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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    LiveCulture: Tucson Blowing a Glass Act

    Nick Amparan adds color to his latest glass creation by heating the tip of a color rod. Amparan has known the Dark Alley glassblowers for more than four years.
    Nick Amparan adds color to his latest glass creation by heating the tip of a color rod. Amparan has known the Dark Alley glassblowers for more than four years.

    What do you get when you mix propane, tubes of glass and torches that produce flames of up to 3,000 degrees?

    Tiny sculptures of TV heads and naked ladies, if you ask the glassblowers at Dark Alley Glass.

    Located in Echols alley downtown, Dark Alley has become a well-known studio within the Tucson glass community – kind of like that bar where everyone knows your name.

    Brandon Malings, a local glassblower, has been blowing glass at Dark Alley off and on for about five years.

    “”I like the fact that glassblowing is so independent,”” Malings said. “”A lot of people are figuring out that the cost of blowing glass is relatively low.””

    Within the past 10 years, Tucson has emerged as a glassblowing hotspot, home to those who make wall art, bongs and mosquito feeders. Where the heat outside rivals that of a torch, glassblowing has become an industry full of range and possibility.

    In the new Chemistry building at the UA, father-son glassblowing team Charly and Charles Amling create custom scientific glass used in research, such as pipes and tubes needed for specific projects.

    Glassblowing terminology
    • Blowhose assembly: the tool glassblowers blow into to shape glass. The blowhose has a mouthpiece at one end and a swivel device that allows for rotation of the glass at the other end.
  • Torches: usually handheld. Torches can produce flames ranging from 1,000 to 3,500 degrees.
  • Borosilicate glass: the type of glass most commonly used in glassblowing. Borosilicate glass provides resistance to heat and thermal shock and is known for its chemical durability.
  • Hard glass: a term used by glassblowers to describe
    borosilicate glass.
  • More than 20 UA departments, including chemistry, biochemistry and chemical engineering, have ordered custom glass equipment from the Amlings for more than 10 years, said Charles Amling, an apprentice glassblower at the UA Glass Shop.

    Scientific glassblowing is different from any other, explained Charles Amling, as it involves creating large-scale instruments with clear tubes of Pyrex and Quartz.

    “”We do a lot of work that helps with research,”” Charles Amling said, “”and we also do custom repair work for chemistry.””

    The Amlings are currently the only scientific glassblowers in Southern Arizona, and they have created complex research instruments, including vacuum systems that are 20 feet long and glass mosquito feeders made to simulate the temperature of human blood, Amling said.

    “”We’ve seen some pretty random requests,”” said Charles Amling, who is two years into an 8,000-hour apprenticeship with his father.

    His father Charly also teaches chemistry 302A, a scientific glassblowing course open to science majors, to a group of about six students each semester.

    “”The glass they blow is designed personally, so you just can’t find it anywhere else,”” said Susan Richards, the assistant chemistry department head.

    Others in Tucson aim at creating art glass, the intricate vases and glass plates often used for decoration. Philabaum, a local gallery that creates art glass, hosts open demonstrations of glassblowing throughout the week.

    “”Tucson and Seattle are really the biggest glass meccas in the country,”” said Alex Berger, a glassblower and Philabaum employee.

    Located downtown on South Sixth Avenue, Philabaum has a history in glassblowing stemming back 20 years.In 2001, owner Tom Philabaum also co-founded the Sonoran Glass Art Academy.

    “”Tom was one of few people who really started working with glass years back and began showing others the things you could do with glass,”” Berger said of her employer.

    At the institute, she explained, students can learn the tricks of the glassblowing trade in the only public glass art educational institution in the desert Southwest.

    “”Tucson and
    Seattle are really the biggest glass meccas in the country.

    Alex Berger
    glassblower and Philabaum employee

    “”In this craft, you really need years of practice to become well-known,”” said Berger, who has been blowing glass herself for the past five years. “”And everyone has to start somewhere.””

    There are three different types of glassblowing, Berger explained.

    Furnace work involves liquid glass that is picked up by a steel blowpipe and rotated constantly while exposed to different temperatures.

    Glass blown this way is often much larger, Berger said, and it can create vases or wall ornaments. This is the primary technique of glassblowing seen in art galleries.

    Lampworking, the type of glassblowing done at Dark Alley, involves oxygen, a propane tank and a torch. Borosilicate glass blown in this way is melted down in front of a torch that heats up to 3,500 degrees, as rods attached to the glass are kept constantly turning.

    A final technique called fusing involves a combination of the above techniques and requires sheet glass, which is then placed into a kiln. Later, this type of glass can be fused together with other pieces, a skill that Berger has seen gain popularity in the past few years.

    “”Everywhere you look, from hotel bars to airport gift shops, glass has really started to explode in this country,”” Berger said.

    Media Credit: Jake Lacey
    On his first day at Dark Alley, Amparan creates a hole in a tobacco pipe by blowing into malleable glass.

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