Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Art of Glass

Jul 17, 2009

My family has the strange collecting habit of collecting expensive glass.  It’s what’s referred to as Depression Era glass.  Today we went to the Blenko Glass factory in Milton, West Virginia.  They still make glass by hand-blowing it.  In other words, they have these huge furnaces where they make the raw glass into a liquid.  Then they get their molds ready.  Next, they get a good amount of hot liquid glass on a hollow metal rod, and they blow it up like a balloon inside the mold, and work the glass into shape.  They then put the glass into an oven to bake for a while, and then let it slowly come down to room temperature.  For one piece, anywhere from 3-5 glassblowers may handle it.  Each one has a different job. 
This process takes a ton of talent.  The workers at Blenko have to apprentice, and work on minor glassware for 15 years before they move up to the main assembly line.  It seems that Blenko is now the only major hand-blown glass factory in the United States.  The other main factory (also in West Virginia) is Fenton.  They made some extremely expensive pieces of glass.  However, due to the economy they have gone to making more production pieces.  They do hand-blow glass only by special order now.  I always liked Fenton glass for a very simple reason.  They did something to their glass to make it instantly recognizable.  It seems that all Fenton pieces have this shine (like an oil slick) over the glass.  It comes out extremely pretty.
Every time we are at the Blenko factory we take the factory tour.  However, something was different this time.  Almost all the workers were off since they were replacing the furnaces.  So I didn’t get to see the glass blowing process this time, but we did get to do something else that was great.  Our group was able to go out on the work floor.  I was able to see and get pictures of the furnaces, tools, and molds.  So that was a great experience.  I think I’ve taken the Blenko tour at least 7 times, and this was the first time I had been on the work floor. 
Here’s an odd fact.  Once a furnace is heated up, they can’t turn the heat off.  Once they turn the heat off, the furnace cracks and is no longer good.  So that’s one reason they were taking this week off to replace all the furnaces.  Also, due to the economy Blenko almost closed its doors for good earlier this year.  However, due to restructuring the company, and other financial moves, Blenko has survived.  Although right now they are running at half capacity. 

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