{May 2, 2012}   Hot Girls! Hot Glass!

On a chilly Saturday afternoon, a cold drizzle of rain chased us into the entrance of Hot Shop Glass in Racine, Wisconsin. As we opened the door, we were welcomed by the warmth of the furnaces and the smiling faces of Liz, Doug and Amanda, who own the studio and gallery.

As we shook off our wet coats and reveled in the heat, Liz greeted us by saying, “It’s the perfect day to blow glass!”

My sisters-in-law Kathy and Lisa had been there before, but I joined them this time for an “Explore Glass” workshop. The other two students in our group were an amazing 80-year-old woman, who had taken her first hot glass class there just a few weeks prior, and her daughter, a rookie like me.

After reviewing safety policies and donning our safety glasses, Doug gave us a demonstration, walking us through the techniques we would use to create our own glass paperweight or blown-glass ornament.

Then it was our turn.  First, we examined the paperweights and ornaments on display to get ideas of the patterns and colors we wanted for our own masterpieces. Then we browsed shelves filled with containers of frit (small pieces of colored glass)—some translucent, some opaque, some with metallic or luster finishes—to choose our colors.

In the two hours that followed, Liz and Doug worked one-on-one with each of us.

The first step: get the right rod. A solid steel rod (punty) is used to make paperweights and a hollow steel rod (pipe) is used to make blown-glass items.

The first step is heating the rod in the rewarming furnace, which is set at 2,400 degrees. A yoke with ball bearings is stationed in front of the glory hole (the opening in the furnace) to rest the rod as you turn it by hand to heat it evenly.

When the tip of the rod is bright orange, it’s time to move to the glass furnace, which runs continuously at 2,025 degrees and holds up to 300 pounds of clear molten glass. Here, you gather the glass. (I’m a word nerd and love learning new ways to use everyday words. In glass-making, “gather” can be used as a verb to describe the act of obtaining the glass from the furnace or as a noun to refer to a layer of molten glass.)

Blown-glass ornaments are made with two gathers of glass with the color on the second layer. Paperweights use three gathers of glass with color on the second layer and clear glass around it.

The first gather is rolled on a marver (steel table) to shape and center the glass on the end of the rod. After reheating the glass in the rewarming furnace, you move to a wooden bench to sit as you shape the glass with a wooden block (a ladle-like tool.)

If making a blown-glass ornament, now is the point where air is blown into the pipe to establish an air bubble in the glass. With an instructor holding the end with the hot glass, you move to the opposite end of the pipe. To borrow a line from an old Humphrey Bogart-Lauren Bacall movie, “You just put your lips together and blow.” Simple, right?

Not so much. Do you recall the resistance you feel when you initially blow into an unstretched balloon—like your breath isn’t going anywhere? It feels like that kind of pressure, but constant. You don’t feel the glass give like you do when a balloon begins to inflate. And because you’re at the other end of the pipe, you can’t see the glass and don’t know when you’re creating a bubble.

So when you’re told to quit blowing, you’re surprised and happy, because your face is red and you want to stop the weird noises you’re making as air escapes your pursed lips. (If my boys had heard the noises, they’d be proud!)

Once the bubble is established inside the glass, it’s time to dip into the furnace for a second gather. Did I mention it’s hot in front of that furnace? The instructors did the gathering while we stood a few steps back, squinting from the heat and brightness.

Next, it’s time to marver the glass again and roll it in the frit. Depending on the look you’re going for, you might roll the bottom edge in one color, the center in another and the top in a third color. Or you might roll it all in one color first, reheat it, then dip certain areas in additional colors of frit.

Once the colors are where you want them, it’s time to perfect your design. After reheating the glass, you head back to the bench to use different tools to create swirls, spirals and other patterns. For a spiral, you grip the tip of the glass with pliers while the instructor turns the rod. To make a swirl, you use pliers to grab a bit of glass on the side, pinch it and turn it.

At this point, the students making paperweights gather glass a third time to cover their design.

Those making ornaments now move to sit on a low stool, assume the position and blow. (Go ahead…you’ve been patient…make your risqué jokes now.) Even though you did this before, it’s not easier this time. You’re not blowing a small bubble; you’re blowing the glass into a 3- to 4-inch globe. That takes a lot of air! When the instructor tells you to “blow softer,” you’re relieved because you’re nearly out of breath. Thankfully, seconds later, you’re done.

The instructor takes care of the final touches—creating a clear glass loop on the top of an ornament and flattening the bottom of a paperweight. You can admire your handiwork for mere seconds before it’s whisked away to the annealer, where the glass is slowly cooled to room temperature before being shipped to your home.

You leave the studio hot, happy and eager to show off your handiwork.

Interested in trying your hand (and mouth) at blowing glass? Visit Hot Shop Glass for more information.

Want to know more about my 47 and fearless project? Click here.


Michelle says:

Oh wow, so cool! Thanks for sharing your experience, Julie! You’ve inspired me to look for a glass blowing studio in New Jersey. Luckily I found one by the beach, so I can make cool glass art and play in the ocean in the same day 🙂

Art and the ocean–that sounds doubly fun, Michelle! Hope you enjoy blowing glass as much as we did–and hope you write about it, too! Your blog has taught me so much, and I even figured out how to link to my first blog entry like you did with your 25 @ 25 posts. Thank you!

Michelle says:

Oh yes, I will certainly write about my experience with blowing glass! I’m so glad you were able to find inspiration and practical blog advice (with linking back to your first post) from my blog. You’re so welcome!

tina says:

I am blown away by this one. What a great experience. The items you, Kathy and Lisa made look incredible. Will check out the Hot Glass Shop, too, for possible custom globes to use with a pendent/chandelier light fixture I want to create. The colors of some of the glass shown and adding metallic are singing to me (especially a luminescent yellow-green).

Blown away…good one, Tina! It’s a very cool (wait, hot) place. I bet you could make your own pendant light shades or have them make them for you with your choice of color. Barb S. mentioned that one of the glass studio owners also owns a bead shop (Funky Hannah’s) a block away. Lots of fun stuff for your girls there. Worth the trip!

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