Monday, 28 November 2016

Glassblowing a Christmas Bauble

LAST year I had the pleasure of being invited to Peter Layton’s glassmaking studio in London Bridge to have a go at making a paperweight.
It was a brilliant experience as I had never done anything like it before - and the paperweight itself while obviously not up to Peter’s standard, didn’t look too bad for a first attempt. 
Not only that I was able to chat to Peter about his more than 50 year career, the inspiration for his work and his studio and gallery which is situated in a converted warehouse in Bermondsey Street under the shadow of the Shard.
During the session I was taught how to make the piece by Peter’s studio manager Bruce Marks who has worked there for about 15 years and is responsible for some of the beautiful works of art that grace the gallery.
A few weeks ago I was invited to go back to have another go - not to better my attempt at making a paperweight but this time to make a Christmas bauble.
It is one of a regular series of classes that are offered year round by Peter and his team of artists and I can heartily recommend it.
They vary from beginner’s classes to those for people who are a bit more experienced as well as seasonal events such as learning how to make a Christmas bauble.
Each one is held at the studio which is at the back of the building behind the gallery and where visitors can pop in to see the artists at work. The beginner’s event is a day-long affair in which you can make about four pieces - all of which you get to keep.
I did not hesitate so last week I found myself back in Bermondsey Street and once again under the watchful eye of Bruce.
To begin with he showed me and my fellow makers what the end result could look like before proceeding to give us a quick demo. I say quick because it seemed to be in no time at all that he’d created the perfect bauble but it was utterly mesmerising to watch him at work.
Needless to say we were all a bit nervous - not least because to create the ball shape we would have to “blow” the liquid glass before moulding it - something none of us had ever done before but we were all itching to have a go.
The first step in the process was to put on protective goggles and sleeve and learn more about the tools we would need and how to use them.
Then it was time to select the colours we wanted our baubles to be. They are actually made up of powdered or tiny shard like pieces of glass. After much deliberation I chose red, purple, blue and orange but the palate included all those in the rainbow and more besides. 
We were each given a long metal blowing iron onto which Bruce got a blob of fiery red molten glass from the furnace - which he reliably informed us was an astonishing 1,100 degrees farenheit.
Next we carefully dipped and then pressed the glass into our selected colours one at a time so that there was a different colour on each side. Then it was time to take the rod back to the furnace to heat the glass up again. Bruce told us that once out of the heat, glass cools incredibly quickly so it was important to maintain the temperature in order for it to remain malleable enough to mould and manipulate.
Whilst in the furnace we had to turn the rod constantly, which had the effect of creating a swirling pattern of the colours, before bringing it back out and smoothing it on a stainless steel work bench.
Then it was back to the furnace to collect another blob of red hot glass to coat the original, after which it was turned and twisted on the rod again. Once it was nice and smooth Bruce blew down the rod sharply to create an air pocket. This would ensure the bauble was not a solid piece.
Then it was all about blowing and shaping it to create the perfect bauble shape.
It required a huge amount of puff to blow down the inside of the rod but Bruce was constantly encouraging and helpful. It was amazing to see it balloon out slowly after each time I blew down the rod.
After expelling air from the lungs down the rod and into the glass it was all about turning the rod to smooth and shape the piece. This was done by means of a Jack, a tool that looked like a pair of pliers as well as a wad of newspapers that had been soaked in water which I held in my hand and onto which the glass was moulded and shaped.
It was a complex process and required complete concentration - one false move and the glass could break, drop or lose its shape - and of course for any novice in charge of all this hot glass it was a bit nerve-wracking - but it’s actually quite quick and in less than an hour I had created a sizeable and completely spherical bauble. 
Bruce helped tap the bauble from the rod before adding another blob of molten glass on the top which he shaped into a hook. Then it was into the annealing oven for 36 hours to allow it to cool without cracking.
It was a fantastic experience and one I’ll never forget. And the resulting bauble? Well, when I took it out of its box I was really pleased with the swirling pattern of blues, pinks, orange and purple that all the twisting and turning had created. It was also heavier than I had anticipated but that is because of the double layer of glass that it’s made of.
Fun and creative it’s completely addictive and I’m hooked.

Peter Layton’s Glassblowing Studio is open six days a week in Bermondsey Street. Visit for full listings on courses and the gallery.

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