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Glass Blowing for Complete Beginners

I mentioned a few months ago that I thought it might be interesting to have a go at making hand-made glasses. Glass blowing is something I’ve wanted to do, at the back of my mind, for several years now, but Chris wasn’t particularly interested so I didn’t take it any further. But for the last month or so I’ve been idly thinking about it again, and decided that I ought at least to look into the practicalities/possibilities of taking it further.

I didn’t even know if there was such a thing as a glass blowing course for the general public, but a quick internet search brought up Bristol Blue Glass who offered one-day “taster” courses. I phoned them up and said that while I was well acquainted with drinking from glasses, I was a complete novice at making them, and did they really teach absolute beginners? They confirmed that was indeed the case, and I booked myself on the next available course, which happened to be yesterday. They are based in Bedminster, a suburb of Bristol, which isn’t too difficult to get to from Malvern.

I was very unsure what to expect when I turned up in good time for a 10:30 start yesterday morning, and in fact was wondering if I’d overdone it this time and bitten off more than I could chew! But I needn’t have worried. There were just three of us on the course, and we got lots of individual attention and tuition. I sort of recognised all the stages in glass blowing from my experience throwing pottery, as there are a lot of analogies – but with one major difference. With pottery, you’re dealing with a lump of room temperature clay which is pretty inert and benign. If it all goes horribly wrong, the worst you get is a muddy puddle on the floor and the air turning blue with swearing. With glass blowing, you’re dealing with a red-hot lump of molten glass, and if accidents happen you can easily end up in hospital! The other major difference is that, whilst throwing clay is a solo activity, glass blowing is a collaboration between a master glass blower and an assistant. It takes at least five years of apprenticeship training to graduate from being an assistant to being able to blow glass moderately accurately, and there was no way that we could fake that training in one day. So the tutor kept in charge of the most highly technical and skilled elements – such as knowing when to whip the part-formed objects off us and “flash” them in the “glory hole” furnace for 10 seconds to keep the glass at the correct working temperature. We took it in turns to blow and shape glasses under his tight supervision.

Forming a bulb of molten glass - under tight supervision!

A key job of the assistant is to prepare the “punty”, a rod with a bead of molten glass on the tip which is attached to the bottom of the blown object so that the top can then be formed and shaped. We were informed that one of us in turn would work with the master blower to make an object under heavy supervision, and  we would also  take it in turns to act as the assistant and prepare the punty, on demand and unsupervised. That was scary!

Making a punty. The "Glory Hole" is behind my left shoulder. One of the main furnaces containing the molten glass is at the far right of the picture

Once the punty has been made, the assistant and main blower have to collaborate to stick them together firmly, so that the glass can then be freed from the blowpipe. That was quite a hairy process, and we all felt a huge responsibility not to mess it up for eachother!

Attaching the punty to the base of another student's vase

We each made three vessels, and collaborated with Marcin, the tutor, to make a fourth. The pieces then have to be annealed  overnight at 550°C to reduce the risk of spontaneous cracks and stress fractures. The other two students live in Bristol, so they were planning on returning today to pick up their completed items. I’ve asked for mine to be packed and posted to me, so I ought to receive a box of glassware (or at least shards!) later this week.

{ 1 } Comments

  1. Peter | 9 September 2013 at 12:13 am | Permalink

    It looks dangerous. I once visited a glass works in Cornwall. Watching the various glass blowers moving round each other was like watching a ballet.
    You might have a new career ahead of you!