Friday, March 24, 2017

Forever Blowing Glass Bubbles

After having a go at blacksmithing last year, I decided that this year I'd try more new activities, and make this the year of 'Having A Go', so I discovered that in Sperryville, folks can take a class in glass blowing. With only 2 people in each class of 4 hours, it's almost a one-on-one experience so I asked Janice if she'd like to join me.
We met at the Gallery and were led back to a large shed where we met Nick our instructor.I immediately liked him because he was wearing a Star Wars t-shirt and fervently wished I was wearing one of mine. He put us at ease immediately and then proceeded with the class in a patient and methodical manner, demonstrating the procedure first, explaining the tools and equipment and answering our many questions. The photos below of our class were taken by Janice and I.
And then it was our turn. Janice went first. We had to hold our hollow steel blow pipe and collect a lump of molten glass on the end of it. Nick opened the door to the furnace, and I was immediately glad of the protective UV eye wear we were sporting, not because of damage to my eyes, my first concern was my eyebrows. Did I have any left? That pure white cauldron inside was holding molten glass at about 2,025F and you could feel it. I was certain I'd immediately combust on the spot as he made us stand close to the open hatch.. My first instinct was to back away, but we had to actually walk towards it to collect our glass, obtained by dipping the end of the pole into the pool, twisting it and collecting the glass like cotton candy on a stick.
I was also concerned about my camera, so stood back then zoomed in to take photos. Janice had to try to keep her glass in a rounded ball shape with a constant motion, turning her pole around and around as she walked back to the work bench. If the molten blob leans to one side you have to compensate then keep turning again.
The next step is shaping the glass using cherry wood blocks with one hand and turning the pipe with the other, needing good coordination to do both of these at once. Then the hardest part, blowing down the pipe to create an air bubble inside the glass. This was really difficult, blowing as though we were trying to force musical notes out the other end, plus also turning that confounded pole continuously. Eventually a tiny bubble the size of a nickel would appear and then we'd have to ease off on the blowing. Then the pole is dipped in the furnace again to add more molten glass, then it was back to the bench to shape it.
 I love these images of our molten blobs, the top one being the hottest.
Obviously the glass cooled fast while we blew, puffed, turned, or molded our glass, within a minute usually, so it was back to the Glory Hole to bring the temperature back up again, all the time keeping that blob rotating. To make each piece it was a constant motion, sitting and standing as we spent those valuable seconds working and shaping our glass then standing in front of the intense heat to make it malleable again.
Once blowing down the pipe has produced a large enough bubble to create the inside of the glass, the blob can be lengthened by either holding the pipe downwards while turning, allowing gravity to stretch the glass, or it can be swung from side to side, also while rotating the pipe. After heating the glass, tools called jacks, rounded or flat, are used to form the eventual cut off point from the pipe, and also implementing the flat saddle end to flatten the base.
Transferring glass to a punty, a thinner steel rod, is the next step so the other end of the glass can be worked on, so the punty is adhered to what will be the base of the glass. We couldn't do that since we would take too long on this intricate step so this was Nick's job.
Then after another heat the top end of the glass can be opened up using rounded jacks to widen the opening. A few trips back and forth to the Glory Hole are needed here as it seems like only a few tweaks are made before the jacks make scraping noises because the glass is hardening. The hot ends of the jacks can be pressed into beeswax to protect the glass.
 When we were happy with the opening of our glasses the punty is removed from the base with some heating and a sharp tap, then the rough base is smoothed down with the heat from a blow torc. Finished!
The studio with the Glory Hole on the left and the Furnace on the right. The furnace in the middle is holding pipes ready for use, keeping the tips hot. All used pipes and rods were placed in the trash bun, glass down, where the glass would drop off when cooled and then the rods could be heated up again. Throughout our class we would hear loud cracks as the glass cooled, split, and fell off the rods.
My plate started out the same way as the glasses but to widen the inside, Nick helped the process using a special tool or I'd have been there all night. Once opened up, I held my glass in the Glory Hole spinning it furiously and waited as it melted. Suddenly I felt the consistency change and the edges started spreading out, forming a wide lip. I couldn't stop spinning until Nick told me to pull it out and then I 'air cooled' it, still spinning, until it had hardened enough to remove it from the punty. I was glad to let go of the damn thing, that was hard and hot work!
Our rather pathetic efforts sat in the 'slow cooker' as I called it. They'd be in there for 24 hours cooling down gradually at regulated temperatures so the glass wouldn't crack. We picked them up later in the week. I had hoped to go home and sit with a glass of whiskey in my new shot glass and eat chips out of my stylish new bowl. The glass was just about usable but the whisky dribbled over the thick rim on to my chin, and the dish, well, it would be great for dieting as it will only hold a couple chips if I'm lucky. It may have to be a candle holder.... But it had been a wonderful experience and one I would try again as I felt better results could be achieved with a little more practice. We had been improving with the use of the tools and our coordination as the hours had passed, but as Nick pointed out, this is a craft best avoided in the heat and humidity of our baking hot summers, so maybe in the fall we'll have another go.
After our class we were starving, so it was off to Thornton River Grill for a tasty breakfast burrito and a well deserved beer. This led to an interest in checking out another beer establishment in the village which was just down the road, Hopkins Ordinary, and a little later we were outside the building waiting for it to open.
 We admired a gorgeous yellow and black car as it passed, and as soon as I trained my camera on it, the driver stopped and let us check it out. A really nice guy, Kenny Sullivan, will be your personal chauffeur out for excursions. As his website says, this 1956 Ford Fairlake is an eyecatcher!
The brewery is in the basement of a large beautiful building which is a bed and breakfast. Wrapped with stunning porches and intricate woodwork, the building is stunning. The garden out back had wooden tables and chairs with a fire pit blazing invitingly. A huge tree draped with lights, and spring bulbs popping up through the mulch, made me think of a Home Beautiful magazine cover, it was delightful. We stepped down to the brewery and found we were the first to arrive. We both sat down with flights so we could savor all of their creations, but I was struggling terribly as I was still so full up from our breakfast. The Sassy Fox Rye Ale made with local sassafras-smoked rye was interesting but I found myself preferring the beers of Pen Druid, whose brews I had adored. We staggered out after finishing our beers, my belly feeling as though it was fit to pop, and then we drove off homeward bound, and to, no doubt, partake in a well justified nap!

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