This week I had a go at glassblowing at Stuart Wiltshire Glass in Weymouth: completely perfect on a cold English day to be cuddled up near a warm furnace or three. I thought that I’d probably have a natural advantage as I once had the lung capacity of a six-foot, 18-year-old male. I can’t imagine what I thought I might be blowing with that capacity. A life-size model of a whale? Copper?
My companions were a charming schoolmaster and a seven-year-old boy. We were given the choice of blowing two whisky tumblers, a vase or a bowl. The young one and I had chosen the tumblers and he was due to go before me. What, I thought in mild panic, if aforesaid child blows much better glasses than I do? Should a seven-year-old even be blowing whisky tumblers? Surely a football would have been more suitable? I was very tempted to choose exactly the same colours for my glasses as his, so that if my nightmare was realised, I could claim a radical mixup in the cooling chamber. I later discovered that Stuart intended to post mine, doubtless a cunning plan to avoid my swiping somebody else’s. It’s probably also to make sure that the comparison between my virgin works and his beautiful ones in the workshop wasn’t too unfavourable. Clearly he feels that his customers have feelings of glass, easily broken.
The workshop had three furnaces at one end, with an enormous open door at the other, such that March could whistle straight through the entrance. Facing the furnaces, I began to feel like a salmon fillet in a frying pan; pink and slightly singed on the front, but with my back still cold. Yes, that’s how I cook…sigh…
Along with all the beautifully blown glasses and other objets d’art was a box labelled smashed glass. Reverse recycling; we all get rid of old glass, he sends for it. Maybe I’ll send him a box as a thank you. I can use some of it for my next Christmas present glassblowing experience. At this rate it will only be another two years before I have a set of six glasses.
One of the mysteries was why the yellow bits of glass (frit) added to clear glass made it go red. The other mystery is how you get into glassblowing. Presumably it’s a lightbulb moment, but where most people just see the light, the embryo glassblower wants to blow the bulb.
After we’d collected the glass on the pipe, Stuart started off the blowing bit. He blew down the metal pipe, put his thumb over the end and waited. After several seconds the blob of glass in the end of the tube puffed up, presumably owing to the expansion of the warm air within the glass. But why was there a delay? Physics should tell me, but I’m not sure I can be bothered to ask it. I should know, really, as I have three Physics A-levels. This sounds as if I have Physics, Advanced Physics and Yet More Physics, but it’s actually the result of my retaking it twice. This moved my grade up from that’s pretty poor to not bad, but still could do better and finally to Ah! That’s more like it.
In the end I resorted to Google, putting in the question ‘why does it take several seconds for the glass to expand when you blow down a long metal glassblowers’ tube’, worried that it might just reply ‘why are you so verbose?’ It spat out this answer:
The delay is caused by a temperature differential in the glass. Near the pipe, the glass is cooled by the pipe head which is 1,000 degrees cooler than the glass. Some say the bubble is formed simply from the pressure of the initial breath, some say that air trapped in the blowpipe is heated by the hot glass and expands, forming the bubble. As gasses heat, they expand in accordance with “Charles’ Law.”
Yeah, right. Got it now. There is a problem with Google, though. You then have to look up Charles’ Law, then Charles etc and then it’s midnight and your children are starving.
That week, a 91-year-old had come to learn glassblowing which I thought was extremely sporting of her. Not many antiques are willing to wield six-foot metal tubes, poking them into glass puddles at about 1400°F, or face a furnace, clad only in indoor clothing and sunglasses. I imagine if she was open-minded enough to do this she has probably also got a computer, so might be reading this now. Yes dear, I’m talking to you… you with the slightly irregular rose vase… put it up to font 20…there you go… remember it all now?… thought you’d died and gone the wrong way…no, you don’t come back from there, especially with a rose vase.
The obvious extension of such an experience is to have a home furnace. The enormous advantage would be that if you had people coming round in a few hours and realised that you were short of a few glasses, or a bud vase, you’d be able to bang out a few. No peanut bowl? No problem. Doubtless the kids would want to use it as a chocolate blowing outfit in a bid to make their own Easter eggs. I’d want to use it at down times for heating croissants and Danish pastries. People might then start to wonder why my whisky glasses had flecks of pastry and pecan nuts embedded in them.
Was it fun? Yes, I loved it; totally blown away.
Glassblowing experience at Stuart Wiltshire in Weymouth http://stuartwiltshireglass.co.uk/
Alison Gardiner March 2014