Down the Glory Hole: Inside the World of Brooklyn Glass

Photos by Jane Bruce

Alan Iwamura wears purple-tinted shades when he’s glassblowing, but the look has nothing to do with fashion. The lenses are made of didymium, Iwamura explains, which “removes the soda flare from the flame when I use a blow torch.” We’re sitting at a little table just outside the Brooklyn Glass studio in Gowanus, a 4,000-square-foot facility where Iwamura is the director of education. He adds jokingly, “They only recently started making these new stylish ones.”

The rolling steel door to the studio is open and the heat emanating from the inside comes in a warm, steady wave, which is no surprise considering that the space altogether houses two furnaces, five glory holes, five flame shops and six hot shops, in addition to the lampworking, cold-working, and neon shops. In the winter, Iwamura says, the extra heat is nice. In the summer, they keep the rolling door open.

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Inside, we can see a handful of people working on a project for a major private client—and that’s all Iwamura can say about that—but he gladly answers questions about just everything else, including his experience in the fall of 2008 when he had first moved to Bushwick from his native California and was trying to make it as a freelance glassblower.

“It was rough,” he says. “This was essentially right when the economy tanked, and being a new person in a new city with little contacts made it very challenging.” Iwamura’s saving grace was the tight-knit glassblowing community. “I was able to connect with friends of friends,” he says. “It’s such a niche area that the six degrees of separation become one or two.”

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When Chris Ross (the studio technician) and Michelle Knox (the studio manager) join us to ask about today’s glassblowing demonstration, Iwamura quickly tells them what he has in mind and we all head inside.

The glassblowing technique that Iwamura is about to demonstrate dates back to the circa 50BC, although glassmaking itself has a long history that can be traced back to 3500BC in Mesopotamia. The relatively “recent” innovation that ancient glassmiths discovered was based on the liquid structure of glass, which allowed it to be heated to very high temperatures and then inflated with the aid of a blowpipe.

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“We are using our breath to blow into the material, which is basically making it expand,” explains Iwamura, “so as we’re blowing, that pressure inside of the glass is causing the surface area of the glass to grow larger and the wall thickness to diminish.”

As Iwamura begins to prepare by quickly gathering and cleaning his tools, which are spread about the hot shop on various metal tables of all sizes, I notice that everyone is wearing safety glasses, but no one is wearing gloves. “It’s important to be be able to feel what your tools are doing,” says Iwamura, “and we use stainless steel for our blow pipes, our puntys, as well as our tools because they can get hot, but stainless steel is such a poor conductor of heat that heat doesn’t transfer very well to the handles where I’m placing my fingers. So, while the blades are screaming hot, I’m still able to hold the tool.”

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When Iwamura is ready, Ross and Knox seem to appear at his workstation. Behind them, the furnace is growling and the glory hole is somewhat more quietly blazing. A large standing fan swishes the air around and mellow beats play over the speakers. Suddenly, Iwamura is on the move and Ross and Knox are following. They know when to help him and when to step away, when to hand over a tool, when to take away a rod—and they do it all almost wordlessly.

Later, Iwamura explains that, “when people are working in the studio, even though they may not have made something together before, everybody winds up finding a rhythm.” He adds, “I told them what we were going to make, and there are variations, but ultimately, just knowing the general dance behind the movement and the process allows us to work very efficiently with very minimal verbal communication.”

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Which is why the three looked like determined worker bees carefully handling an orange ball of honey—but in this case, that honey was actually molten glass heated to 2,300 degrees Fahrenheit. “The more we blow it out or the more we stretch it, the thinner the glass becomes,” says Iwamura. “But, it’s something that’s actually very controlled.”

So, with twists of the punty rod, pulls of the Jack blade, cuts from the shears, flames from the blow torch (plus frequent trips into the glory hole), the ball of glass is manipulated into a pear shape, then a globe shape, and then a giant Christmas tree light shape before a round glass bottle shape emerges. This shape is given a rub on the bottom by a wooden ladle-like tool called a block, and finally, voilà: “We just made a very standard tight cylinder, which can be used as a drinking glass,” says Iwamura, wiping away the film of moisture from his face. The cylinder gets placed into an oven at 890 degrees Fahrenheit, which will slowly cool the glass over a few hours to keep it from shattering due to thermal stress.

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Ross and Knox disappear to go work on other projects, and I have a chance to ask Iwamura about what I just saw. “The cylinder is one of the forms that, as simple as it may be, requires a lot of detailed knowledge of both tool use and materials, and then also the development of muscle memory,” he says.

It turns out that learning glassblowing is “a lot like learning how to swing a golf club properly or a baseball bat. It’s all about repetition and the learned process that comes a little bit faster for some people than others,” says Iwamura. “Someone who is very coordinated and able to pick up on that body movement, they may move along faster than someone who isn’t practiced in that area.”

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But, the learning curve isn’t as steep as, say, for piano. “Ultimately, I think that by the end of our intro classes—our eight week classes—most students are comfortable enough to team up, come in, and actually use the studio themselves under very minimal supervision,” he says, which puts the curve at somewhere between riding a bike and swimming. “I find that a lot of them will tend to discover their own process in the studio for a little while, until they get to something that requires more guidance, at which point they tend to want to pursue the more advanced classes.”

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Sixteen years ago, Iwamura was a drawing and painting major in college before he took an elective course in glass art at the start of sophomore year. “I had more of a connection that first day in taking that class than I had during a career in 2D art,” he says. The glassmaking process, the materials, and the community that he met in the studio convinced Iwamura to immediately switch his major to glass art.

Plus, that strong sense of community, he adds, “that’s something that you find in any glass studio because glassmaking is very team-oriented.” Each project requires at least two people—today’s demonstration required three—and the larger pieces will see as many as five working together.

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Iwamura’s best personal work to date, a series of glass bonsai trees, required “two to three people all working together” to hot sculpt the trees before they were “brought into a different studio where there’s cutting, grinding, polishing, and joining involved,” Iwamura tells me proudly. Two of the bonsai, majestic and lifelike, stand like sentinels on the desk in his office, although they would probably draw crowds if displayed in a museum or gallery.

“I don’t necessarily know what the outcome of these particular pieces is going to be until I’m there making them—that bit of discovery is very exciting,” Iwamura says. And, as far as custom work is concerned, “on a weekly basis we’re constantly changing things up,” he explains. “We may be doing something that we’ve done a million times one day and the next day we’re doing something that we’ve never tried before.”

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Thus far, the most fun custom piece to work on was “a restoration project for a very, very old Venetian-style chandelier, where the broken elements of it had to be recreated exactly,” says Iwamura, “and so to be able to dive into that kind of history behind this medium was really fun and also very, very challenging.” He laughs, remembering that it took “about three months for us to get it right.”

And, as for today’s quick demonstration, which I suspect Iwamura probably could have done blindfolded, he says, it was fun, too—”any excuse to blow glass.”

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