1 - What Glass Is!
Please, repeat after me, GLASS (clap emoji) IS NOT (clap emoji) A LIQUID (clap emoji)! In grade school we learned that there are three (or four) phases of matter, right? Bad news, Mrs. Thompson lied to you. Ok, didn’t lie, just grossly oversimplified. 4th graders probably won’t understand the degradation of neutrons.
Solid – A uniform and dense configuration of tightly-bound molecules gives us rock, wood, ham sandwich, our skulls, etc.
Liquid – Less tightly bound and it’ll slosh around in your whiskey glass
Gas – Freer still, and it’ll fill up a room or otherwise expand to fill a container.
You might have also gotten to Plasma, which is the bright flash of lightning during a storm that ruins your day if it hits you.
Glass doesn’t fit neatly into any of these, so over the years various stories have developed. It must be a liquid, it must be a solid, etc. The truth is there are a lot more than 3 or 4 phases of matter, and glass is in a category of its own. It’s an ‘amorphous solid’ but that puts it in its own category along with degraded neutrons and other more unique things.
1b – Glass is NOT A LIQUID, pt 2.
The amount of time it would take for a glass object to ‘melt’ is something like ‘the age of the universe’. There is a very common misconception that old window glass is thicker on the bottom because it has flowed that way. If that were true, we wouldn’t have glass objects from Ancient Egypt and Rome. People wouldn’t have heirloom glasses older than grandma’s house with the weird windows.
The reason there is a thicker part to the window is that older methods of making glass sheets (e.g. the crown and cylinder methods) produced a sheet of irregular thickness. It’s some kind of ‘common sense’ to put the thicker part down for stability, but it’s not a rule and contrary examples exist.
1c – Wait, you didn’t really explain what glass is
Glass is solid, in the common sense that it’s not a liquid, gas, or plasma at room temperature (on earth, etc etc). But its structure is very disorganized, which is why it has similarities to a liquid. If its molecules were more orderly you would have "devitrified glass" ("de-glassed glass"), which qualifies as a ceramic.
Because of that attribute, a sheet of glass has strains within in. Various internal pulls and pushes and twists, so to speak. When glass is annealed a great deal of the stresses are able to resolve themselves, but not all. This is also why glass doesn’t have a grain like wood.
[Update: I thought it might be good to note that while current science identifies glass as a separate phase of matter, earlier academic documents would refer to it as an "amorphous solid" and, going earlier still, as a liquid. I believe that was accurate (for the time) using a very scientific definition of liquid as opposed to the common understanding. However, "Glass is NOT a liquid!" is much more concise than "Glass does NOT melt into new shapes over the course of one or two hundred years because it is not a liquid in the layperson's meaning of the term which has been superseded anyway by scientific progress and the inexorable march of time!"]
2 – How glass breaks, unsupervised
As is usually the case, force likes to take the Path of Least Resistance through glass. If a substance has a grain, like wood, you may be able to guess how it would split if hit with a general force. But in the case of glass, there is no grain and the stresses are mostly invisible. As a result if you hit a piece of glass the fracture lines will follow the path of least resistance taking advantage of these faults and weaknesses until it reaches the edge of the sheet.
It's interesting to note that research (source below) shows you can apply less force than is needed to run a score if you apply it for a longer amount of time, even as much as 50% less. The authors note that if glass is under strain, it REALLY needs to be protected or minor damage may destroy it.
3 – How glass breaks, supervised
All we are doing when we break a piece of glass is coaxing the path of least resistance to be a route we want. I’d say ‘choose’ but if you’ve spent more than five minutes breaking glass you know it’s more of a coaxing and/or tearful pleading.
A typical modern glass cutter has either a steel (cheap) or tungsten carbide (much better) wheel that is shaped like a chisel. Incidentally the angle of that ‘chisel’ MAY have an influence on the cutting. I had never ever heard of this before until someone mentioned it (from a Wikipedia article). That article refers to a book on automotive glass and says a more sharply angled wheel cuts thicker glass better, from 120° - 154°. I don't work with industrial glasses so maybe that is common knowledge to them, but 154° is oddly specific to me.
Bob Beranek; Ann Schuelke (1 August 2011). The Complete Guide to Auto Glass Installation. AuthorHouse. p. 336.
Both steel and tungsten carbide are harder than glass, and so they are able to bite into the surface of a sheet. Carbide is just much harder than steel, so it is more durable. Usually steel wheels are found on cheap cutters you get at a hardware store. Carbide wheels are what you would expect from a specialty store and most anything directed at the stained glass market. Carbide cutting wheels also almost always have an oil reservoir in the handle.
Why oil? Its more to do with the tool than the glass. The stress of scoring glass builds up heat, which could eventually mess with the tempering of the metal wheel. It won’t generally be enough to cause thermal shock in the glass, but little glass particles are also caught in the deposited oil and that’s a good thing.
Fun fact, researchers (source below) discovered that the pressure applied to your cutter has an S-shaped effect on the force required to run the score (that is, break the glass). Once you reach the minimum force needed, adding pressure (pushing down your cutter harder) actually increases the torque needed to break it... until you blow past that zone in which case more pressure makes it easier again.
3b – Bringing it together
When we ‘cut’ glass we are actually introducing a known fault line into the glass in the hope and expectation that, when flexed, the path of least resistance will follow our score. And we all know that, sometimes, it doesn’t. Maybe a curve was too sharp and the PoLR was a straight line. Maybe a seed (bubble) was present that coaxed the line askew at a point, and then the PoLR is to follow the new angle instead of bending back to the score. Those invisible stresses can also be at fault, because glass is a temperamental mistress and lives off our tears. Wait, what? </Bitter Glazer>
4 – So, why DO we press from the opposite side of the cut.
It bothered me that it made sense in my mind, but I couldn’t explain it in words. I actively chewed on this for the better part of a week, thinking in terms like a race track. If you’ve seen one, you probably noticed that the starting line is staggered, and the closer to the center you are the further back you begin. This is because the center ring is smaller, and shorter, than the outer rings so that racer has to be further back to get the same distance. I was trying to leverage that rationale to explain breaking a flat sheet of glass and it didn’t quite work until I stopped thinking about a donut-shape.
Not my best drawing, but showing that running pliers (or your thumbs) applying pressure on the cut effectively applies pressure to squeeze the score line. You might get the glass to break but it will be uncontrolled and unguided and probably isn't following your score. Note that the score is magnified A LOT in this drawing.
Another little sketch showing a greatly magnified score under no pressure, some sort of light pressure, and finally breaking pressure.
Incidentally this CMoG blog post has an even better graphic of this I found two days later, using foam.
5 – Bonus: Why your hand position is so important when cutting
I originally learned to cut glass by holding my cutter like a pencil. It's not quite that relaxed or the wheel wouldn't be able to contact the glass, but similar. I also noticed my accuracy was never where I wanted it to be, and I was always grinding pieces, finding new ways they didn't fit my pattern, grinding other areas of the piece, and eventually throwing it into scrap. After I began teaching with Molly I learned from her the "peace sign" grip that is pretty universally called for in professional-grade books.
My hand holding my favorite cutter in a comically relaxed pencil grip, a much more likely pencil grip, and finally a 'peace sign' grip. The camera was not straight on, but you can still clearly see how the first two are further off-center than the last.
I haven't found solid research into this, but I strongly believe that when you hold your cutter off-center, the score itself (and the associated "microfractures" if you believe that idea) are also at an angle. Least resistance being what it is, I suspect it would be more like a J-shaped curve than an actual diagonal, but you end up with a cut that is not perpendicular to the surface of the glass, what I know as a shelf . Shelves are ridiculously sharp and seem to disappear if you even bring them near a grinder. I think that this is why my accuracy was poor for a long time;
You can see the 'shelf' on this piece, right above the little bump. It took me seven tries to hold a cutter wrong and get this piece
Holding the cutter off-center isn't going to give you a shelf every single time, or I would never have lasted this long in the hobby, but for me there was a major reduction in shelves and an increase in accuracy when I learned to use the better grip. Shelves are ridiculously sharp and will cut through your copper foil and your fingers effortlessly, not to mention (again) mess with the size of your piece. Probably a half-dozen times I have cut myself on a shelf-y piece and watched the delay as my skin realizes it's been cut, recovers from its shock for a second, and THEN starts bleeding.
Allegedly neurosurgeons use obsidian scalpels because glass can be 100x sharper than steel. I believe it can be sharper than steel but about a year ago when I tried to investigate this, it seemed these scalpels were only an experiment.
6 - Really Cool Bonus: Glass Heals
I had heard Molly talk about this fact one summer while we were teaching. I'll be honest, I didn't believe it. How can a glass score heal and become more difficult to run if you let it sit for a few days? While doing other research, however, I found an academic paper from 1937 (Info below) that tested and proved the concept.
Their research showed that if you scored glass and let it sit, the amount of force needed to run that score increases over time, maxing out around 16 days. By the third day it's done the vast majority of its 'healing', however. Their hypothesis is that over the course of days the innate stresses in the glass will work themselves out a bit and reduce the effectiveness of your work.
In conclusion, glass has a number of odd behaviors that bring to mind the expression "wibbly wobbly timey wimey", we work with the glass and beg it to do what we want, and windows aren't melting because GLASS IS NOT A LIQUID.
 - There are polarized filters you can look through that will show the strains, but I don't THINK they are practical for non-scientists and I'm pretty sure they aren't the same thing that lets you tell which side of float glass hit the tin.
 - I am finally reaching that age where I can't quite remember whether I came up with this term myself or if I learned it from Norma/Danielle at GlassLink a decade+ ago.
(I'm not fully convinced on several concepts Mr. Klimek writes about, such as using spit to help run a score or the idea of microfractures, and we now know that glass is not a liquid but the anecdotal information is entertaining.)
"Concerning the Cutting of Glass" by MERTON W. JONES AND JULIAN M. BLAIR
Journal of Applied Physics 8, 627 (1937); https://doi.org/10.1063/1.1710352