overlayer, dropper, and charger: the dance begins

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the first step in the dance of creating glassybaby involves a shovel. before the glass blowers come to work in the hot shop, the glass needs to fully melt. our clear glass arrives in big bags of little solid chunks, like ice cubes. each night, these glass chunks have to be shoveled into the furnace to melt, and then stay molten long enough to for all the little air pockets that formed in between the melting ice cubes to bubble up and pop. the person responsible for shoveling all the cubes, initiating the process that will lead to beautiful hand-blown glass, is called the charger.

when Isaac began working as a charger in the glassybaby hot shop, he had never blown glass before. but over the years, he has learned each step in the glassybaby production process, and can describe them all in technical and metaphorical terms. today, Isaac’s kitchen cabinet is full of hand-blown cups that he made himself.

after his stint as charger, Isaac decided that the nocturnal life was not for him, so he became a colorist on the hot shop floor. the colorist is, in Isaac’s words, “a walking, talking furnace that needs health insurance.” emphasis on the talking. two teams of glass-blowers work in the Madrona hot shop at any given time, and the colorist is the only one on both teams. that’s because the job is fairly simple: heat up solid bars of colored glass and hold them up overhead, so a chunk (a “drop”) can be snipped off to stick onto the end of a blowpipe. in between drops, the colorist’s job is to regale the rest of the glassblowers with jokes and hypotheticals (“what if kanye west ran for president?”).

at length, Isaac moved up to the position of overlayer, the person who dips the tip of the blowpipe into the 2,100-degree furnace, spinning it slowly, and then pulling out a molten gob of clear glass that will become the inner layer of a glassybaby.

let’s say you’re the overlayer. you must execute a much subtler process than does the colorist or the charger, with much higher stakes. once the clear glass is gathered on the blowpipe, you keep it spinning, in order to keep it centered, and then “pop,” you blow a quick sharp breath into the blowpipe and then seal up its end with your thumb. your breath travels through the blowpipe and causes the clear glass at the end to bubble out. now you must shape the bubble and cool it down a bit: hold the blowpipe horizontal and roll the bubble across the flat metal table, until it looks like a little film canister with a rounded end.

now, hold the blowpipe straight up, under the colorist’s upheld color bar. grab the metal shears, and snip off a viscous drop of color. the size of the drop varies, depending on the color that you’re working with. you have to know the glass. now spin the tip of the blowpipe into the “glory hole,” a 2,300-degree oven, until the colored and clear glass heat up to identical temperatures. back at the metal table, roll the glass again to shape it, gradually tilting the blowpipe down from vertical to flat.

you’re trying to push the layer of colored glass down until it wraps all the way around your bubble of clear glass. once the color has the clear totally surrounded, “pop,” you blow and seal another breath into the blowpipe. your breath travels down the blowpipe and expands the bubble inside the glass. at this step, you have to get two things exactly right. your two layers of glass must be perfectly thick, and perfectly hot: too cold, and the glass won’t be soft and malleable enough to expand into the perfect glassybaby shape. too hot, and it’ll melt right off your blowpipe and make a beautiful mess on the floor. you have to get it just right. you must go the middle way.

when you’ve found this equilibrium, the overlay is complete. you hand off the blowpipe, with your nascent glassybaby at the end, to Isaac, who is now working the next position in the dance: the mold-blower.

stay-tuned for posts about the next steps of the dance, coming soon.