mechanical art, in that you’re using a lot of tools, soldering and accuracy.” He refers to those as the necessary skills for building “a good scope,” which he defines as one that pleases the maker because there is no one particular standard.

“The secret of a kaleidoscope is that you’re looking at one small image, reflected maybe a dozen times, that can form a round mandala that changes as the object chamber is turned,” he explains. “What you see is determined by how many mirrors and how they are configured. My favorite image is the mandala, but that’s only one of many different images made with different mirror configurations. The mirrors are the heart and determining factor of your kaleidoscope.”

Hirtzel says some people make a living selling their kaleidoscopes, however, he only “occasionally” sells his. “We build them more for our own pleasure and (the) beauty. I just put one together this morning, and I’m still amazed!”

Detroit News Columnist Jocelynn Brown is a longtime Metro Detroit crafter. You can reach her at (313) 222-2150, or DetroitNewsHandmade.

Contact John Hirtzel at