I thought it might be a good idea to document a few of the steps involved in the design and making of a new glass piece in the studio to give you glass enthusiasts a rare look into the process.
All design begins with an idea. That idea is then implemented using already existing knowledge about how the piece designed might be accomplished. Often this works well, but sometimes new tools, materials, and skills have to be made or mastered in order to make new work possible. In the case of the work I am showing you, a special kiln is needed to preheat the looked glass strips called dichroic (shown in the picture above) to be preheated. 2100 degree glass will not stick to room temperature glass, so it has to be brought halfway up to molten temperature.
In the case of the piece being made today, I am designing a new piece for a retailers association in our area for their grand prize winner. This piece will wind up being a little over a foot tall and will be composed of solid glass with air traps, which are controlled air bubbles trapped in the glass as part of what will be an ethereal design.
People often wonder what dichroic glass is. You can see some colored strips sitting in the pickup box kiln above. Dichroic was originally developed for the Lunar Rover cameras to cut down on sunlight which was cooking the film when under full sunlight. It is a very thin, translucent, even, metallized coating on glass. High tech, dichroic is expensive at about 150 dollars per eighteen inch sheet.
I then go to the furnace where the clear molten glass is kept and get a “gather” of molten glass on the end of a metal rod. This is turned constantly to keep it from dripping onto the floor. The glass is about 2100 degrees when it exits the furnace, so it moves like honey.
The glass is shaped into a small cylinder and allowed to cool after which I get another gather of glass. Depending on the size of the piece, I will add dichroic to the outside of a gather. In this case, I will be getting a third gather of glass. The volume of the glass in total will be the volume of between two to three softballs in size. You can see the successful first pickup of color below on the outside of the glass.
You can see some trails of bubbles in the glass which are part of the design.
The glass is then twisted to get a spiral.
The glass is then dimpled which will trap a veil of small bubbles once the next gather is put over the glass.
This is piece shows the clear gather now over the glass. This piece is being shaped into an egg shape, which is done with a wet carbon felt pad. This is all by hand.
This is a smaller piece. You can see how ethereal the dichroic can be!
Once the piece is heated and shaped a number of times, it is cooled and the base stressed with cold water which allows it to break off evenly from the rod. It is placed in a kiln at annealing temperature, about 950 degrees, and will slowly cool over a period of days. The picture above shows some of the effects that a glass piece like this has.
A piece of glass like this will last the ages. Thick, glass is very durable. The picture above is a closese-up of the dichroic with the bubbles. Cool, huh?
That is how pieces like this are done. One great advantage of being able to work with an artisan is that you get up-close involvement in the design and making of glass which you have commissioned and helped to design. This process can be as involved or as “arm chair” as you, the customer, desires. For creating one of a kind looks for everything for display pieces, drawer pulls, sun catchers, drinking glasses, and more, you can’t beat what your local artisan can make for you!
For more on commissioning your own work, read my post a few posts down the line on the steps most often involved in commissioning work by a local studio!
Commissioned artwork. It sounds so…..serious. But in truth, commissioning is a means for people to get exactly what they want from an artist, designer, or artisan. In the case of fine art, a person may have always wanted to have a landscape of a field behind their house painted and they really like the technique of a given artist. They feel certain the artist would NEVER consider such a thing…..but they screw up their courage and send a late-night request….and bingo! The artist replies the next day and asks what they had in mind! Or a potter is seen at a craft fair and someone really likes their work but were wondering if instead of vases, could they do the same designs in platters that they could have as wedding gifts? “Well certainly” comes the reply from the artisan sitting behind his glasses reading the paper. You should never be off-put asking about the possibility of having an artist do work for you.
Imagine it. You could sit down and come up with ideas for fanciful drawer pulls for your kitchen, or a cool way to transform your chandelier in the living room into a hip piece of art with just the right adjustments made by a glassblower. Or maybe it is a rug from a weaver, or a set of rings from a local jeweler. And before you think that custom work is going to be expensive, that isn’t always the case. It really does depend on what you have in mind, however, and it has been my experience that if you can stay fluid with your inspiration and consider a range of possibilities, an artist or artisan can more easily bring you something truly one of a kind while staying within budget.
Handmade is Not Made In China
In the last few years, a flood of cheap imports have made their way into stores from China. This includes glass objects. Some of them look pretty good, right? The price on these items reflects a huge factory mentality that is unable to make things of the quality that you will get in a small studio. The difference in one glass shade made in China and one made in the U.S.A. are not truly comparable if all you look at is price. If price is the only thing that decides it for you, you are better served not making the journey down the road of custom-made because you will forever be caught in your dollar angst about how what is being offered is so much more than what is at Lowes or Target. There are a LOT of differences in glass made in my studio and in China and I will enumerate them for you. One is the quality of the base glass itself. In order to get costs down for a China export, the glass has to cost pennies per pound. The glass I use is specially made to be completely “water clear” so that when colors show through that clear base glass, you get an intensity and trueness to those colors that is a cut above other products made elsewhere. How different is it? Lets say that in many cases it is the difference between listening to an old vinyl record and a digitally mastered CD. Over good speakers. The other issue is that the options for designing the work are much broader with a small studio. You can achieve results that simply do not exist anywhere else because it is not mass-produced. You can have a lamp shade that no one will ever see another like, even remotely, even out of China (unless they copy it). Also the other difference is the quality of life that is being supported. When you pay for a ten-dollar lamp shade from China, you really aren’t paying for the toll that the factories there have on the environment nor the quality of life of the workers. All of these costs are real and in the industrial system, they very rarely get addressed. You will see, as an example, how industrial cultures wind up polluting the environment. they do this because they are not keeping their waste streams out of the local environment because it would drive the cost of their products UP. I hate to rain on the parade, but this is just what is and will happen in China except that if the wealthy industrialists have their way, it will be on a scale never before seen in the U.S.A. or Europe (even though we have had plenty of these things happen). What you are paying for is someone who loves what they do and is being paid a living wage, as opposed to someone who is being paid $15.00 a week. Americans are beginning to realize that these are real costs and are opting for things that they know were done in a more sustainable fashion. We truly share this earth not just with each other, but with our children’s children. Truth be told, the small studio is not selling work at outrageous prices, but a market-driven price that is usually very fair. If something seems high-priced to you, you can always ask why it’s priced that way. There are most often reasons for it that have to do with uniqueness of the design (it’s a hot item that no one else has) or its a method that takes a lot of time or took a lot of time to develop. Remember; a factory can produce more work in a day than an artisan may make in decades! It’s quite simply a completely different model and way of working and being. And one more thing to consider….I spoke with a weaver some years ago as China imports were gaining steam. This man-made lovely wraps and scarves out of chenille. His product was first-rate. He had to have a quality base product in order for his brand to fly. He received a quote for a finished scarf in chenille that was for less than he could buy his chenille for. So how long does his scarf last, the one he has made in China, do you think? If something is THAT cheap, there is always a hidden cost somewhere that someone will wind up paying for. It might be you who buys the scarf only to have it fall apart a year later, or it might fade, or the hem might fall out. In the end, this hurts you and it hurts the artisan.
Get Your Ideas
First you need some good ideas, or at least some inspiration. Artists deal in inspiration and over a cup of coffee and some great starting ideas, can most often read you well enough to find some solutions that will be pleasing to you. Sometimes ideas can come by looking at the work of the artist in the studio and sometimes you can look at what other things are out there in the market that come close but need something extra or a slightly different twist.
Communication, though, is key. Being able to express when you need it by is as important as some of your design ideas. Be willing to ask lots of questions in order to educate yourself about why adding color to a piece of glass one way is so much more expensive than another way (there is a reason, but you may not know that, which is why its so good to ask and learn). Also, being clear about what you want to spend is important, too. But just as important is being flexible should you discover in the course of your design consult that there is an option you LOVE but never had thought about it even though it brings your expected price up, say $0.00 or $60.00 dollars. An artist may not be able to come up with an exact amount for the job right away, but there is no harm in asking and then seeing if the proposal is something that fits your budget.
The most important thing to realize in commissioning work is to get a quote for the work before starting or deciding that it’s what you want or are willing to spend. And get it in writing. There are laws in most states that say that a quote must remain within a discreet percentage variance from the quoted amount. This is pretty reasonable because the goal is for you to get work that you like and for the artist to make a profit, not take a loss on the project.
Do You Need A Timeline or Due Date?
Then you will need to decide on a time-line for the work. Do you need work by a given date? Say so and be clear when that date needs to be. You want to make sure that the artist does not feel rushed to get the job done because a job done well is a job that has been loved and enjoyed throughout the process. Too-tight schedules can sometimes wipe away the joy and you want this to be good for all involved, right? So keep the joy. But short of that, get deadlines in writing also.
Then, from there, you can settle on whether a deposit is to be made, or not, for the job. This enables the artist to begin work quickly on your project. It also keeps the customer committed to the project and not backing out at the last minute, leaving the artist with materials they might not otherwise have bought or will use again. As a basic rule, a deposit is most often needed on jobs above a certain amount. For many small jobs I don’t ever require a deposit simply because I am not out a lot if the client backs out for some reason. However, the question becomes “what is a lot?” and that is certainly relative. It is also on a case-by-case basis because custom work is, well….custom. And special!
Let iT Be FUn!
I will say, though, that custom work is a journey to discovery. For you and also the artist. If you are asking something of the artist that they have never done before, being as flexible as possible will actually make the project go much more smoothly and will enable the artist to make adjustments and fix issues without being under the gun. The truth is, custom work can either be kept easy or it can be hard. If its hard, artists will tend to charge more for the issue of unknowns in the process. This is where being upfront in the beginning about costs will keep from problems later. If a solution winds up being too expensive, you can say so before getting underway. It is true that for some artisans, it is not always possible to know fully the complexity of a project that they have never undertaken. I know one glass artist that puts a $500.00 minimum on ALL custom work simply for this reason. He explains that it helps to weed out people who do not want to spend the money necessary to develop a whole new line of work that the artisan may never make again and it also covers the extra time he has to spend on developing entirely new work for the client that he may never use again (including tools and materials too)! The thing to appreciate is that sometimes in cases like these color tests may need to be done, and samples made in order to see how a piece of glass will respond to a given use. All of this costs time and money.
Commissioned works have usually been exciting for me to do for customers. In one case I was building a piece from scratch for a niche that was being built in a room of a house for a VIP in a commercial construction company. The niche was made to look like an old style space as if the house had been built sixty years ago. It was lit in just the way that I explained the piece needed to be in order to show off the piece and once the piece was done, the presentation was fabulous! Everyone remarked how the space seemed to be perfectly fit for the piece they were displaying! However, the designer doing the work had given me a deadline and then began contacting me two week prior to the deadline asking if the piece was ready ahead of schedule. I explained we had settled on a given date and that the work would be ready by then. By the time I delivered the work, the designer was so stressed out that I never heard from her again. You see, this is why being clear about deadlines is so important. If you choose a date that it has to be done by, calling the artist and pestering them about whether the work is read or will be ready by deadline is a sure way to make the process unenjoyable for all involved.
Commissioning need not be a huge job either. Commissioning can be as simple as having a set of drinking glasses made, a single vase, or even an ornament for your baby’s first Christmas (which a customer helped to blow this past Christmas in the studio). Commissioning can include your presence in the studio, too, during the manufacturing process. Its possible. However, you will need to see if the artist is up for that. In my practice, I welcome the customer if s/he can be present in the studio because I simply enjoy collaboration so much. For people who can “do” collaboration and not be too rigid, this process can be a LOT of fun!
This holiday season I had several people asking about custom made tumblers. I explained to one woman who asked that I could make just about anything she might want or imagine in glass. I showed her some tumblers I was working on and explained that the options were all over the place. I began pointing to vases saying “You see that effect in that piece? We could put that into a tumbler. See those perfume bottles? We could put that design into them as well!” All of a sudden the place just began to flow with creative energy and this lady suddenly had a lilt to her step. This is the stuff that is really exciting because you realize the great options possible when you consider the possibilities.
So yes, Stafford Artglass does custom work. Would you like to design a sink? “In glass? Are you kidding? Wont it be fragile??” Well, actually, not if its blown so its two inches thick! At that point, you have a superdurable and beautiful sink! Afterall, concrete, when it is just an inch thick is fragile too, and yet we build highways out of the stuff, right? Maybe create a coral reef inside the sink between the layers of glass? Or a swirl of color that sets off your bathroom beautifully! Maybe its a set of tumblers. Maybe you would like to take drawings from your children and put them into some blown bowls. Or maybe you have always wanted to have a very specific shade of aqua for a set of tumblers. Maybe you like two colors together but can never find anything that you ever really liked. In 16 years of work I have designed awards for companies, corporate gifts, work for the U.S. Government (one went to the man who gave Clinton his Daily Brief), and to numerous clients wanting something unique or different for their homes, their families, or friends.
These tumblers were part of a large order for someone who recently got married. Clear, they rely on changes in thickness from a wrap to create a visual effect.
These tumblers which recently sold were each different from each other and the people who got them liked that. A recent inquiry involved making tumblers where each one was made a little bit differently from the other. We are now talking about doing colored wraps along the body of the pieces where each piece has a different color. The shape of the pieces will be what is consistent. Since this job is pretty straight forward and easy enough to do and in volume (they are getting six of them) the customer gets a break in price that keeps it from feeling so…custom!
So if you have ever been holding back asking local artists and craftspeople about what it would cost to do that something special that you feel would make your living space more interesting, now is the time to go for it! I mean, really, what do you have to lose?
In the last year the type of custom order I have done have included making a sculpture out of glass of a tree of life, numerous yard ornaments, drinking glasses, pendants, beads with funerary ashes in them to be scattered all over the world, and suncatchers. Over the course of my career I have developed new forms in glass, created lamp shades, drinking bottles, candlestick holders for a piece of furniture, paperweights, awards, ornaments, bowls, vases, and platters. I have always found that having a sense of discovery and adventure has always made the journey worthwhile!
Please contact me directly for studio hours: our work is seasonal and sometimes the studio can be down for repairs, for example. Some days we are blowing glass while other days we are running errands or away at a show. Let us know when you are free to come see us and we can work something out that works for you.