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Carrying the Torch for Scientific Glassblowing

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Walk into a chemistry lab anywhere in the world and you are bound to find an array of glassware being used for all manner of experiments.

Glass has many properties that make it useful for scientific applications, such as good chemical resistance and being transparent and good for heat transfer. But despite the important role glass plays in science, the skill to develop the glassware is in decline. Scientific glassblowing has now been classed as an endangered craft by The Radcliffe Trust.

Becoming a skilled glassblower can take as long as a decade according to Radleys Workshop Foreman Paul Robson.

He has been glassblowing for 40 years but his interest in the profession goes even further back. He said: “It was a demonstration with the scouts that kind of stuck with me.

“Later I attended a course at Braintree Technical College.”

Talking about the craft, Paul said: “It has been in decline because things have changed. The demand for glassware has declined due to alternative materials being available and new chemistry techniques being used.

“Training has changed too and there are no more courses at colleges. You have to go to a local company and learn on the job.”

To help tackle the issue, Radleys has just started its own training programme. Radleys foundations lie in glassblowing and it is still an important part of their business.

Craig Joyce is the first apprentice to join the training programme at Radleys, which takes about three to five years.

He fell into the job by chance when he was looking for a change after years spent mostly working in customer services at bars and restaurants.

The position caught his eye when he was job hunting. He said: “It looked really interesting.

“I’ve always liked making things and I like doing DIY at home.

“I originally worked as a workshop assistant for six months before I was offered the apprenticeship.”

Now he is several months into the apprenticeship and is enjoying using his new skill. He said: “I think it's amazing what you can do with glass and I really can’t speak highly enough of my mentor.

“I enjoy coming to work every day.”

Craig’s scientific glassblowing apprenticeship combines following a detailed training programme with actually manufacturing items and components for sale. He routinely makes test tubes and adaptors and is building the skill through training to make more complex equipment like jacketed coil condensers.

“It can be very frustrating if you don’t do something right. You can burn yourself, or the item you’re working on can easily crack, or break.

“You have to be patient, have your eye on the ball and pay attention to minute details.”

But he is spurred on by the thought that the glassware he produces helps scientists all over the world do critical work.

“I like to think what I’m doing makes a difference,” he said.

As well as working on orders from their glassware catalogue, Radleys also deals with bespoke requests from scientists who need a specific piece of glass to help them solve a problem.

Paul said: “The bespoke requests are very technical, you have to be determined because it can take a long time to finish what you are making.”

Being dexterous and having the ability to concentrate are just some of the qualities scientific glassblowers need. “You have to be a certain sort of person; perseverance and concentration are important,” Paul said.

You also need to get your head around more technical aspects like engineering tolerances. Scientific glassblowing doesn’t leave much room for error. If you are not precise, you could end up producing a piece of equipment that isn’t fit for purpose, or is unsafe to use.

Trainees start of by mastering basic techniques, like joining two pieces of glass, which in itself can take a while. A lot of the process involves benchwork, which’s done by hand with a flame. This gives them a hands on feel for how glass reacts. For example, when it’s molten hot, it follows gravity.

They then learn how to put all that they’ve learnt together. Everything they make needs to go into an oven to be annealed at 570℃.

They use the raw material Borosilicate, also known as lab glass, or Pyrex glass to laypeople. The glass is usually imported from Germany because they are world leaders in producing it.

A lot of Radleys glasswork involves making reaction vessels for pharmaceutical or polymer companies.

Paul’s work as Workshop Foreman also includes dealing with health and safety, technical issues and quality assurance. He leads a team of eight glassblowers.

During his time as a foreman, he has noticed it has become difficult to find trainees.

“There is so much scope for other things. Manual skills aren’t at the forefront of young people’s minds.”

But even with the rise of automation, the human touch is still needed for glassblowing. Paul said: “You can use machines for holding hot stuff but you still need a person to do the job.”

Paul estimates there are fewer than 300 glassblowers in the UK.

The British Society of Scientific Glassblowers is one of the places the small community can turn to for support.

“They help if we are stuck and they have a good library of resources, including videos,” Paul said. At the society’s latest symposium, Radleys won best in show.

If you think you’ve got what it takes to become a scientific glassblower, and are interested in starting your career with us, then please get in touch. Radleys are always on the lookout for talented people to join our expanding business, from trainees to expert glassblowers.