How a P.E.I. optical company turns a glass 'hockey puck' into eyewear

If you're one of the many people who wear glasses, you may not give much thought to all the work that went into helping you see clearly. There are several steps to turn a $10 hunk of clear glass — about the size of a hockey puck — into a finely crafted lens.

Vogue Optical's lab now manufactures eye glasses for its 87 stores across Canada

Cold water is sprayed on a diamond bit as it cuts through the lens, shaping it to a specified prescription. The diamond has to be replaced at the end of the day. (Pat Martel/CBC)

If you're one of the many people who wear glasses, you may not give much thought to all the work that went into helping you see clearly.

There are several steps to turn a $10 hunk of clear glass — about the size of a hockey puck — into a finely crafted lens.

Vogue Optical has been doing it successfully since the family-run business opened its lens manufacturing shop in the basement of its Charlottetown store 25 years ago.

On a good day back then, the lab made about 25 pairs of glasses. From its current spot next to the Charlottetown airport, the lab now produces 600 pairs of glasses a day.

"When we first started, each job was done one at a time," said John Power, manager of the Vogue Optical laboratory.

A pair of eye glasses at Vogue Optical starts with this $10 hunk of glass. (Pat Martel/CBC)

"There was no automation, you hand fed the jobs into the generators, put all the information in by hand."

It took a lot of manual work to shape each lens into the correct prescription, he said.

"Polish it, use a laser pointer, a ruler, a lot of guess work, shape it again, polish it again, hope that you didn't grind too much, and yeah, just squint."

Vogue Optical is now the largest full service lens manufacturing facility in Atlantic Canada, supplying dozens of its stores across Canada. And while the technology has changed, the process remains elaborate.

A holder is attached to each lens with a liquid metal alloy. The handle allows the cutting machines to hold onto the lenses while they're being grounded. (Pat Martel/CBC)

"Every time I give a tour, whether they're even a person that works in the industry or a lay person that's never seen it, they're all surprised at how many steps are involved in making a pair of glasses," Power said.

Once the lab receives a eyeglass prescription, a unique bar code is created that will follow the lenses throughout the manufacturing process.  

A pair of semi-finished lens blanks that most closely fit the prescription are placed in each tray with the order. These blanks look much like a glass hockey puck. 

At the end of the process, the liquid metal alloy that holds the handle to each lens as it passes through the cutting machines is melted and reused. (Pat Martel/CBC)

The front surface is already complete, but the inside surface will be ground down to fit the specific prescription.

The worker first places a protective film on the front surface of each lens.

Remarkably, the heavy machines grind down the lenses without scratching them. 

A metal holder is attached to each lens with a liquid metal alloy, similar to solder. The grinding and cutting machines can hold onto the handles, which prevents damage to the lenses.

The circular lenses are rinsed, cleaned in an ultra-sonic bath and rinsed in de-ionized water. (Pat Martel/CBC)

The machines that do the cutting can now hold the lens. One blade first removes the excess glass to form the rough lens and then the second blade with a diamond bit, cooled by a jet of water, cuts the finished lens into a perfectly round disc. 

The handles are then removed by melting the metal alloy, which is then re-used.

The lenses are rinsed, cleaned in an ultra-sonic bath, then rinsed in de-ionized water.

Skilled workers now begin a series of quality controls, some with computers, others tested by hand, depending on the type of lens.

Once the lab finishes manufacturing the lenses, they are slotted into boxes, which represent each of Vogue's 87 stores across Canada. (Pat Martel/CBC)

If a customer wants both an anti-scratch and a reflection free coating on their glasses, the lenses move on to the coating lab.

The lenses are then dipped in a lacquer that will protect the them from scratches.

The lab also can add an anti-reflective coating that reduces glare from computer screens and night time driving. 

Once the circular lenses arrive at the store, a technician cuts them to fit specified frames. The lenses are then placed into the frames. (Pat Martel/CBC)

The entire process from start to finish can take up to three days depending on the type of coatings.

The round lenses are now ready to be packaged and are then shipped daily to stores all over Canada. Each store has its own grinders on site to shape the lenses to fit a specific frame.

One the lab has shaped the hunks of round glass into perfectly round lenses, it ships them off to its 87 stores across Canada where each store will do the final grinding to fit the lenses to specific frames. (Pat Martel/CBC)

As Vogue's Charlottetown lab has grown, so have the number of stores it services. When Power started working in that first lab 25 years ago, there were only a dozen Vogue Optical stores in Atlantic Canada.

Today, there are 87 stores, including locations in Saskatchewan and B.C., and most recently 13 new Vogue stores in Ontario and three new locations in Atlantic Canada.

"It's come a long, long way." Power said. "Just the growth has been phenomenal."

The newest Vogue Optical lab is located next to the Charlottetown airport, and can turn out 600 pairs of glasses every day. The inset photo shows the original Vogue Optical store in 1977. (Submitted by Vogue Optical)

About the Author

Pat Martel

Pat Martel has worked with CBC P.E.I. for three decades, mostly with Island Morning — from a writer-broadcaster to a producer. This year, Pat joined the web team with an eye to create great video. Pat also runs an adult coed soccer league in Stratford. He always welcomes great story ideas that are visually appealing. pat.martel@cbc.ca