Glassblowing with Hayden Wilson

Glass blowing is wild. The art behind the glassware and dinnerware you use every night from the expert Hayden Wilson.
Hayden Wilson crosses his legs at the ankle when he sits at his workbench. He does this every time, though he never sits for long. He’s up and down between the bench and the glory hole, a hot chamber used to reheat glass and keep it malleable. It’s the practiced, unconscious movement of someone who has done this a thousand times, someone whose entire focus is on the glass at the end of his blowpipe.

Hayden is a glassmaker, and I’m in his studio watching him work on a cold February morning. The garage door is open and it’s snowing outside, but inside we’re cozy. It might be the 2,000-degree electric furnace that runs 51 weeks a year keeping us warm, or the 1,000-degree “garage” where sticks of colored glass wait, or the 900-degree kiln used to cool down the glass. Or maybe it’s the multiple burners of open flame dotting the work surfaces. Whitney, East Fork’s photographer, and I are scuttling around, trying to stay out of the way, while Hayden and coworkers move nonchalantly between various sources of extreme heat.

Hayden Wilson making glass with his furnace

Hayden is genially taking us through the process of his most recent work for us—glasses with a shape of a whiskey snifter in a hazy aubergine color. (Disclaimer: I scribbled notes as fast as I could, but any mistakes made in describing the glass blowing process are entirely my own). He goes through roughly 400lbs of glass a week, and the initial clear glass is made from Spruce Pine Batch Company sand. Color is achieved through pre-colored glass tubes from a glass color manufacturer in Germany. For the pieces he makes for East Fork, Hayden experiments to find a color that will complement our seasonal glazes, such as our forthcoming Prune.

Pre-colored glass tubes for coloring the glass.

The process starts in the electric furnace, where the clear glass is malleable at 2000 degrees. A blowpipe is inserted and rolled over the glass until a “glob” of glass sticks to the end. The next stop is the marver, a flat metal slab where the glass is rolled back and forth to control the temperature (the marver absorbs heat from the glass) and provides shape. To add color, the blowpipe is inserted into a small chamber where bits of colored glass sits at 1,000 degrees. Much like getting glass out of the furnace, the end of the blowpipe picks up a bit of the colored glass, and this merges with the clear glass already on the blowpipe. Glass loses heat quickly, so this entire process involves many trips to the glory hole, a hot chamber used to reheat the glass back to a malleable state.

To give the glass its final shape and size, Hayden blows the glass into a cherrywood mold. It’s not until I’m watching him do this that I realize I’ve never seen glass blowing before because he’s literally blowing into one end of the blowpipe, sending air down into the glass at the opposite end. It’s the most obvious realization in the world, but I’m tickled by the self-evident nature of it all. The wood molds are soaked in water, so the steam emitted when the hot glass hits the mold keeps the glass from sticking. It all happens so fast, but it’s an amazing visual—Hayden standing on a cinder block, blowing into and spinning the blowpipe, while his assistant Cole holds the mold and steam shoots out every which side.

Hayden on the cinder block, blowing into the pipe where the glass sits within the mold.

And as quickly as it happens, it’s over, and the mold is opened to reveal a fully formed glass on the end of the blowpipe. Hayden uses a pair of steel tweezers to separate the blown glass from the bottom of the blowpipe, and with one authoritative “tap” to the blowpipe with a wood mallet, the glass is free. The final step is for the glass to slowly cool in the kiln overnight (exposure to a rapid temperature change can cause the glass to break, hence the gradual cooling).

I’ll interject here to describe my favorite “danger” element of Hayden’s studio: once the finished glass is removed from the blowpipe, the blowpipes are stuck in a large metal cylinder full of water. As the bits of residual glass cool, they shatter off the blowpipes and thus the pipes are ready for the next round of production. Hayden warned us not to look down into the water because “there’s glass shattering and flying around down there,” and all throughout our visit there were ambient sounds of just that. Glass blowing is wild.

Hayden in his element, making glass, wearing sunglasses, looking cool!“With our current production setup, I think of myself as more of a manufacturer than an artist,” Hayden tells me. Born up the road in Yancey County, Hayden is a second-generation glassmaker, but initially, the medium didn’t hold much interest for him. He received his BFA from UNC Asheville with a concentration in sculpture and eventually arrived at glass-making, which he’s been doing now for about ten years.

In addition to the glassware he makes for us, Hayden creates his own body of work, takes on commissions for local businesses, and works as the Studio Director of the North Carolina Glass Center. He’s taught at the Pilchuck Glass School in Washington State and the Penland School of Craft right here in North Carolina, and he recently had work exhibited at the Asheville Art Museum as part of their “Appalachia Now!” exhibit. Busy guy.

“I failed until I figured it out, and I’m still figuring it out,” Hayden says of his self-taught background. As with any handmade object, there are opportunities for error: as surely as there are seconds in pottery, there are seconds in glassblowing. Impurities in the glass, bubbles in color, and general maker error all contribute to less than perfect glasses, but if the flaw is small Hayden rolls with it. He sees it as “information of the process,” which I scribble down in my notebook because it reminds me of our large East Fork serving pieces, which sometimes have two small tong marks inside from the hand-glazing process (and which we don’t consider a defect). All just information of the process.

Two images of the East Fork Prune Rocks Glasses being made.

Hayden slowed everything down so Whitney and I could follow along, but by late morning the pace has picked up and the studio is in a manufacturing groove. Hayden and Cole move seamlessly from furnace to marver to workbench to glory hole to marver, casually chatting over the music. He makes it look effortless.

The finished glasses are paper-thin, almost weightless in hand, and only slight variations in size and color indicate they’re hand-blown. It seems unbelievable that a final product so delicate came from such a hardcore (for lack of a word with more gravitas) process, but that’s glassblowing for you. As Whitney and I say our goodbyes and prepare to leave, we see it’s still snowing. We bundle up and head back into the cold, leaving behind the warm studio where the music is up, Hayden’s back at the furnace, and in the fire, sand becomes glass.

An animated image that says "East Fork is a vessel for" a rotating number of things

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