For several years I've wandered into Manchester Hot Glass, Andrew Weill's glassmaking shop and studio on Elm Street in Manchester, in search of a unique gift for some special occasion. And for years, Andrew -- the glassmaker, not me -- has urged me to take one of the classes he conducts and where he would show me how to make a glass object of my very own. Sounds like fun, I'd reply. Maybe next time.
Next time finally arrived last Christmas, when, instead of going to the well for another elegant bowl or vase, I cracked and bought a 2 hour tutorial session instead. My wife Linda and I would drop by and blow our own.
Earlier this month we found a couple of hours on a Saturday morning when -- miraculously -- neither of us had a previous commitment, and found ourselves trying to get the hang of how hold the blowpipe.
Left hand forward, right hand back, he kept saying to his two increasingly puzzled students.
"Turn it with the movement of a Rolex, not a Timex, nice and slow," he said. "Just get used to turning it; use both hands to turn it, nice and slow." Finally, when he was convinced we were ready, it was time to gather some glass and actually do something.
Andrew inserted the blowpipe into one of two propane-fired furnaces roaring away 2050 degrees Fahrenheit and collected some molten glass at the end of the metal rod.
We're going to start simply and try to make a paperweight. All it has to be is a clump of glass, shaped like anything. But of course, we want to make it pretty. Or complicated. Or both.
We select from among the roughly 20 different colors available. They come as little silica pellets known as "fritt" in coffee cans. We roll the gathered glass into one or two or coffee cans and now it's show time.
We sit at the bench, a woolen sleeve over our right arms to protect us from the chance of some of the still very hot glass coming loose and hitting skin. A bucket of water is nearby, just in case.That's reassuring, I think.
A paper weight is a solid piece of glass so we don't need to blow into it -- more on that in a minute -- but we do need to pick and pluck at the rapidly cooling glass with some over-sized tweezers. That's to give the interior of our paperweight some shape and style. And remember, keep turning the pipe. More glass is added onto the pipe over the glass we've plucked at, and soon, four paperweights go into the cooler for safekeeping.
Weill buys his raw glass in pre-mixed bags of sand-like material known as "batch," which goes into the furnace where it melts down into viscous goo. Into that goes his rod on which he gathers the glass. This time though, we walk over to another table where we roll or "marver" the glass to the point where it's rolled up more or less uniformly around the end of the rod. This forms a skin around the outside of the glass, which cools and shapes it. Then it's crunch time. We're about to get introduced to the art of blowing glass.
By blowing a small pocket of air into hot glass you are taking advantage of the unstable, subatomic particles that make up glass and giving them a way to stretch or expand. It's not a test of lung power. It's more like soft and steady pressure.
"It's the water bottle analogy -- you're blowing into a water bottle -- you blow into it and you're holding the pressure with your lips," he said. "You're not blowing into it continuously."
The air is in the pipe, heating up and forcing itself into the glass where it expands into a bubble, he said.
"You're just forcing a void into the glass," Andrew said. "Getting it started is the hardest part for beginners."
Now I start to feel better.
Once you've introduced the air bubble into your rapidly cooling, but still soft and viscous glass, it's time to shape it. Andrew shows us how to open what will be the mouth of the drinking glass and shape the top of it with another set of tweezers. Now things start to happen quickly. Glass cools in a hurry, and you either shape it correctly at the right time or it's back to the drawing board, or rather the furnace and the marvering table.Then it becomes a two-person job; one of us blows on the pipe some more while the other of us shapes the glass with dampish newspaper (only black-and-white pages work; color ones don't), massaging the shape until magically, between the two us, Linda and I see an object that remarkably, somehow, bears a resemblance to a simple, plain, clear drinking glass.
Puffed up by our success -- or maybe it's luck -- with the two drinking glasses, we're now ready for the main course, making a vase (me) and a bowl (Linda). More gathering, marvering, blowing, turning, massaging, more blowing and rolling. About 45 minutes later -- voila! cool stuff of our own, unique, one-of-a-kind and handmade.
Andrew Weill has run Manchester Hot Glass since July, 2000, and started offering classes two years later. In 2009, with the Great Recession in full force, he expanded the number of classes. For about the price of one vase, customers could make their own, or maybe several, and have fun at the same time. Now the classes are a central part of his business, he says.
He started working with glass when he was 16, and growing up in Livingston, N.J. An early interest in ceramics and pottery led him into glassblowing. He met up with a master craftsman who took him on as an apprentice. After receiving a BFA in glass from Franklin Pierce College, he worked at several small studios around New England. In the summer of 1998, Weill accepted a position in a small shop in southern Sweden. While working and traveling for nearly a year in Europe, Weill found inspiration in many of the European glass houses. Then came his own store and studio of his own on Elm Street.
"Glass is inherently cool," he said as we were leaving, visions of more artisanal craftsmanship teeming in our heads. "Everything starts with a bubble. How you blow it out, shape it, color or manipulate it -- it's all up to you."
Right -- just be sure to bring a glass sherpa with you for the journey until you get the hang of it -- and remember to hold the blowpipe properly and keep turning it. If you go: Manchester Hot Glass is located at 79 Elm Street in Manchester. The studio is open daily, closed Wednesdays. For more information, call 802-362-2227, or visit manchesterhotglass.com