- Associated Press - Saturday, December 26, 2015

BUCKHANNON, W.Va. (AP) - Ron Hinkle pulls a blowpipe with a glowy orange glob at one end from a 2,100-degree Fahrenheit furnace in his glass studio. He rolls the orb in a dish of pale pink glass chips and then places the piece in a smaller, 2,400-degree furnace called a glory hole to fuse the color to the glass.

When that emerges, he rolls the future vase in a shaping block, rubbing it with a wet, folded newspaper that sparks with tiny flames over his work.

He repeats the process again and again, adding chips of different hues, including green and purple, sometimes taking a tool that resembles large tweezers called jacks to pull a glob - the consistency of honey or molasses, Hinkle said - of melted color down the length of the expanding vase to create a design.

The colors deepen as he goes from furnace to shaping block to glory hole, and the finished product - before he puts it into an annealing furnace to slowly cool for 24 hours - resembles a colorful, tie-dyed creation with pinks and purples and greens.

“Once you get experience, the glass will talk to you,” said Hinkle’s assistant, Richard Debar, a friend from the two glassmakers’ days at Louie Glass Co. in Weston.

“Colors tell you about the temperature, how hot it is. This is about trying to keep things centered and balanced, about manipulating the glass.

“We’re getting to be the last of our generation to do this. We’re the old-timers.”

And that is why Hinkle named his studio Dying Art Glass Works when he opened in 1993 on land he grew up on just south of Buckhannon. He built the studio - featuring two garage doors to let out fumes and let in fresh air - using furnace parts and other tools he was able to buy over time during his tenure at Louie Glass, preparing for the day that he would strike out on his own.

“Later on, I changed that after I got prompting that the name might indicate that my art was dying or that it was more morbid,” Hinkle said in an interview before the demonstration. “My son, who is an attorney, said, ‘You know, you need to be remembered for glass. You should call it Ron Hinkle Glass.’”

And that is the name Hinkle (www.ronhinkle.com) now operates under, giving demonstrations to the customers who trek off the main road and onto a single-lane driveway to watch the glassmaker in action as he uses sand, soda ash and lime - as well as the hot temperatures - to create colorful, one-of-a-kind glass vases, drinking glasses, candy dishes, his popular Hershey Kisses, and, of course, especially this time of year, Christmas ornaments.

“The most popular color in glass - and we go by how many we’ve sold, and this is true for every glass factory - is cobalt blue,” Hinkle said. “Cobalt blue is the No. 1 selling color. No. 2 is rubies and cranberries, some form of red. No. 3 would be amethyst or purple. And everything after that is your greens, golds, your blends.

“I have contemplated why that is, and I’ve never come up with a solution.”

Recently, however, Hinkle reduced his inventory because he has taken on a new job. Since last May, he has been serving as the vice president of operations at the world-famous Milton-based Blenko Glass Co. He drives down to Cabell County each week and spends time there before returning to work in his own studio.

He was recommended for the position by a former colleague at Louie Glass, and he did not mind upending his own schedule to apply his knowledge and skills to Blenko Glass.

“Blenko Glass is a 122-year-old glass plant, and they make some absolutely beautiful colored glass,” Hinkle said. “Their designs are original and their facility is ancient, and they use techniques that are very old. They haven’t changed those techniques much in 120 years. They still use hand-carved wooden molds to form their glass.

“It’s got a mystique about it. It’s something I felt when I walked into Louie Glass, and it appealed to me very much. They (Blenko) were struggling and having problems. I thought I could help them with their furnace design and other issues they were having.”

It has been 42 years since Hinkle first walked into Louie Glass Co. in Weston, about 20 miles from his home near Buckhannon, as a high school student working a summer job. He had been drawn to the factory after playing with a chemistry set as a child that featured glass tubing that could be heated with a bunsen burner and stretched.

“That was something that just captured my interest,” Hinkle said. “When I was younger, I was curious. I used to sit and read the scientific encyclopedias. This is the one thing that was real and available, and it was something I wanted to pursue.”

After he graduated from Buckhannon-Upshur High School in 1974, he returned to Louie Glass to work full-time, but it was a while before he got up to speed as an experienced glassmaker who created the stemmed glassware and highball and whiskey sour glasses produced at Louie Glass, which closed in 2003.

“It actually took me four years to feel comfortable in the job as a stemware blower,” he said. “It’s very difficult.”

To hear him discuss the process of making glass, it is no wonder why. He worked his way up from jobs with names such as the carry-in boy, the crack-off boy and the burn-off boy to the skilled positions of gatherer, blower and finisher.

The artisan must make a stem fit on the glass “so very close to the size so it’s within plus or minus 15,000ths of an inch of the mold,” he said.

During the process, the skilled glassmaker would have blowpipes in each hand, turning them constantly and also blowing into the pipe, while working pedals with each foot, one to spray water on the glass and another to open and close the mold used for each piece.

The goal for an experienced glassmaker was to lose less than 3 percent of the items made.

“When you start out, 70 percent of the products you make are unusable,” Hinkle said. “You have to work your way up.”

Another way to look at it is that Louie Glass wanted employees to make 600 pieces in four hours.

“You have to work quickly and precisely and not make a lot of mistakes. It was intense and stressful.”

After six to eight years, Hinkle was considered a highly skilled glass worker.

“I did get to the point where I loved what I did and I thought it was cool, but it was stress every day.”

So he prepared for the time when he could open what would become Ron Hinkle Glass, taking the skills he learned at Louie Glass and adding the creativity he had grown up with in his family, including an aunt who taught him oil painting, a mother who helped him learn crafts and a father who instilled in him the ability to fix things.

In his first year, the business grew 30 percent, and that continued exponentially for several years. He added a retail outlet a few years after he started.

“I couldn’t make enough glass,” he said.

He began hiring employees and at one time had six others working for him. Now that number is three, including a woman who oversees the retail outlet.

These days, in addition to Ron Hinkle originals, that retail outlet also features a corner filled with Blenko Glass. He traded glass with fellow Tamarack artists who painted murals of him blowing glass on two of the walls.

His pieces range from the inexpensive Hershey kisses to an exquisite, heavy bowl made of cameo glass with layers of a dogwood design on both the exterior and the interior that he created with cameo artist Kelsey Murphy of Fenton Art Glass Co. in Williamstown.

And year-round, the outlet features a Christmas tree decorated with his one-of-a-kind ornaments.

“Oh, we’re making thousands of them,” he said. “That is one of the products we keep.”


Information from: The Exponent Telegram, https://www.theet.com

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