an introduction the glassblowers’ dance
it looks like a dance with heat and light. glassblowers step and dip, blow, spin, and roll the molten glass that will become a glassybaby. the dance looks so intricate, you’re surprised not to see dropped glass and burned elbows.
but when you watch a while, you notice how each glassblower repeats a simple process and then passes the glass on to another. each glassblower plays one of four roles in the dance.
the process begins with the overlayer, who dips a blowpipe into the 2300 degree furnace, spins it around to gather clear glass, then blows a little bubble.
meanwhile the colorist is hanging out and shooting the breeze, until the overlayer brings over the bubble. then the colorist lifts up a molten bar of colored glass and lets it droop over onto the bubble.
the overlayer snips off a blob of the color and rolls it smooth around the bubble. then he passes the blowpipe to the molder for another dip in the furnace to add another clear layer over the color.
then, as you may have guessed, the molder molds the glassybaby, spinning and blowing the glass into its approximate final shape. the mold for the glassybaby is like school for a person: every one goes through essentially the same shaping process, but every one still comes out a little different.
the real differences, though, the character traits, are created by the trimmer — the trickiest part of the dance. after the mold, the glass is transferred onto a different rod, which the trimmer spins while pulling out and shearing the lip of the votive.
when the lip is smooth and right (never perfect), the trimmer gently knocks the glass off of the rod, presses the glassybaby stamp on the bottom, and places the superheated glassybaby into the annealing ovens, which bring the glassybaby down, slowly, slowly, to room temperature.
24 hours later, the glassybaby are as cool as they are beautiful, so they are borne out of the oven and into the world.
overlayer, dropper, and charger
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.
like class for glass: the mold-blower
we have all been lucky enough to go to school, and yet we are also all lucky enough to be unique individuals. so it is with every glassybaby.
in the glassybaby hot shop, the overlayer creates two-layered, glowing orbs of glass, and then pass them, on the end of their blowpipes, to the mold-blower. our glassblower hero, isaac, followed the same progression through the hot shop that glass does — after he worked for a while as overlayer, he became a mold-blower. his job was to give each glassybaby its basic, exquisite barrel shape. let’s hand isaac the blowpipe.
he’ll keep it spinning, centered around the blowpipe axis, as he approaches the furnace, into which he dips the glowing orb, gathering a third and final clear layer of molten glass, to surround and protect the color within. this clear molten glass heats up the color layer a bit, keeping it malleable.
next, isaac takes a seat at a bench with two straight rails extending out, like arms, in front. he braces the blowpipe flat on the rails, rolling it with his left hand, always maintaining the spin to keep the shifty glass in balance, rolling, rolling, rolling. with his right hand, isaac hefts the “block,” a thick wooden ladle, out of a bucket of water. he cups the block beneath the spinning orb of glass, rounding out a smooth shape and an even temperature. the cool water on the block gives off a little steam when it kisses the glass, which it cools a bit, to create a “skin” across its surface. this cool “skin” is important — cool skin won’t stick to the mold, like molten glass would. left hand roll, right hand shape, roll, shape, roll, cool.
when the glass is centered, rounded, and medium-hot, it is ready to find its form. isaac stands and swings the glass over and down, spinning, into the mold, and
slowly blows into the top of the blowpipe. this blow isn’t a sudden pop, like the overlayer blow, it’s a steady expansion of air inside the glass. this air pushes the glass around it out, to fill the mold.
the mold — you may wonder, if we use a mold, why is each glassybaby different? why aren’t they all the same size and shape?
think of it this way. if we all went to the same school, would we all graduate thinking the exact same way? no, we are shaped also by our genes and our parents’ words and what happens to us after school.
likewise, each glassybaby is lowered into the mold with slightly different ratios and temperatures of clear and colored glass, spin and blown by unique movements of hand and lung, and then passed off to the trimmer, to be finished, by hand.
read on to learn about the trimmer, who performs the final, most-advanced step in the glassblowing dance.
defined by what’s left behind: the trimmer
most great stories become great through a process of trimming, so that what’s left behind is the perfect, essential shape. part of growing up and letting to know yourself is to realize and accept what you are not. we have to let go of as much as we hold on to.
in the glassybaby hot shop, after the glass grows to fill its mold, it is transferred from the blowpipe to a different pipe, called the punty. isaac the trimmer gathers some clear molten glass on the end of the punty, and then pokes this molten glass onto the bottom of the almost-finished glassybaby, held up by the mold-blower. holding the punty in one hand, isaac grasps a pair of wet tweezers in the other hand and twists a little ring at the base of the glassybaby where it attaches to the blowpipe. this little touch of room-temperature water is like an ice-bucket challenge for the glassybaby, to wake the glassybaby up and let it know that it’s time to move on. like a pitiless parent, the mold-blower taps the blowpipe and “chink,” the glassybaby is off the blowpipe and on the punty, swinging toward the blazing heat of the gloryhole furnace, in the hands of the trimmer.
these hands must be able, experienced hands, steady, guided by eyes that know exactly what to do without thinking. at this point, the glassybaby has graduated from the school of the mold, and so has attained the final shape of its bottom half. isaac and any other trimmer must have patience, because each piece of glass that sticks onto the end of the punty will behave differently. different colors
have different personalities and emotions, all depending on a thousand factors beyond the trimmer’s control. each piece comes with baggage. one might be overly slippery, prone to sagging off center, and another might be obstinate, too cool to want to be trimmed and shaped.
whatever the nature of the glass which isaac gets on the end of his punty, he must work with it, adapting the speed of his spin, the length of time it stays in the gloryhole, and the force with which he pulls at the lip with the tweezers.
first isaac heats the glass, then he sits down with it, laying the punty horizontal on metal rails in front of his bench, rolling, rolling, tugging the edge of the lip out away from the base, little by little until the glassybaby is stretched out like a fancy vase. then he puts down the tweezers and picks up the shears, cutting into the part that he stretched out until he reaches the perfect line, and then cutting all the way around the glassybaby in a ring at this line. now the glassybaby is the right height.
at this point isaac brings the glassybaby back into the gloryhole for one last dose of heat. back at the rails, rolling again, keeping the glass centered, isaac picks up the “jack.” the jack is a big pair of metal tongs, which are waxed in order not to stick to the still-molten glass. the jack goes inside the rolling glassybaby, gently pushing the glassybaby outward in the center, and thinner at the lip. here, isaac’s hand must be perfectly steady, and fully-imbued with the perfect glassybaby shape. roll, roll, expand, smoothen, roll, and then, finally, done.
the glassybaby is, finally, a glassybaby. all extraneous glass is gone. the curve of its profile is smooth, sumptuous yet understated, from the clear ice at the bottom to the perfect lip at the top. isaac touches its base with wet tweezers and taps the punty, so that glassybaby is let go, now held in a wooden clamp. for the finishing touch, isaac heats the bottom with a blowtorch and stamps it with the glassybaby seal, says congratulations, and then places it into the annealer, where it will cool down to room temperature over the course of the next whole day.