A Newbie’s Philosophical Glass Blowing Notes
My latest hobby has proved very fulfilling so far. I find myself drawing parallels between glass blowing and other things throughout the day. As I roll a piece of gum around in my mouth and mold it into a ball I am reminded of spinning a glass marble in a graphite mold. Making something tangible, learning a craft, exercising creativity, using parts of my brain I have always neglected… blowing glass has given me much, including some important life lessons.
Pay attention to detail
You won’t catch me writing this on a resume, but I’m not detail oriented. I’ve always wished I could be, but I’m more of a “big picture” type of guy. This has been problematic. It doesn’t get me very far in carpentry, for instance. When working with glass you have to pay attention to details because one little mistake could ruin an hour of work. In Kenan’s case, this could be days of work (see marble below). Even seemingly simple creations are made up of dozens of little steps, each of which has to be done well. It sucks to spend 30 minutes on a pendant only to screw the whole thing up when trying to add the simple little loop at the end. This still happens to me more often than I’d like. I find myself paying much more attention to the little details now, like legible handwriting and the amount of board lost to the kerf from a blade. I do things a little more slowly and with a little more intent. I find myself fairly obsessing over a small detail that others may not notice, and I can feel the roots of a craft slowly working their way into my neural networks.
Being careful is related to paying attention, but with more serious consequences. To be careful is to be mindful. I practice mindfulness every time I stand behind the torch. There are dozens of glass rods laying on the table, and dozens of metal instruments. Which one did I pick up last? Which ones are still hot? Propane on first, then oxygen. Shutting down is the opposite. Shit, I forgot to open the ventilation. Better to ignore that itching ear for now… wouldn’t want to scratch it with a glowing rod in my hand. A few times I’ve focused so much on one thing that I didn’t notice as my hands moved too far into the gradient heat boundary – beyond 111 °F, at which point my proteins began losing their three-dimensional shape and started breaking down, which resulted in cell and tissue damage – burned again. This is how glass is training the absent mindedness out of me. It is a deeply ingrained character flaw, and I suspect there will be many close calls and accidents (hopefully small ones) to come before I am truly as mindful as I need to be with this medium.
Several times I have nearly stabbed myself too. In fact, one time I almost stab-burned myself and have the charred hole in my shirt to prove it. The good new is I’d have instantly cauterized the wound. Had I been more careful, and paid attention to the next lesson, these near-misses could have been avoided.
Let the flame do the work
The way to accidentally jab a sharp rod of glass lengthways into the wrist of your writing hand is to push straight down onto a very thin, rapidly cooling stringer of glass. This can be avoided by holding the glass the right way and allowing the flame to soften the section being applied to the piece. Think of it like painting, but you’d hold the brush still while moving the canvas around underneath it. Just as a dull knife is dangerous, so is a cold stringer of glass. Let the flame do the work and you will be much safer. This equates to the “work smart, not hard” philosophy I try to have when gardening.
Glass blowing doesn’t go quickly. Heat up something too fast and it shatters. Cool something down too fast and it shatters. I have a love/hate relationship with the kiln annealing process. First of all it is fascinating (see Be Amazed), and keeps my work from cracking all to pieces (most of the time). To achieve this requires some delayed gratification with every piece. I never see what I made until “tomorrow”.
Let it go
I’ve spent twenty or thirty minutes on a piece only to have it fall, crack, droop, goop, twist, shatter or just get ugly. It is disappointing, but getting angry or frustrated only makes you screw up the next piece too. It is counter productive to get upset about it so I tend to just let it go. It is getting easier to take this outlook in other areas of my life as well. Kenan has developed this skill to the point where he can spend several days on a beautiful work of art that would quickly sell for thousands of dollars only to have it crack in the kiln – and manages to shrug it off with little more than a “shit happens”.
Reality is subjective
OK this one may be a stretch, but today I was testing out the new glasses that help me keep my retinas relatively healthy by filtering out the sodium flare from the torch. If I put the piece just outside of the edge of the flame that is visible with these glasses on the object is actually IN the flame when I take the glasses off. You’d think this could be very dangerous (not seeing where the flame actually does begin) but it is not the flame that hurts us, it’s the heat. Just as different animals are capable of seeing colors we can’t see, or hearing sound frequencies we can’t hear, the reality I experience changes depending on my ability to perceive something. Few things make that fundamental concept as clear to me as realizing my finger is “actually” only an inch away from the flame, not three inches.
Take Care of Your Body
Stretching and working out different muscle groups is imperative if you don’t want to look and feel like quasi-motto in five years. Someone with muscular dystrophy would probably get offended if they watched me blow glass.
We take for granted so many things. And not just the obvious like our friends and family, or the food on our table, but fundamental things like the sun and gravity. Watching the way glass moves when molten, that magical state when solid turns to liquid, reminds me how amazing the universe is. That everything is the way it is… is absolutely mind-boggling, humbling, and damn near proof of divinity. How heat leaves the bigger mass more slowly, allowing the person working it to pull out a long, relatively uniform, thin string of glass – as if pulling dental floss from the spool – looks like a magic trick. It reminds me of infinite handkerchiefs. The glows! From dull orange to bright white and several stops in-between, how the glass is glowing tells you everything you need to know about its temperature and consistency. A subtle change in color caries with it volumes of information.
What happens in the kiln? To think that billions of molecules making up a solid form can each move as individuals, yet not affect the basic shape of the form as it appears to the human eye is pretty freaking amazing! Yet that is what is apparently going on inside everything all the time, including every molecule in our bodies. Stuff is vibrating way down at the sub-atomic level. The stuff that makes us up is moving around all the time, every second of every day. And yet… we don’t perceive.
Today I needed to know why my new punty kept falling off when I tapped the old punty and was treated to a dissertation in thermodynamics. He couldn’t give me a single answer because there could be dozens, possibly hundreds of answers.
Molecules like their freedom. If given the choice, they’d rather go where they can move around. Knowing this allows experienced glass-blowers (not so much myself) to tell the glass where to go. They can heat up a large area so the glass gets moving, then allow everywhere else to slowly cool while maintaining, or further heating, the area where they want more glass. As molecules in the rest of the areas start to lose their mobility some work their way to where they can continue being fluid. The hotter of two spots (if the both are somewhat molten) collects glass from the other spot.
I could go on and on about stuff like this. Don’t get me started about flame chemistry, color changes, fuming… Like everything around us, it’s all pretty amazing and I know only enough to be humbled by my ignorance.
Did you ever wish you were just an expert at something right away? I used to wish I could kick ass like Bruce Lee when I was a kid, or play bass guitar like Flea or Less Claypool when I was a teenager, or write like Hunter S. Thompson in my twenties. Here is what I didn’t understand: It is largely a myth that someone is just a “natural” from the start. I never learned to play bass well not because I didn’t have the aptitude to learn, but because I was lazy. I didn’t want to put in the years and years of practice it takes to play an instrument well. To learn how to do what I want to be able to do (here are a few examples) is going to take many years. There will be lots of waxing on and waxing off in the meantime. Start with small things. Learn to do them well. Keep practicing. Wash, rinse, and repeat. Oh and…
Shut Up and Listen!
I am lucky to be working in a shop with a very talented, creative and highly respected glass marble artist. It is a fortunate opportunity that I don’t take for granted. His time is valuable and I shouldn’t waste it by asking too many beginner questions that I could find the answer to myself. I would rather save that equity for when I need it (see punty problem above).
If you want to see some stuff that inspires me check out this glass art board on Pinterest, and pretty much anything made by these guys:
- Kenan Tiemeyer
- Jesse Demoss (he’s the one who does these door knobs)
- Junichi Kojima
- Travis Weber
- Remy Schwartz (el Hefe)