Some Like it Hot: An Adventure in Glassblowing [Haliburton Highlands, ON]

Artech Glass - Attaching a Punty

Artech Glass – Attaching a Punty

I think I remember the first time I saw a glass artist blowing glass; it was around 2003 and I was a student at the University of Waterloo spending a fine afternoon in the beautiful and quaint village of St. Jacobs. I’m unsure if it is there anymore but there was an artist with a studio behind the ice-cream caboose near the river. I couldn’t tell you what they were making or why I liked it, but I do remember thinking to myself, “That is awesome!”. And so, when my friend and employee of Yours Outdoors, Shannon, asked me if I’d like to participate in a glass blowing workshop at Artech Studios in Tory Hill near Haliburton my answer was “Absolutely!”.

Yours Outdoors is based in Ontario in the Haliburton Highlands. Barrie Martin, owner and experience broker, along with his team of experience leaders are in love with the highlands and are committed to making others fall in love with Haliburton too. The Yours Outdoors team will work with you to create one or a combination of authentic and unique experiences – whether by yourself, with a partner, small or large group – they have half, full or multiple day activities for every season. Really, there’s no excuse not to let Yours Outdoors help you plan your getaway to the Haliburton Highlands!

The creative and experiential programs through Yours Outdoors “celebrate art, nature, history, outdoor recreation and reflects the principles of green tourism”.

Terry and Jennifer Craig are quite the powerhouse glassblowing duo. Originally an old church, the Craig’s home is now an eclectic, unique space; it’s here that my glassblowing adventure began. When we arrived in Tory Hill around 9:00am to take part in their “Some Like it Hot” full-day workshop we were greeted by Terry and Jennifer’s smiling faces, a steaming hot pot of coffee and the happy whistle of a fresh-boiled kettle. With snow still on the ground and a crisp April chill in the air it felt wonderful to feel the heat from the coffee through the hand-crafted ceramic mug. Little did I know there was a lot more heat to come!

DSC_0062Sufficiently caffeinated and after introductions, Terry led us through their colourful garden, past their beautiful sauna, towards the studio. Walking through their enchanted glass-deco garden is an experience in itself. There are a variety of little pathways to decide between that each take you on somewhat of a different course before landing you at the large wooden front-door of the studio. No matter which way you choose, you will inevitably spend some time walking near, around and underneath colourful speckled glass spheres hanging from tree branches. You may also encounter a teal tricycle, a garden of misfit paperweights, birdhouses, bones (yes, bones), benches and time-telling devices among other things I’m sure even the most discerning eye wouldn’t catch the first time.

Upon entering the workshop, before your eyes adjust, you cannot help but feel the intense heat coming from the furnace. As the space around me became clearer it was impossible not to notice the hundreds of iron tools hanging on the walls, the random and witty posters, books, Star-Wars and other figurines, knick-knacks, animal skulls, disco-ball and Terry’s obvious love for great scotch.

Filled with over 200lbs of molten glass and kept at over 2100 degrees, to say that it was excruciatingly hot to stand in front of the furnace is a gross understatement! Terry started by introducing us to the furnace, the concept of the ‘glory hole’ (we’ll get to that in a minute) and to the many tools we were going to play with. The first tool we learned about is called a punty – it’s the long iron rod used to gather and work with the glass. We learned how to gather the glass from the crucible (where it’s kept within the furnace) and how to keep the glass spinning on the punty so gravity doesn’t pull it to the ground.

Spin! Spin! Spin! In our day-to-day activities we rarely think too much about gravity but in glassblowing it’s on your mind all the time. If that punty isn’t spinning it’s almost a sure thing that you’re going to be scraping a glass blob from the floor.

Artech Glass - Ribbon

Artech Glass – Ribbon

On top of the spinning it was very important that we also master the art of how to move ourselves from the furnace where we gather to the workbench where most of the magic happens. I must admit, it’s a lot to think about in order to get the glass from the furnace to the work bench and formed into something useful but we were all up to the challenge.

Our first “project” of the day was not to create anything in particular but to get a feel for how the glass moves and feels and spins and reacts and changes at the hands of the tools hanging around the shop. Terry took the lead in demonstrating for us what it looked like to gather the glass and transfer it carefully to the work bench. He made it look effortless as you would imagine a master craftsman could after 25 years. One by one my friends each demonstrated their ability to not burn ourselves or anyone else and safely move from furnace to bench – and then it was my turn. It’s funny how I was nervous about my ability to coordinate myself – spin, switch hands, step back, keep spinning, open the “car door”, sit, shimmy, spin, DON’T TOUCH IT! At the end of it all my coordination certainly was not what I remember – I remember the heat!

I am not exaggerating (as I sometimes do) when I say that when you are standing in front of the furnace gathering the molten glass onto the punty you realize exactly how hot 2150 degrees really is.

The exposed skin on your hands and especially your forearms literally feels like it is on fire; it feels like your skin is going to burst into flames and fall off of your bones.

It wasn’t planned but I’m grateful that I had brought along a long-sleeved sweater, I was sure to pull the sleeves as far down my arms as physically possible and even then the heat through the fabric was often unbearable and you had to move your arm out of the “line of fire” in order to continue.

Artech Glass - Tools

Artech Glass – Tools

That said, we started making our “blob” by gathering the glass at the end of the punty, transferring it to the work bench, and then used a block (a ladle-like tool made from water-soaked fruit wood) to centre the glass around the end of the punty. As you roll the glass within the cold water soaked block the glass changes shape but also starts to cool and so it is necessary, when working with glass, to bring it back and forth to the furnace to reheat the glass often in order to keep it soft and hot enough to work with. It is by sticking the punty back into the ‘glory hole’ that the glass reheats to a temperature where you can continue to manipulate it. After re-heated and brought carefully back to the bench we were encouraged to pick up the tools around us to pinch, pull, cut, twist, stamp and stab the glass. It’s hard to describe what it feels like to manipulate glass but my best attempt would be to say that it’s like working with a very thick honey except that as you work with the iron tools to stamp and move it, it reacts in the way that clay might because it keeps the shape. It’s pretty incredible!

Once the piece at the end of the punty is done being shaped and manipulated you need to create what’s called a “jack line”. This is where you take what I might describe as pincers, place them around the glass near where the punty is attached, and roll the glass while the pincers narrow the glass at that spot. This becomes the place where the glass breaks off the punty. Terry then used a torch to smooth the spot where it was attached before putting the piece into a 500 degree kiln to cool overnight.

Yes, that’s right, each glass piece – upon completion – needs to be cooled overnight in a kiln in order to make the piece stable. If you skipped this step the glass piece wouldn’t hold its shape, it would shatter. This happens because the piece would cool too quickly and all of those little invisible glass molecules that you’ve just worked so hard to form into a perfect masterpiece would become too unstable to hold their form and B@nG! – would break into pieces.

After making our “blob” our next project was to make two paperweights that incorporated techniques with colour – and so the alchemy began! In the back of the shop there was this incredible corner of shelves where Terry keeps all of his colour in the form of powder or little shards called fritz. There were so many colours and combinations of colours to choose from that I finally had to cut myself off from looking anymore!

Artech Glass - Fritz

Artech Glass – Fritz

The process of adding colour to the piece isn’t difficult but it does add an extra step or two to the process. In the case of paperweights, after the your first gather of glass, you roll or dab the gather into a bowl with the fritz and then put the glass back into the glory hole in order for the fritz to melt and then you move to the bench to work with the block. After centering the piece and re-heating it we learned that poking the glass with a sharp tool would create an air bubble in the final product. We also learned that pulling the glass and moving it back onto itself would create a ribbon of colour within the piece. Once happy with the layer of colour we would gather a second time to create a clear layer of glass over the colour.

By the time our blobs and paperweights were “cooling” in the kiln we had worked up quite the appetite, thankfully Jen had us covered and had created an absolutely beautiful and delicious lunch. It was at lunch that we had the pleasure of meeting Terry and Craig’s energetic daughter Anabelle who had, unfortunately, broken her leg and in a cast. However, this didn’t stop her from serenading us on her cello – I especially enjoyed her renditions of the Stars Wars and Harry Potter film scores. Thanks Anabelle!

Artech Glass - Lunchtime

Artech Glass – Lunchtime

The afternoon brought with it some more complex (in our minds) projects. We were all going to work with Terry to make a scotch glass and then were given a choice of making a glass sphere, a glass or some other kind of vessel like a vase.

Something distinctly different about these pieces from the paperweights we made in the morning are that a scotch glass and vessel have the ability to hold something – they have an opening. Herein lies not just the art of glass but also the art of glass-blowing.

This time around, instead of gathering the glass at the end of a punty we used a different pole called a blow pipe. This pole, as you might have already discerned, has a hollow section that runs the length of the pole, a mouth-piece at one end and an open nozzle at the other end. Like with the paperweights you gather the glass at the end of the blow pipe and then centre the glass using a block but then after you re-heat the piece in the glory hole you blow – hard!

If I wanted to simplify what you’re imagining I might say that you should picture yourself blowing into a straw with a deflated balloon at the other end – it takes some effort. However …

Anyone that’s ever blown glass might be likely to agree that glassblowing is better described as trying to blow bubbles into a jar of peanut butter! It’s HARD!

Thankfully, once you get that little bubble started it gets a little easier and you can focus more on how big of a vessel you’re creating. Contrary to what you might be thinking, the end of the glass that is not attached to the blow pipe actually become the bottom of the piece. This is because Terry was about to teach us how to transfer the glass from the blow pipe to a punty which allows us to work on the actual opening of the vessel at the spot the glass breaks from the blow pipe – at the jack line. Yes, I know, take a minute to read that a second time. Got it? Good.

Artech Glass - Glass Blowing

Artech Glass – Glass Blowing

With some further assistance from Terry (he is incredibly patient!) we blew out our scotch glasses, created a smooth bottom, created a jack line, transferred the glass, kept it spinning, created an opening and (not forgetting the many, many glory hole visits) – Voila

Last, but certainly not least, I decided to make a colourful vase-like vessel with a spout. I chose a beautiful multi-coloured fritz with blues and greens and whites and, after barely a day of practice, created something that I never imagined would now be sitting in my kitchen for friends and family alike to “Oooohh” and “Aaaahh” over. C’est magnifique!

Terry then agreed to give us a quick demonstration of how he goes about making a wine glass with a flute adorned with thorns.

With the speed and skill of 25 years he blew and spun, snipped and pulled, smoothed and crafted the molten glass into something beautiful. What a remarkable craft!

To say that none of us wanted the day to end would be accurate. As someone who loves pottery I can say with certainty that it feels wonderful making something with your hands. Glassblowing is another craft that I consider myself lucky for being able to try and I sincerely hope that I have the opportunity to participate in it again and again over the years to come. Terry told me about a week-long course that happens every summer at Fleming College in Haliburton that I’m interested in exploring next year – it’s for beginners and seasoned blowers alike.

Hopefully I’ve peaked your interest in the art of glassblowing and if I have I know that Terry and Jennifer are looking forward to meet you – they have a variety of options for workshops varying in length depending on what you’re looking for and Yours Outdoors will take care of helping you plan your experience.

At the end of it all I’m so proud of my little creations and so grateful to my friend Shannon and Yours Outdoors for suggesting that I visit Haliburton and take part in the Some Like It Hot workshop. I’m a lover of the outdoors and an artist at heart and this experience turned out to be one that combined these two loves during my time in Haliburton.


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