Penn State Intercom......August 9, 2001

glassblowers turn their occupation into ...

'A glass act'

By Julie A. Brink
Public Information

The blast from the blowtorch softens and melts the tip of the cylinder, creating a blob of molten glass.

Russ Rogers puts the cool end of the cylinder to his mouth and blows. A glistening, iridescent bubble of glass appears from the glowing tip, expanding until the cooling glass becomes thin and brittle. The bubble shatters with a loud bang spewing paper-thin glass fragments onto the worktable. glass3

Rogers laughs, as does fellow glassblower Doug Smith. "You're in no danger," Smith said. "I do that trick for the Boy Scouts."

Rogers and Smith are the University's scientific glassblowers. Rogers works for the Department of Chemistry in the Eberly College of Science and Smith works in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences.

The University hires glassblowers to custom-build apparatus used in scientific experiments, according to Derek Elsworth, associate dean for research in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences.

As Smith puts it, "We fabricate custom glassware as dictated by student and faculty needs."

They also have a hand in design and they do repairs to glass apparatus used in experiments where time is an issue to the continuity of the work. Their work ranges from constructing a simple quartz glass test tube to repairing a two -story glass distillation unit in Fenske Laboratory. Rogers just finished making glass shades for the chandeliers in Old Main on the University Park campus.

The two say their job is to save the University money on scientific glass items by fabricating them instead of ordering them from a vendor. That test tube would cost them $5 to make; purchasing it from a vendor ratchets up the cost to $20.

They work their glass by hand on a lathe and at the bench. The chucks on either end of the lathe move in synchronicity, spinning the glass rods and tubing while Smith or Rogers heats the glass with blowtorch. Borosilicate glass has a softening point of 815 degrees Celsius and a working temperature of 1,270 degrees Celsius. Smith joked that his job is every kid's dream -- "you get to play with fire and get paid for it."glass4

The glassblowers use graphite paddles to shape the molten glass. A tube allows them to blow air into the glass interior as they work, stabilizing the heated walls. Their work is painstaking and they can produce precisely calibrated glass units.

After the glass unit cools, it's baked or "annealed" in an oven to stabilize it. This process prevents shattering, they said.

Between them, Smith and Rogers have more than a quarter-century of experience. Smith's been blowing glass for the University for 15 years. Rogers has worked here for 10 years. Smith learned the process from the University's previous glassblower, John Daly, and Rogers studied the process at a community college before working with glass for seven years in private industry.

They figure they go through hundreds of pounds of glass a year fabricating items for scientific use. For the most part, Rogers and Smith work separately within their glass1own departments, but occasionally will collaborate on bigger, more difficult jobs and aren't afraid to call on one another for help. Put them in the same room for an interview and it becomes a Laurel and Hardy routine.

Rogers, sitting at Smith's lathe demonstrating how to shape glass, joked that he can't work in the other man's lab because they have completely different techniques. "I can't do it his way and he can't do it my way," he said. "Take the lathe. He runs it backwards from me." Smith just chuckled and later made a joke about the neatness and condition of his coworker's lab.

The two turn serious when they talk about their work. Take the repairs they did on the distillation unit in Fenske Laboratory about a year ago. The unit was purchased from a German vendor and installed about 15 years ago, they figure. All of the instruction labels on the unit were printed in German, including an important one that translates as "do not tip," Smith recalled.

During a routine cleaning, the unit was tipped and the glass water inlet and outlet valves were damaged. The two had to figure out a way not to damage the three sets of glass coils inside the glass condenser when they made their repairs.

"I've done a lot of neat things, but this is the most challenging," Smith said.

They estimate that it took them about 20 hours to do the job and they charged glass2 between $500 and $600. Replacing the unit would have cost the University about $6,000.

"This is one of the rewarding jobs," Rogers said. "Vendors wouldn't touch it."

Neither considers their skill a dying art. "There are still young people who are really interested," Smith said.

Rogers noted, "There are so many more things available from catalogs than there used to be that there are more production-type glassblowers and less research-and-development-type glassblowers. So, it's not necessarily a dying art, rather just changing"

Both of them said working at the University afforded them the opportunity to do more creative work than in private industry, which is concerned with profit margins. "We have the flexibility to spend a little extra time and do the 'impossible,'" Smith said.

Doing the impossible sometimes includes a very simple solution. After they repaired the distillation unit in Fenske Lab, Smith and Rogers made sure the unit was plastered with a prominent label that said, in English, "do not tip."

You can reach Julie A. Brink at