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The Art of Glass Blowing

Glassblowing is the art and science of shaping molten glass into a variety of designs and objects from tiny art pieces to panes of glass. This is accomplished by blowing small amounts of air into a molten glass bubble also known as a parison. A glass smithy or glassblower uses a metal tube or blowpipe to control air, which is blown through the tube into the molten glass allowing the design and shape to be manipulated. Two major methods are free blowing and mold blowing. Of the two, free blowing has been used since the earliest known records for glassblowing in the first century. 

Long History of Glass Blowing

While early interest in glass crafting began in Mesopotamia during 2500 BC, glass blowing is believed to have been used first by Roman citizens around 50 BC during the height of the Roman Empire. The earliest pieces were decorative beads or amulets. Around 460 BC, Democritus, who is often referred to as the father of modern science, began using glass blowing to make early magnifying glasses. Alembic and volumetric blown glass began finding use as scientific equipment in early alchemy or chemistry experimentation and studies. 

It was not until the 12th century AD that glass blowing began to find widespread use in Italy. Italian glass blowing was a very profitable business and the reason glass blowers were required to hide away on the island of Murano to safeguard their techniques. Murano glass designs and products are still among the most sought after handcrafted glass today. The production of clear Italian glass was not the only glass blowing techniques to be a closely guarded secret. During the 17th and 18th century, Leeuwenhoek, who is credited as the founder of microbiology invented the techniques to make microscope lenses allowing him to be the first to see tiny elements of the human body such as muscle fibers and bacteria. 

Physics and medicine have both relied on the skills of glass blowers to make glass apparatuses for experimentation. In 1934, Alexis Carrel and Charles Lindbergh invented the perfusion pump that was designed using glass blown Pyrex. The invention of the perfusion pump allowed organs to be kept alive outside the human body by pumping oxygenated blood through various tubes within the pump and back into the organ. It was featured in Time magazine in 1938 as a major medical breakthrough and would not have been possible without blown glass. Modern technology has naturally brought changes to the craft of glass blowing. Instead of limestone used in early Rome, modern glass blowers used Pyrex and quartz to produce products and instruments used in experiments as these are not likely to shatter as easily as limestone glass. 

Glass Blowing Supplies and Equipment

While the exact equipment needed for glass blowing will vary according to the types of products in mind, there are certain basic equipment and supplies that are needed for any glass blowing productions. These include torches, hoses, fuel regulators, and an assortment of attachments. Graphite shields, paddles, and tweezers allow you to handle and shape molten glass at the necessary extreme temperatures. Fireboard is recommended against the wall behind a kiln or furnace as well as on the surface of your workbench. Bead mandrels sprayed with a release substance will allow you to fashion glass beads quickly. Other tools such as nippers and grabbers allow you to cut and place glass as needed. Safety glasses are needed not only to protect your eyes against breaking glass but should also be designed especially for glassblowing activities. They should be dark enough to protect your eyes against the bright flares resulting when working with molten glass. Of course, you also need a good selection of glass tubes in both solid and hollow options and while many beginners start with clear glass, colored glass tubes are available. A kiln is used to anneal or cool a glass piece properly. A good glass blowing supplier will be able to recommend further supplies and equipment to get you started. When speaking to suppliers ask about any special discounts on a complete beginner package. 

Glass Blowing Techniques

The two main techniques used in glass blowing are free blowing and mold blowing. Free blowing is the technique used by the famous Murano glass blowers of the first century and is still widely popular today among glass artists. In free blowing, a molten ball of glass is gathered on the end of a blow tube or blowpipe and then small short puffs of air are breathed through the pipe into the ball of glass. The air breathed into the glass cools the inside of the glass to match the outer cooling done by removing the glass from the heat source. This then allows the glass blower to expand the bubble of glass and form it into an endless variety of shapes or objects by swinging, pinching, pulling or otherwise manipulating the hot glass with a selection of tools. Free-blown glass can produce the smallest of decorative objects to large panes of glass or furniture. 

Mold blowing involves blowing a molten piece of glass into a mold typically made of wood or metal. The final shape and texture of the product depend on the design elements carved into the mold. Molds can be single piece molds that allow glass products to be lifted out or pulled from the top of the mold such as a relatively flat dish, or a two-piece mold that allows for a more intricate design. 

Locating Glass Blown Products

Glass blown products can range from tiny glass blown beads and decorative objects to scientific glass apparatuses and equipment. Often glass artists will set up at art shows, craft fairs, or host workshops. Many have studios offering classes and demonstrations as well as sales of individually made pieces. Glass blown products are finding their way into many modern designs for home use. You may be able to find products such as glass blown lamps or sinks in your local home supply or home light display rooms. Many colleges offer glass blowing courses and may be a good resource for locating glass artists and products. 

Careers in Glass Blowing

While most often thought of as a hobby craft, there are career possibilities for glass blowers producing equipment and tools for scientific or medical study use. While collaboration between scientists and glassblowers is necessary for designing blown glass products for scientific and medical use, glass blowers are not scientists, but artisans with a thorough understanding of the science involved behind manipulating glass to produce various items. Many scientific glass blowers crossover into artistic glass blowing as a sideline, while many artistic glass blowers move to scientific glasswork as a means to earn a good income. Several universities across the country offer courses in glasswork. Some of these universities include the University of Texas in Arlington, University of Michigan, Boise State University, as well as Rochester Institute of Technology. 

  • The Art and Science of Glassblowing – This featured article in the student online publication SCOPE published by MIT gives a detailed look at the history and science of glass blowing.
  • Glass at the University of Texas in Arlington – This page gives a glimpse of the variety of objects that can be made using glass blowing and other techniques by MFA Glass blowing students at UTA in a slideshow presentation. UTA is one of the leading schools teaching the art of glass blowing.
  • Glass Blowing – Boise State University presents a look at the natural glass and the history of glass blowing and designing. Various types of glass and its structure are discussed as well as various techniques used to create a variety of glass products.
  • The Art of Glass Blowing (Video) – Glass artist Steve Hoffman discusses the art of glass blowing and there are glimpses of the process throughout this video interview. This video is produced by the University of Michigan.
  • The Art and Science of Glass– Carlo Pantano, a glass scientist at Penn State created a course in glassblowing to capture the interest of both science students and art student. Pantano believes having a connection between art and science will lead to better engineers.
  • OULU Glass Gallery – This is a small selection of the unique handcrafted blown glass pieces offered by OULU Glass Gallery in Brule, Wisconsin. They offer tours, classes in glassblowing and products for sale in their gallery.
  • Tina Cooper Glass – Tina Cooper has a wide variety of blown glass products in amazing colors and designs. You can view many examples of what is possible when embracing the art of glass blowing by clicking on the many links within her site that allow you to view many of her product series and exhibitions.
  • Lava Glass Gallery – Full-color photos from the Lava Glass Café and gallery in Taupo, New Zealand. Click on images to see details.
  • Glass Artist Galleries – The Glass Artist Galleries offer an amazing selection of glass products for residential use. Sinks, lighting, and furniture designed and created using glassblowing techniques and other glass working styles and design methods.
  • GlassCraft, Inc. – GlassCraft has been in business for over 40 years and can assist beginners in getting started with a full line of equipment. Their experts can recommend supplies and equipment based on the type of glass products you wish to craft. They also have a list of educational resources to help learn more about the art and science of glass blowing.

About the Author:
Clare Tames is a self-employed freelance graphic designer, formidable cook, and avid reader. She wrote on contemporary and classical art in various print publications and is just now beginning a writing career online. She works out of her home office in California, where her two children attend high school. Expect more from her at www.ArtsHeaven.com and around the web, and, if you like, drop her a line at her Google+ page!