MANCHESTER -- There's more to it than how to handle the blowpipe, but that's where it starts. 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, Weill has urged me to take one of his classes, where he would show me how to make a glass object of my own. Sounds like fun, I'd reply. Maybe next time.
Next time finally arrived when, instead of going in for another elegant bowl or vase, I bought a two-hour tutorial session. My wife, Linda, and I would blow our own.
This month, on a Saturday morning, we found ourselves trying to get the hang of how to hold the blowpipe.
Left hand forward, right hand back, Weill 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, he inserted the blowpipe into one of two propane-fired furnaces roaring away at 2050 degrees Fahrenheit and collected some molten glass at the end of the metal rod. It's warm in the studio, and for the first time all winter, neither Linda or I needed to wear a sweater. T-shirts were enough.
We were going to start simply and try to make a paperweight, a clump of glass, shaped like anything. But of course, we wanted to make it pretty. Or complicated. Or both.
We selected glass from among roughly 20 different colors. It came as silica pellets known as "fritt," in coffee cans. We rolled the gathered glass into one or two or coffee cans.
We sat at the bench, a woolen sleeve over our right arms to protect us from the chance of hot glass coming loose and hitting skin. A bucket of water sat nearby. That's reassuring, I thought.
A paper weight is a solid piece of glass, so we didn't need to blow into it -- but we did need to pick and pluck at the rapidly cooling glass with some over-sized tweezers, to give the interior of our paperweight some shape and style. And we had to remember to keep turning the pipe.
More glass covered the glass we'd plucked at, and soon four paperweights went into the cooler for safekeeping. Now we were ready for the next level -- making drinking glasses.
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 we were introduced to the art of blowing glass.
Blowing a small pocket of air into hot glass takes advantage of the unstable, subatomic particles that make up glass and gives 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," Weill 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.
"You're just forcing a void into the glass," he said. "Getting it started is the hardest part for beginners."
Once we'd introduced the air bubble into rapidly cooling but still soft and viscous glass, he showed us how to open 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.
One of us blew on the pipe while the other of us shaped the glass with dampish newspaper (only black-and-white pages work; color ones don't), massaging the shape until magically, we saw an object that bore a resemblance to a simple, plain, clear drinking glass.
Puffed up by our success -- or luck -- we turned to making a vase and a bowl: Gathering, marvering, blowing, turning, massaging, blowing and rolling.
Andrew Weill has run Manchester Hot Glass since July, 2000, and started offering classes two years later. In 2009, with the recession in full force, he expanded his classes. For about the cost of one vase, people could make their own. Now the classes are a central part of his business, he said.
He started working with glass when he was 16, growing up in Livingston, N.J.
"Glass is inherently cool," he said as we were leaving. "Everything starts with a bubble. How you blow it out, shape it, color or manipulate it -- it's all up to you."
If you go ...
What: Manchester Hot Glass
Where: 79 Elm St., Manchester.
When: The studio is open daily; closed Wednesdays.
Information: (802) 362-2227, manchesterhotglass.com