- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 9, 2006

Todd Hansen’s creativity holds up under fire. As manager of Art of Fire in Laytonsville, he blows clear molten glass into mugs and bowls.

“If you talk to most glass blowers, there’s really nothing new in the past 2,000 years,” Mr. Hansen says. “The basic techniques are the same.”

Although technology has added conveniences, the general principles of the craft remain. When air becomes hot, it expands, Mr. Hansen says. As the air expands inside hot and pliable glass, the pressure increases on the glass, and the glass moves with the volume of the air.

“Cooler glass won’t move,” Mr. Hansen says. “It has to be really hot to move.”

When making a mug, Mr. Hansen places the tip of an iron rod into his furnace, which has been heated to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. He gathers clear, molten glass made from the raw materials of silica, soda and lime. He continually turns the iron, as if it were a knife with honey on its end.

For decoration, he turns the clear molten glass in chips of colored glass. Then he reheats the glass in a second furnace, heated to 2,300 degrees Fahrenheit. After that, he gathers more glass from the initial furnace and reheats the glass on the end of the blowing iron.

Then he blows into the end of the iron, causing a bubble to expand in the glass. He gathers more glass until he has enough material for his piece.

He continues to shape and size the glass on his workbench, using wet newspaper and other tools, such as jacks, which are two knife edges joined on a hinge.

Swinging the rod in a circle causes the glass to lengthen. Thanks to centrifugal force, the glass stays on the end of the rod, Mr. Hansen says.

A paddle is used to flatten the bottom of the mug. Then the glass is transferred from the original iron to a punty iron to allow work on the mouth of the mug. Using the jacks, the glass blower opens the mouth of the mug. A handle is made from a separate piece of glass and attached to the mug through a similar reheating and shaping process.

The finished mug is then placed in an annealer at 900 degrees Fahrenheit to cool the glass slowly; otherwise, it might crack. Items such as vases, plates, dishes, bowls, cups and animals also cool in the annealer.

If glass is cooled too rapidly, the outside temperature and the inside temperature create thermal shock, causing the glass to break, says Tim Tate, co-director of the Washington Glass School in Mount Rainier. The school offers classes ranging in cost from $250 to $450, and all classes can be taken by beginners. Art of Fire offers many four-session classes in glass blowing for $450.

Being able to control the temperature of the cooling process has allowed for a more reliable outcome for hand-blown pieces, he says.

“The chances that you will make something that someone has never made are very high,” Mr. Tate says. “There’s so much open field and possibility out there.”

Glass blowing is exciting because the end product is always unique, says Sheila Pinsker, a study tour planner and leader for the Smithsonian Associates in Southwest. She will be the guide for the Glass Factories of West Virginia study tour set for Oct. 11 through 14. The cost is $679 for resident members and $906 for nonmembers. The all-inclusive price covers transportation, lodging, tours at several factories and museums and all but one meal.

“Glass has a magic and a mystery about it,” Mrs. Pinsker says. “It can change from a solid to a liquid to a solid to a liquid with fire.”

Even stained-glass windows can be made with blown glass, says Don Lemley, antique department supervisor at Blenko Glass Co. in Milton, W.Va. The company made the windows of the Washington National Cathedral in Northwest using this process.

After the glass is blown into a large cylinder, both ends are cut with a glass cutter while the glass is still hot. The piece is unfolded and placed back into the oven as a flat sheet. The design on the window is created after the piece is unfolded.

The technique has been used in Europe for centuries. Glass even can be traced back to the ancient Egyptians, Mr. Lemley says.

“We think the Egyptians blew glass,” he says. “The Syrians would gather obsidian glass from the lava and the sand and spin it quickly, and they would make their window glass.”

Glass pressing was not invented until the 1820s, says James Measell, historian at Fenton Art Glass Co. in Williamstown, W.Va.

Throughout the years, innovations in glass chemistry have made it possible to produce a wide variety of colors, he says. In America in the 1800s, gold was dissolved in a mixture of acids and added to the dry ingredients for a batch of glass. Then it was shaped into long rods called ruby rolls. When the rolls were reheated, they would turn dark ruby. When a ruby bud — a section of the ruby roll — was covered with crystal, it could be blown into almost any shape.

“It makes what we call cranberry glass,” Mr. Measell says. “Cranberry glass can be made only by blowing. You can also make cranberry opalescent glass, if it has bone ash in the batch.”

Until the 1970s, West Virginia made 80 percent of the nation’s hand-blown glass, says Jenine Culligan, senior curator at the Huntington Museum of Art in Huntington, W.Va. Half of the museum’s holdings in glass range from the late 18th century to the 1980s.

“West Virginia was selected for so many factories because it has the perfect soil for making glass,” Ms. Culligan says. “It’s a sandy soil, and there’s a lot of lime in the soil.”

In 1864, William Leighton discovered how to press soda-lime glass without wrinkling it, says Holly McCluskey, curator of glass for the Museums of Oglebay Institute in Wheeling, W.Va. His invention made glass more readily available. Before that, hand-blown glass was owned mostly by the wealthy.

“Glass is part of our everyday lives,” Mrs. McCluskey says. “It wasn’t always so. It was expensive. In the early days of the Roman Empire, [which] had skilled glass blowers and glass empires, the salary of a glass blower would be 50 times that of a Roman soldier.”

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