Glassblowing is Art in Itself
By Lois Hoffman
I look at my west-facing front porch when the sun sets, and I always see a rainbow of colors. Jim, the avid collector, had jars upon jars of marbles. He separated them by color and put them in fancy bottles (which he also collected). There is nothing prettier than them sitting on the windowsill with the sun streaming through them.
Glass. Do you ever stop to think how much easier, richer, and more beautiful it makes our lives? Though not a collector myself, I do appreciate glass and how it dresses up our lives. Like most other things, glass is more than it seems.
Quite simply, glass is quartz silica, which is basically refined sand. It occurs naturally in the form of obsidian at the mouth of volcanoes. Glass-making began around 4000 BC, and modern glass is created in furnaces that burn at 1700 degrees Celsius.
There are various forms of glass, although they are all created in the same manner. The impurities in it are what gives different pieces the different colors and characteristics. Depression Glass is one of the most vintage and one of the most collected. It is characterized by the process used to manufacture the pieces through stamping or forming the pieces in a mold. It was basically the everyday tableware made from machine-pressed glass during the 1920s and the 1940s, thus it got its name from the Depression era. It comes in a variety of colors ranging from light green to yellow, pink, and clear. It was often put in cereal boxes or offered as a prize for visiting certain establishments.
Crystal is another type of glass that is highly collected and prized. The distinction of crystal over glass is that crystal must contain at least 24 percent lead, whereas glass contains no lead. Waterford Crystal — the leader in the industry — may often contain 32 percent lead. Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish between crystal and glass; usually the tell-tale signs are that crystal will have a distinct ring to it when tapped, and it is heavier than glass.
Blown glass — my favorite — is made by a technique that involves inflating molten glass into a bubble with the aid of a blowpipe. The discovery of glassblowing is the subject of debate for some historians. One legend suggests that ancient sailors discovered glass when they started a campfire on a sandy beach. Some say prehistoric man used volcanic glass to make weapons and jewelry. Either way, once humans discovered that they could make glass, they began to make beautiful pieces of art. Early glass was created by shaping molten glass around a form, letting it cool, and then removing the form. Glass containers became readily available. Around 50 BC, glassblowing was discovered as it is known today.
Glassblowers, also known as gaffers or glassfish, are very accomplished artisans. They begin by combining the ingredients for creating glass in a heavy metal cauldron. These are heated to extremely high temperatures in a furnace or kiln.
Their main tool is a long metal pipe called a blowpipe. Once the ingredients have melted, they dip the blowpipe into the molten glass and rotate it to create a blob of molten glass. Then they blow short puffs of air into it. Depending on the desired finished product, flat graphite paddles and calipers can be used to press, pull, squeeze, and twist molten glass into desired shapes. After the desired shape is achieved, the piece must be cooled properly to prevent the glass from shattering. This is done by heating the glass in 2025-degree F furnaces and cooling it repeatedly.
Once the glass is stable, it is carried to a steel table called a marver to further shape the piece by rolling it. The marver will absorb a lot of heat from the molten glass, because the surfaces touch as the glass rolls over the table. If the sides of the glass get too thin, then it must be chilled further by rolling it on the marver. If the bottom of the glass gets too thick, the glass must be put back in the glory hole (the oven that reheats the glass to keep it malleable) and heat must be concentrated on the bottom of the glass. It is crucial to consistently turn the piece while it is being heated.
Shapes are made on the marver. If the artisans want the bubble to move down the glass and make it longer, like a vase, they marver the sides and not the bottom. With the sides cooler, the bubble will push the bottom down even further when it is blown on.
If a bowl is the desired effect, they want the bubble to move out of the glass so the sides expand. For this shape, they marver the bottom and not the sides. With the bottom cooler, the bubble will push the sides out even further. Once the piece is shaped, they create score lines in the piece’s neck with large tongs known as jacks.
The next step is finishing the piece, and although this step can be tricky, there is a secret to it. The piece of shaped glass is transferred to a punty (another rod). With a small file dipped in water, they etch a line around the neck of the piece. This action weakens the glass and makes it brittle, separating it from the original pipe. They cover the hole where they were blowing and dip the pipe in a bucket of water. Voila, another work of art!
When broken down, this whole process seems simple, but it takes a lot of patience to create the finished product. What makes blown glass really unique is that no two pieces are ever exactly alike. Sometimes, as in the case of glass art, the simpler a piece is, the more elegant it looks. I know that my vases on the porch brighten my days.
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