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An Essential Craft

Despite the declining use of glass, glassblowers remain vital to science and medicine

by Rachel Petkewich
January 16, 2006 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 84, Issue 3


An Essential Craft

On a steamy day last August, a group of chemists from Bristol-Myers Squibb visited Vineland, N.J., to tour Chemglass, one of the largest producers of scientific glassware. Even with 30-foot ceilings, the 85,000-sq-ft main building of the plant sweltered and buzzed with activity. More than 70 glassblowers peered through safety glasses, concentrating on their individual tasks. One chemist murmured, "I thought all this stuff was made by a machine."

Although machines can fabricate basic labware such as beakers and Erlenmeyer flasks, scientific glassware requires skilled handwork. Crafting just the basic shape for a custom 72-L reaction vessel, for example, requires a team of eight. Many more skilled hands contribute to the finished piece.

Glassblowers used to be fixtures in the chemistry departments of large research universities and in the workshops of industrial and government research facilities. Declining demand for glassware caused by alternative materials and new techniques has reduced the number of people skilled in the craft and the number of job opportunities.

But because scientific research and medical innovation cannot do without glassware, glassblowers will never disappear completely. Despite having far fewer practitioners now, scientific glassblowing continues to attract new people who, after years of training, find ways to survive and even thrive.

Hot, viscous glass waits for no one. Glassblowers acquire skills by learning from a family member, on the job, through an apprenticeship, or by taking courses.

A certain amount of natural ability is required, including dexterity, says Anthony Tamburelli, a native of Naples, Italy, who learned the craft in 1955 at Kontes, another large New Jersey scientific glassware company, and who has trained many glassblowers at Quark Glass, a small production facility in Vineland. Other physical demands include the ability to withstand the year-round, intense heat that comes with working in a room full of fires.

Government-recognized apprenticeships require up to 8,000 logged hours or about four years of work, after which one becomes a journeyman. Master glassblowers have decades of experience in addition to inherent talent.

Ready for the heat, Tara DiCinque applied for an apprentice position in the lamp room at Ace Glass, also in Vineland. She had dabbled with glass art, but the precision of scientific glassblowing drew her in. After six years with Ace doing various tasks including washing and packing glassware, she had the opportunity to become an apprentice. Just last month, two years after she started her apprenticeship, she hit the 5,500-hour mark. She expects to complete her 7,000 hours required by New Jersey within a year.

Practice is the best way to master specialties such as medical glassblowing, which includes making molds for devices such as stents and anatomically correct models of human body parts. Wade Martindale began training at Farlow's Scientific Glassblowing at age 13. He came from Canada to work summers, and he's been working there full-time for 11 years. "Everything has been on-the-job training and just working through the ranks," he says. "Now I'm almost exclusively doing heart models because there are so many orders."

Gary T. Farlow, who trained as an art glassblower in the mid-1970s, founded Farlow's, located in Grass Valley, Calif. He began his career by making little animals and ships, and then he learned about laser components and glass-to-metal seals for X-ray tubes. Eventually, he started his own company and got involved with medical glassblowing. He has hired people with various skill levels, from those who have never touched a torch to master glassblowers. "Most people have just fallen in love with the work, stayed on, and advanced in it," he says.

Some glassblowers earn four-year degrees in glass arts or ceramics. Many go to Salem Community College in Carney's Point, N.J., the only school in the U.S. that grants degrees in scientific glass technology. The program began in 1959. Its graduates are sought for glassblowing positions in production, university labs, and commercial R&D work.

At Salem, students can get an associate's degree in two years. They take classes in English and math, as well as chemistry, physics, and technical drawing. "We teach them to think, not just to manipulate glass," says Don Hodgkins, a Salem graduate and the instructional chair who teaches all of the scientific glass classes. But most of the courses involve "making actual scientific products," he adds.

Salem's curriculum focuses on flamework, which requires skills in manipulating intermediate forms of glassware, such as glass tubing, with torches at benches and rotating stands called lathes. In the first year, students learn basic skills and fabricate simple apparatus. Some of the products fabricated during the second year include reaction flasks, condensers, bump traps for rotary evaporators, and vacuum manifolds.

Credit: Photo By Rachel Petkewich
Credit: Photo By Rachel Petkewich

Students spend 10-20 hours per week working on projects in Salem's state-of-the-art Glass Center. Six hours are earmarked for class time, and the rest are devoted to working on technical skills with a wide variety of equipment during open lab. In class, students analyze a technical drawing, watch the instructor's demonstration, and then reproduce that piece. During class, Hodgkins moves from student to student, answering questions and providing tips that he has learned from 25 years of experience in production custom shops and research facilities.

Many working glassblowers from near and far have spent a year or two at Salem. Current students range in age from 18 to 40. "People from all around the world come to school here, across the street from where I grew up," says Brian Rainear, who graduated 19 years ago from Salem and is the foreman in the lathe room at Ace Glass. Although a couple of universities had offered him golf scholarships after high school, he followed his family's tradition and pursued scientific glassblowing. He says the knowledge he gained in chemistry and physics classes helped him understand what chemists need when they request custom work.

Sam Conterato came to Salem from farther away. Halfway through a bachelor's degree in management information systems at the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire, he met a member of the chemistry department, became interested in scientific glass, started looking for a new program, and transferred to Salem. Scientific glassblowing, he says, will provide him stable and reliable work in industry. To pay for school and to get more experience while in New Jersey, he is working at Glastron, a manufacturer of specialized and biomedical glassware in Vineland. He's also pursuing a degree in glass art through a glass arts program that Salem offers.

Credit: Photo By Rachel Petkewich
Credit: Photo By Rachel Petkewich

Dipogiso White came from farther still: Botswana. "People don't know glassblowing in my country," he says. With a city and guilds certificate in laboratory technology from the University of Botswana, he worked for a university in Gabarone, the country's capital. The government of Botswana is building a science and technology university and will need a glassblower; the hospitals need glass, too, he says. The only other person in Botswana who knows scientific glassblowing is Zambian and ready to retire, he explains. He plans on returning to his job in Botswana after graduating.

Prior to 1915, scientific glassware was manufactured primarily in Germany. When World War I cut U.S. access to those products, Corning stepped in with Pyrex glassware, says Stuart Sammis, historian for the firm, headquartered in upstate New York.

Early in the 20th century, southern New Jersey became an epicenter for a wide variety of glass products because of its proximity to a high-grade raw material called silica sand. The area still has the highest concentration of scientific glass companies in the world. Salem, nestled in the area, enjoys strong support from the scientific glass companies. According to Hodgkins, those companies donate 95% of the glass materials that Salem students use for assignments.

"Twenty years ago, chemistry was 90% of the scientific glassblower's work. Think of all the joints, stopcocks, and valves and ball sockets that chemists use on their systems," says Michael Souza, Princeton University's glassblower. He started his career in glassblowing in 1973. At the time, the university employed three glassblowers just to keep up with orders and repairs for flasks and columns. Now, Souza says, "about 20% of my work comes from chemistry. The rest of it comes from physics, materials sciences, geosciences." Other glassblowers receive projects from various disciplines in engineering and biological sciences, as well as from medical schools.

Four main advances in science and medicine have reduced demand for glassware. First, technology and instrumentation cut out a lot of wet chemistry. Second, the trend in microscale operations necessitated the use of smaller glassware. Third, large-scale distillations and separations moved to metal apparatus to reduce injury from accidents. And fourth, sophisticated materials and polymers became popular in biological and medical applications.

In the 1980s, about 1,500 people attended the national meetings of the American Scientific Glassblowers Society, according to David Surdam, vice president of Chemglass, his family's business, and vice chair of the Delaware Section of ASGS. "Now, you are lucky if you have 500, because a lot of glassblowers have lost their jobs through attrition," he says.

Glassblowing must be a labor of love, because the pay is modest. Apprentices usually start at $10-$12 per hour, masters can command $30 per hour or more, and the rates for journeymen fall in between. Some university glassblowers, however, can earn up to $90,000 per year.

Hot Glass
Credit: Photo By Rachel Petkewich
With a ribbon flame and a torch, Ernie Bruhnke, who has worked at Ace Glass for 45 years, constructs a jacketed flask, which is held by a lathe.
Credit: Photo By Rachel Petkewich
With a ribbon flame and a torch, Ernie Bruhnke, who has worked at Ace Glass for 45 years, constructs a jacketed flask, which is held by a lathe.

Job openings tie to the ebb and flow of basic research funding. Souza says the work is "very hard for the young person to get into." Salem's Hodgkins, on the other hand, points out that researchers in many fields seek glassblowers to create custom glassware and apparatus, pieces that cannot be made by a machine. Many highly skilled glassblowers are now reaching retirement age, he adds.

Still, scientific glassblowing is in decline. Production companies stay afloat through strategies akin to those taken by other manufacturing industries, including partnering, diversifying product lines, or focusing on a niche. Chemglass, for example, is expanding its scientific catalog and looking into other markets, including replacement joints and bone pins and screws. "Companies are making them out of composites now, and we have a machine shop that is capable of doing that," Surdam explains.

Small manufacturers are a good fit for the custom work niche. Doug Riley, president of Quark, a small company, says, "We have heard that we have delivered the piece before a large company has gotten a quote back." Quark's salespeople pick up and deliver pieces to labs when possible to avoid shipping delays.

Large consumers of scientific glassware, such as pharmaceutical companies, are opting to dispense with an on-site glassblower in favor of buying disposable products from glass manufacturers or outsourcing to small, local "contract shops." These one- or two-person operations exist all over the country; some fare better than others. In some cases, a company outsources to its former glassblower.

Credit: Photo By Rachel Petkewich
Credit: Photo By Rachel Petkewich

"At one point, P&G had about six glassblowers at a shop here in Cincinnati," says Rick Ponton, one of two glassblowers worldwide at Procter & Gamble. As they retired, however, they were not replaced. P&G tried to get by with only one glassblower but couldn't, he adds.

Glassblowers and their craft will never disappear. Keeping glassblowers in-house at any research facility offers two benefits, Ponton says. First, chemists have someone they can consult directly, an especially important capability in moments of crisis, such as when a vacuum line pops mid-experiment. Researchers can have some problems solved within an hour instead of delaying experiments for weeks while replacement glassware is en route. Second, maintaining an on-site glass shop may in fact be a bargain. "I charge my labor hours, and that's it," he says. "Something that would be in a catalog for $200, I can probably get to my customers for $50, because I don't make 35-60% profit like glass manufacturers."

P&G once considered outsourcing all its glassblowing needs, as it had done with its electrical and plumbing services, Ponton says. "But the chemists here stood up for us and fought for us." He adds, "I hear from a lot of glassblowers in academia, and they are always worried about that red pen."


Survival in the era of outsourcing weighs heavily on many university glassblowers. Bringing in work from outside is one survival strategy, but there are a few who don't need to. For example, Kevin Teaford, the glassblower at the University of Utah, is the only glassblower in the state. He has plenty to keep him busy, he says. Fourteen years ago, he switched from law enforcement to train in several places as a scientific and medical glassblowing apprentice.

Specialization is another strategy. Princeton's Souza, for example, is sought after because he works with aluminosilicate, a type of glass popular with physicists investigating tiny particles and light gases that can pass through the standard borosilicate and even more expensive quartz glass. "Aluminosilicate is a nightmare to work with, and almost every other glassblower hates it," he says. "So now I get stuff from all over the country and parts of the world." He estimates that 10-15% of his billable work comes from other universities and national research facilities.

Credit: Photo By Rachel Petkewich
Credit: Photo By Rachel Petkewich

At universities, glass shops, like machine shops and electronics shops, are part of the research team, and all are threatened by funding cuts. "But to be competitive in the modern research world you need to have certain facilities," says Patrick H. Vaccaro, a professor of physical chemistry at Yale University and one of five members of a search committee that selected a new glassblower last summer. "In many ways, universities have to become a little bit creative in what they think a glassblower should be doing."

Yale's new glassblower, Daryl Smith, is housed in the chemistry department; however, faculty in physics, engineering, molecular biology, and the medical school seek him out. In addition, as a former Salem instructional chair, he plans to teach some basic bending, sealing, and repair techniques to chemistry graduate students, who can apply them in the lab. That group still goes through plenty of glass.

Scientific glassblowers are dedicated, and despite geographic isolation, remain a tight community via Web forums. Collaboration with researchers intrigues them. "I think this is a great job because you get to see the research, but you don't have to do it," says Sally Prasch, a glassblower at Syracuse University who also runs her own glass shop in Massachusetts and has worked for AT&T.

"There is a satisfaction I get from my work that I can't imagine I would find anywhere else," Souza says.


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