- The Washington Times - Friday, August 23, 2002

Todd Hansen never planned a career in glass blowing. . Facing white-hot furnaces and manipulating molten glass had been a hobby while he studied aerodynamics in college before becoming a navigator for C-130s in the Air Force.

But when Air Force cutbacks forced Mr. Hansen to choose another job, he turned his pastime into a career. Now he works daily with furnaces roaring at 2,400 degrees Fahrenheit and hot stainless-steel irons.

Three years later, Mr. Hansen, 40, is one of three full-time glass blowers and the manager for his family's art glass studio, Art of Fire in Laytonsville.

"Glass blowing has always been a hobby of mine that I played with when I was on leave or in school," the Westminster, Md., resident said, "something I thought I'd do when I retired."

The transition from a "highly regulated environment" to the studio, a renovated dairy barn, was difficult at first.

"But I like the relaxed atmosphere here and that I am able to be creative and innovative each day," he said.

The hardest part of glass blowing is dealing with the heat, Mr. Hansen said. The process of cooling and shaping melted glass mixtures into pitchers, vases and glasses has Mr. Hansen working with three furnaces that generate heat continuously.

"It's worst now when it's hot outside," he said on a day reaching well into the 90s. "We have industrial fans blowing on us, but you just suffer through it and hope for an early winter."

At his workbench, Mr. Hansen sets out the materials he will mix with the melted glass to add different color schemes and designs. "I like to use old pieces of glass and scraps from other projects on my products," he said.

On a good day, he produces 15 to 20 pieces that generally range from $30 to $250, depending on the size of the pitcher, vase, cup or bowl and whether special designs have been ordered.

Mr. Hansen said he prefers to stay with traditional designs rather than more creative pieces. "I like to make anything that people are going to use rather than stick on their shelves to collect dust."

Mr. Hansen said he receives a small percentage of sales on his designs along with a salary for teaching classes.

Mr. Hansen starts the glass blowing by sticking a pontil, a hollow iron staff with a mouthpiece on the end, into one of the furnaces to get a chunk of melted glass on the end.

He then gives a quick puff into the pontil to introduce a bubble inside the glass. The bubble will serve as a cavity of the finished piece.

The heated glass, which glows bright red, is put back into the furnace several times as more material is added. This is known as a "gathering" method, Mr. Hansen said.

When he has enough material, Mr. Hansen uses various tools to slowly cool and shape the glass.

"If you lose your attention on what you're doing, even for a second, the whole thing is a flop and you have to scrap it," he said after junking a botched piece.

As the glass begins to solidify, Mr. Hansen adds patterns and colors.

One technique, called "threading," involves wrapping another chunk of melted glass around the piece. The threading gives a pink lining to the blue vase he is creating.

When the process is complete, Mr. Hansen gently breaks the end of the vase off the pontil and puts it into an Annhealer, a concrete oven that will cool the vase slowly for about three days.

Glass blowing a vase or pitcher generally takes 15 minutes to an hour and a half, he said.

Most of Mr. Hansen's experience has come from lessons from his boss and studio owner, Foster Holcombe, he said.

"There are a lot of books out there that you can read on the subject, but I've found that it's a trial-and-error sort of skill," he said. "You learn mostly by doing and learning what sort of glass needs what kind of treatment."

Some days are more successful than others. "I've had days where every piece either broke or was a dud to days where every piece I work on goes into the Annhealer, so it depends," he said.

Mr. Hansen also teaches classes on amateur and advanced glass blowing. Despite the "relaxed atmosphere," the main issue is safety, he said. "We are pretty diligent about people wearing the right gear and knowing how to deal with a material that is normally 850 degrees."

The right gear includes goggles, which protect from infrared rays and flying objects, and cotton clothing. Any clothing that contains synthetics can burn easily.

Mr. Hansen said he has had light burns from his work, but no severe injuries. "You learn where the caution areas are and stay attentive when you're working with the glass," he said.

Business and interest for the craft picked up after the September 11 attacks, keeping Mr. Hansen busy with orders and booked classes,Mr. Holcombe said.

"People seemed to want more American-made goods, and Todd's booked up because he really gives our students a hands-on approach and knows most of the tricks of the trade."

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