Saturday 21st August 2021 – Vol 001 Edition 00009
by Jim Campbell
With Waterford Crystal employing over four thousand people at one stage, it is not surprising that I would find a glassblower in the county. Glassblowing is a glass-forming technique that involves inflating molten glass into a bubble with a blowpipe or blow tube. A person who blows glass is called a glassblower. Glass is one of the earliest materials known by man. The primary materials used to make Glass are silica, sand, sodium carbonate, and calcium oxide. Not the type of materials which people would have in their kitchen cupboard!
Edition 9 of my ‘A Day in the Life of’ series is about Master Glassblower Tony Hayes from The Irish Handmade Glass Company in Waterford City. Like his colleagues, Derek Smith, Danny Murphy, and Richard Rowe, Tony worked in Waterford Crystal. What’s interesting about these four glass workers is that they all followed in their father’s footsteps.
Born Glass Workers
You could say that they are born glass workers. Their fathers were craftsmen in Waterford Crystal for many years. Tony’s late dad Tom was Master Engraver in Waterford Crystal. In 1986, Tony completed his Leaving Certificate on a Friday and commenced working at Waterford Crystal the following Monday. It took five years of apprenticeship to become a glassblower and then three years more to become a master.
Then in January 2009, their lives were shattered with the announcement that the Waterford Crystal factory was to close and all its employees laid off. The four craftsmen were determined that their ancient craft would survive. With their knowledge and the tools they owned, the craftsmen decided to form their own company and use their unique talents to design and produce an innovative and exciting range of products.
Glass is melted overnight
Tony explains that the Glass is melted overnight – the way it works with glass is the previous evening they melt a pot of glass, they use an unleaded crystal. The temperature on the furnace is brought up to about fourteen hundred degrees. The pot is filled with what they call ‘batch,’ a raw material imported from Sweden. The ‘batch’ is the waste glass cut-offs from previous projects. The mixture is seventy-five percent batch with twenty-five percent recycled glass. The mixture melts overnight, which provides the craftsmen with approximately 400lbs of glass.
Glassblower must work quickly
Tony’s day starts at about seven-thirty in the morning. “We don’t generally start making glass until about nine in the morning. Other things are going on besides packing and polishing. We start by packing website orders, shop orders, and polish glass made the previous week. You are still finishing glass and polishing it the whole time. There is always stuff to be packed to go into the storeroom. Never a dull moment; it’s always busy. If we are not doing glass, we are doing something different. We could be engraving, polishing or packing.”
The blowing process method used by the Irish Handmade Glass craftsmen is the same technique created in the middle of the last century BC. A portion of molten glass is gathered on the end of a blowpipe and inflated into a bubble. The glassblower must quickly extend the molten glass to a systematic globule and then work it into the desired shape. The glassblower’s toolbox consists of a punty rod, blocks, tweezers, paper, and a variety of sheers.
It is all done by the eye
At the time I was at the workshop, Tony was busy making Christmas baubles for Adare Manor. The heat they were working with was 1150 degrees Celsius. Once the glass is taken from the furnace, it is then inserted into a block and shaped. “Once Derek gives me the glass, I shape it in a block. I blow in the right amount of air, increase it, and make the glass so it falls off the blowing iron; we don’t use a mold; it is all done by the eye. We measure the odd one. We are doing it long enough; I am doing it thirty-six years. If I don’t know the size by now, I will never know it.” Another small piece of glass taken from the furnace dropped onto the end of the bauble body. It is cut off to the correct height and shaped into a loop for a ribbon to go through it.
They are then cooled overnight. The cooling process for the newly formed glass object occurs in a furnace known as a lehr or annealer. The annealer is used to slowly cool the glass from a few hours to a few days, depending on the size of the pieces. This process keeps the glass from cracking or shattering due to thermal stress.
The following day, at seven in the morning, Derek will come in and take out all of today’s production. The final production phase is the cutting process. Master Cutter Danny Murphy checks them for any bubbles. If there is a bubble, it can be removed using a diamond wheel.
Takes three to six days to complete
The baubles that are being made today have snowflakes cut into them. Danny will start marking out the snowflakes and commence cutting the snowflakes into the glass. The following process is another slow one, engraving the Adare Manor logo on the baubles. These are rechecked before they are packed. The whole process from start to finish would take six days to complete.
Tony explained that opportunities to become a glassblower are very limited in Ireland at the moment. “Small opportunities here in Ireland, they might have a job here and there now and again. You are looking at America really – glassblowing in America is big. They do have a centre of excellence for glass in Sunderland in the UK. That may be one place where you could learn”.
Tony’s advice to someone who wants to become a glassblower and wishes to go to America: “Study for an Arts Degree in the National College for Arts and Design. Specialise in the glass course, and then you will probably get placements here or in America. Even though the opportunities are limited, don’t let that put you off. There are ways around everything.”
Where there is a will; there is a way.
My sincere thanks to Tony Hayes, Derek Smith, Danny Murphy, Paul Green and Rev Conor O’Reilly for their contribution during this blog. JC
All Images and Original Text © All Rights Reserved-Jim Campbell 2021
About the author
Jim Campbell is an Irish photographer, freelancer and photojournalist. Campbell has being contemporary photographer for more than two decades.
A native of Wexford town in the south-east of Ireland, Campbell studied photography in the Dublin Institute of Technology before going to work with a newspaper.
Since 1998 he has been working with local and national papers in Ireland and the UK. His work has appeared in publications globally including newspapers, magazines and online publications.
In 2013 Campbell made his first of what would become many trips to the conflict areas of the world. To observe more on Jim’s work vist the link to his website below.