glass blowing
Friday, 05 December 2014

How I Became a Glassy Lady

Scorching temperatures, molten glass and fiddly tools – it’s not easy making your own Christmas baubles, as Melonie Clarke discovered

Written by Melonie Clarke
When I was a child, one of my favourite television programmes was Rosie And Jim, which followed the fortunes of two rag dolls living on a canal boat. And one of the episodes, in which they learnt (with John, who steered the boat) how to blow glass, particularly caught my imagination.

But today it’s my turn – in worldfamous glass blower Peter Layton’s London studio. And my specific task: to make my own festive bauble.

Commercial glass Christmas-tree ornaments first appeared in the 1840s and were made in the German village of Lauscha. But their popularity in the UK soared when in 1846 an illustration of Queen Victoria’s tree, complete with glass ornaments from Prince Albert’s native Germany, appeared in a London paper.

Of course, Peter makes far more than just glass Christmas-tree ornaments. But there’s certainly no better teacher. Peter originally trained in ceramics but soon discovered his passion for glass-blowing, going on to teach himself the art. He is now admired worldwide.

Glassblowing-Dec05-02-590Clockwise from left: Bruce shows Melonie how colour is applied. Rolling the glass into a sausage shape. A yellowsleeved Melonie hard at work. Beautiful Christmas decorations by Peter Layton

‘I just got hooked,’ he tells me matter-of-factly.

Helping Peter is Bruce Marks (one of five resident glass-blowers) who came to the studio from South Africa. He was taken on for a day’s trial and never left.

Depending on how intricate the design, making a bauble by hand can take anything from 20 minutes to an hour. We begin by making a practice, snowman-type figure so I can get used to using the tools of the trade. I’m given a rather fetching yellow sleeve to wear to protect my arm from the heat and some safety glasses.

The molten glass we’ll be working with is stored in a furnace, which holds about 150 kilos of it. It stays on 24 hours a day and is topped up every night with new raw materials and scrap leftovers (colourless glass only), melting them together to make fresh glass, which glows red like lava in a pool in the bottom of the furnace.

Glassblowing-Dec05-03-590-quote

I begin by putting my blowing iron (heated first in a special heating chamber) into the furnace to collect some molten glass – rather like getting honey out of a jar with a teaspoon – remembering, though, to keep the iron rotating or the liquid glass will simply slip off onto the floor or my feet. I then take it over to a stainlesssteel table, where I roll the glass out to create a still-molten sausage shape.

Then it’s time for a quick reheat, using the heating chamber. This keeps the glass liquid enough to work with. We then move to the blowing bench where I practise using a jack, the tool for cutting into the glass, to create the classic snowman shape – essentially three blobs: head, middle and bottom. The key to using the jack is, again, to keep rotating the glass so you get a clean, even cut.

Snowman successfully made (I’m chuffed when Bruce is impressed by my natural ability) it’s on to the Christmas bauble.

Much like with the snowman, I heat the iron and then gather glass onto it from the furnace. Then it’s time to choose my colours: I opt for the traditional (in my household anyway) red, green and gold, or amber on this occasion.

Glassblowing-Dec05-04-590From left: Blowing air into the bauble to inflate it. Using a jack to cut into the glass

To add colour to the clear glass, you simply dip the molten glass into bowls of colour. Once the colour has been applied we reheat again, allowing the colour to melt onto the glass – this takes around 30 seconds.

My bauble now looks like a coloured sausage, so it’s over to the blowing bench to shape it into a sphere. Again, keeping the iron rotating, I roll the glass around the inside of a rounded wooden block. This begins to shape my bauble. Glass cools and sets very quickly, so it needs to be reheated and shaped several times during this process.

Once it is cool enough, I continue to shape it with a wet pad of newspaper – the most important bit of kit, I’m told. (‘The Metro works well,’ Bruce laughs.) Using the wet paper is the closest I can get to actually touching the glass, and I use my hand to mould it more precisely.

The ideal shape is now achieved, but my bauble is currently a small, compact ball. It is time to blow air into it to make it hollow and increase its size. Keeping the iron rotating throughout (‘rotating’ is the word of the day!) I gently blow into the iron, sending an air bubble into the glass, inflating it.

Glassblowing-Dec05-05-590-quote

Then it’s time to ‘cut in’ using the jack to create a small neck at the top of the bauble. This makes it easier to remove it from the blowing iron. Bruce removes the bauble to make a hook for it (so we can later add a ribbon – perfect for hanging my decoration on the Christmas tree).

The hook is easily created by adding a blob of hot glass and twisting it back on itself.

Now all that remains is to pop my creation into the kiln for 36 hours. The kiln allows the glass to achieve the same temperature all over and cool as one, strengthening it. Without this process, the glass would solidify at different rates and be far less sturdy; it could even spontaneously shatter.

When I collected my bauble two days later, I was rather impressed with my handiwork – could this become a new hobby?

Glassblowing-Dec05-06-590Perfectly formed – and Melonie’s delight shows

The lovely thing about glass ornaments is that they can be kept in the family for generations. I have decorations on my tree that I can remember seeing on my grandparents’.

‘We’re trying to re-educate the public and make them treat these things as heirlooms, which can be passed on,’ Peter tells me.

I look forward to seeing the bauble I created hanging on my granddaughter’s Christmas tree some day.

Peter Layton London Glassblowing studio and gallery: 020-7403 2800, www.londonglassblowing.co.uk


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