Saturday, September 08, 2012

Blowin' Glass and Lookin' Cool.....
I'm sure, by now, I am on Groupon, Living Social, Travelzoo and Bloomspot's speed dial list when it comes to sending out emails with offers to buy vouchers for "lifelong learning" experiences.  This was another one of those deals, bagged a few weeks earlier from Groupon, which offered an Introduction to Glass Blowing, Level One class.   I didn't have any plans during the daytime on Saturday and - heaven forbid I just sit on my arse and relax - so I figured why not?  I snagged the last spot in the class, which pleased my (omnipresent) competitive nature no end.

My last experience of doing anything quite this crafty (at least that I recall) was when I was still at secondary school at Sir James Smith's in metalwork.  This was back in the days where you spent time in classes like metalwork, woodwork, needlework, domestic science and the like - who knows if kids get the chance to do stuff like that anymore in school.  Looking back, I'm sure there were lots of safety precautions built into those classes, but I seem to recall that there were lots of open furnaces and sharp objects kicking about with gay abandon.  Given my intense lack of co-ordination, God only knows how i managed not to accidentally sand off my face or stab myself with a chisel.   

As it happens, my abiding memory of those glory days was in one metalwork class, when the task for that day was to make a poker for the fire.  Pretty simple, right?  Basically a long thin rod of metal, with a bit of a twisty handle flourish, and slightly flattened pokey end and job's a good 'un.  Anyway, I can't remember the exact specifics of what happened (Mumsie - I know, I know - i could have been locked in a dark cupboard for 10 years given how much of my early childhood i actually do remember) but I think i must have got distracted by something and lost track of time.  By the time I went to pull it out of the furnace to just finish it off and flatten out the end bit, the whole thing had melted off and I'd instead made an fiery iron sparkler about four inches long.  My metalwork teacher was not best pleased (although on the inside I'm sure he was peeing himself laughing at my utter incompetence).  I think that's when I realized that a career as a blacksmith was not to be my destiny and considered Pharmacology instead.

Ready for some melting action
But, back to the present day.  The class was held at a workshop in Berkeley called Revere Glass.  It was a 4hr class, starting at 9am so I was up at 7.30am, to be on the road by 8.20am to make it in good time.  As per the pre-class instructions, I had dutifully dressed in "natural fabrics and closed toe shoes" which I took to mean that all synthetic, polyestery stuff was out and that cottons and linens were the order of the day.  Given I'm still in the early stages of the Get Lean and Loopyliscious Challenge (and that I hate wearing jeans), my sartorial options were somewhat limited.  I'm sure, like me, you'd be surprised to discover just how much of your day-to-day clothing contain at least some degree of synthetic fibers.  But, I managed to cobble together an outfit and, with my brown corduroy skirt, linen shirt and cowboy boots on, looked like I'd just escaped from a low budget Western.  Ah well.  At least it would be slightly harder for me to inadvertently set fire to myself dressed in non-flammable fabrics.

The drive over to Berkeley was easy enough, given my proximity to the Bay Bridge.  It took less time than I expected, so I had time to park up, sign in and then walk a couple blocks to go grab a well-needed cup of coffee before class started.  Berkeley is obviously very famous for being home to radical thinking and is one of the most liberal cities in the US.   Even still, I was a little taken aback to come across the following sign on my short walk - I'm very liberal myself and - having read the Fifty Shades trilogy back to back - feel I have a much greater insight of alternative lifestyles.  But this seemed a little out there, even by Berkeley standards.

Then I turned the corner and all was revealed.  Ah.  Got it.  Oops.

Oh.  Right.
Marge, is that you?
After that little frission of excitement, it was time to get down to business.  There were 6 of us in total in our class - all of us complete beginners (and obviously fellow voucher whores) except for one girl who had done some glasswork before.  Why on earth she was in the class with us dunces, I have no idea.  While waiting in the lobby for the class to start, it soon became apparent that this glass factory seemed to specialize in a particular type of market.  I'm not even going to pretend I have a clue how these things are used (what's wrong with a Rizla - or are they banned in California?) but it was pretty clear I was in the West Coast production zone for all things bongs and pipe-like.  They were everywhere - all shapes and sizes, colors and designs.  If you look closely at the one pictured, its also clear that potheads are Simpsons fans.   Duuuuuuude.

Our class was taught by this very chilled out guy called Bryson.  I guess if its your chosen profession to teach complete novices how not to seriously injure themselves with propane torches and molten glass at over a thousand degrees C, then it helps to have a certain demeanor, I suppose.  Or smoke a lot of pot.  Anyway, he introduced us to our equipment and gave us some basic instructions about which bits not to touch, which ones not to melt and which ones not to drop.  It was about then I realized - hang on, its 9am on a Saturday morning, I'm in a 4hr glass blowing course and I have the co-ordination of a dyspraxic spider.  This might not end well.   But - no time for self-doubt or for escape - as we got straight to work with our first project.  A marble.

Oh yes - it LOOKS easy.....
Bryson fired up his torch (his was powered with extra theatricality) and got to work, taking a thick rod (made of the same stuff that the beakers used to be made of in school Chemistry) and - holding the end in the middle part of the flame - started heating it up, slowly forming a ball of molten glass.  One of the keys to all glass blowing (whether you are doing marbles or whatever), is to keep turning the glass rods in your hands the whole time.  Either away from you or towards you, it doesn't matter - but you need to keep turning it in the same direction.

The next thing you learn about glass blowing (or, strictly, glass melting at this stage) is the need for patience.  It takes a while.  The immediate next thing you learn about glass blowing (or, strictly, glass melting) is that the need to keep turning that glass rod makes your upper arms ache like hell.  After only about five minutes.   Which is very lame, indeed.  But, once you've started, you have to keep going so you keep melting and turning.

After an eternity, when its starting to get big enough, you then use your mold to start smoothing it all out and rounding it off.  You also learn that if you eff up at the beginning and - instead of a glass ball - you have more of a snail-like shape, its pretty difficult at the end to smooth it all out back into perfect sphericality.   *sigh*

My first ever (and possibly last ever) marble with
patent pending built in roll-away prevention system
After about 40 mins of this, I had about as good a marble as I was going to get, so then we had to make a cold seal (or punty) with which to stick a smaller diameter glass rod onto the surface of our marble, opposite where the other rod was.  A cold seal is where you heat the glass up just enough so it just changes color, and then "stick" it to the glass you are working on, so that its a loosely melted-in connection (a hot seal, on the other hand, is much more robust and you get the end much hotter, so it sticks to the other piece a lot tighter).

We then heated up the original rod, just past the edge of the marble, until it got really hot then - using an impossible-to-describe technique where you use a cycling-type motion with your hands - separate the marble from its originator rod.  You now have a marble stuck on a little rod.  The final stages were try and smooth out the ridges from the connection, again using the molds, before then finally placing the marble into the mold for the last time and sharply tapping the narrow rod with a pair of metal tweezers - whereby the marble simply fell off.  After a last bit of fire polishing, where you simply kept the marble in the mold and passed it into the flames a few times for final smoothing, it was completed.  I was the very proud owner of a not-at-all smooth and only just passing-as-spherical marble.  Admittedly, my threshold for satisfaction was pretty low (it wasn't a cube, so that was fine by me) but it was a good enough job, well enough done.  I only managed to slightly singe my wrist once with a bit of flying molten glass (mmmm.....burning hair smell... lovely) so I was ahead of my own personal curve by this stage.  Buoyed by success (and apparently making a marble is one of the hardest things to do), we moved on to our next project - making some swizzle sticks.

Mariahs in action
The techniques here built on what we had just learnt, with the additional excitement of using some crystalline powder to add color to our efforts.   Making the swizzle sticks involved first creating "mariahs" (don't ask me why - I have no idea as to the origin of glass blowing terminology) which are the bumpy bits in the middle, and then melting one of the ends into a molten ball, before flattening it out and squishing it into the color powder stuff.  Then, by making a hot punty with one of your smaller rods, you then slowly twisted and pulled the flattened part to make the top part of your swizzle stick.  Of course, Bryson's looked fantastic, whereas mine looked like a Mr Whippy, but again, I was delighted with myself.  After letting them cool just for a few seconds, you then put the top part back into the flame to develop the color that you'd added previously with the powder.  That was fun - the crystalline powder itself is white but, as you heat it again, a lovely red-orange hue started developing in my swizzle sticks.  Very cool indeed.

Best Swizzle Sticks.  Ever.
Except when you accidentally touch one of the ends and then they are still very hot indeed.

I ended up having enough time to make three of them and I think they rocked.  My best one was definitely my last one - I started getting the hang of the slow twist and pull, so it was less snail-like than my first two attempts.  That's Christmas sorted out, then.

The next project (this class is hard work!) was a "pendant".  Now, I don't know exactly in what setting my "pendant" will be appropriate to wear but it has a certain homespun charm to it.  I'm sure its description on QVC would not generate many sales (ladies - here's our ONCE IN A LIFETIME special offer for you TODAY - a misshapen glass marble pendant, with orangey colored swirls and studded with oddly spaced glass dots.  A MUST HAVE for every woman's fall wardrobe!) but I don't care.  I think it rocks.

I'm blowing, not smoking
Then, it was on to our final project - one in which we actually had our first experience at blowing glass.  We were making glass blown holiday ornaments - this time using hollow tubes which we'd heat and gently blow into to expand.  Ay carumba.  That was tricky.  You had to get it just right - blow too lightly and it was rubbish and wouldn't expand.  Too much and your glass bulb would balloon wildly and become too thin to work with and just break.

On my first attempt, I managed to make a glass ornament about an inch in size, so great for midgets with Christmas trees in need of decoration, but not quite the scale I was looking for.  My second and third attempt were somewhat better (although the loops at the top were still...umm...a bit crap) but my fourth one turned out great!!  The glass bulb was perfect, my loop looked half decent and the long ornate tail at the end had some actual length too it, rather than the stubby efforts that had preceded it.   YEAH!  I am a glass blowing ninja!!  Looking to repeat my success, I carefully placed it down on the mold, tapped it with the tweezers to release it from its cold seal - and promptly broke off the top.  Arse.

But, never mind - I ended up with four holiday ornaments - some better than others, but all unique and I was very happy with them.  And, with that, it was time to power down our torches for the final time and thank Bryson for his patience and skill at teaching a room of complete novices how to melt stuff and make stuff without serious injury.  All in all, a really fun way to spend a Saturday morning and another experience to add to the list.  As to whether I'll chance my luck and sign up for the Glass Blowing Level 2 class, well.... maybe.....we'll see.

Here we go.....
YEAH!!!  The ill-fated perfect glass ball takes shape...
Like applying mascara, glass blowing is easier
when you stick your tongue out
"I'm a glass blowing ninja!  AND I look cool..."
The fragile fruits of my labors.


Mumsie said...

Clever girl! Whoda thought you coulda pulled this one off without painful and permament scarring. Look forward to seeing your unique designs..clever girl.Maybe you should find a metalwork class and finally make me that poker, better late than never darlin lotsa love xxxxx

louise holloway oymak said...

welllllllll!!!! you are a clever bunny!!!! i think thats fantastic and cant wait to see your xmas decs on the tree for all the world to see! marvellous how you having all these new experiences!! and so funny and entertaining!!! now for the book!! if that bloke who was really rather dull can publish hbis blog about dubai then you will be a cert for the top ten best seller list!!! love you and well done!!! xxxxxxx

Anonymous said...

Great info - just got one of those deals for my husband. I'm glad to know what he'll be coming home with!