Offbeat Occupations: Glassblowing a delicate, sometimes dangerous spin

Dick Rector, of Lawrence, has been blowing glass for decades with business partner Jim Slough at Free State Glass, 307 E. Ninth St.

Over the roar of a furnace, glassblower Dick Rector explains that you must always keep spinning.

“You stop spinning, you’re in trouble,” he says, sitting at a workbench. His hand continuously rotates a 4-foot metal pipe with a glowing molten-glass orb attached to the end. He touches the orb with a water-soaked wooden tool. The wood hisses as the glass bends and dances beneath its touch.

“It’s a seductive medium,” he says, standing up and shoving the pipe back into the furnace.

For 29 years, Rector and partner Jim Slough, both Lawrence natives, have operated Free State Glass, 307 E. Ninth St.

From paperweights to Saudi Arabian palace doors, the two say they have made just about everything.

“I don’t know how we’ve been blowing glass together this long,” Rector says. “It’s like married people, though people married for 30 years don’t have as much fun as we do.”

On a recent Wednesday, they are making a lampshade. Slough and Rector navigate between furnaces and the workbench quickly and efficiently. Each knows the other’s actions from decades of continual motions: heat the glass, shape the glass and repeat.

“We like it (the glass) to be the consistency of honey,” Slough says.

That’s where the spinning comes in. The viscous glass sags and warps if not constantly rotated.

“It’s always a battle who’s in control,” Slough says. “Sometimes the glass takes over.”

Glassblowing is simple to explain but difficult to master.

“A lot of people want to be a glassblower,” Rector says. “And I say it only takes two things: all your time and all your money. If you can handle that, you’re good.”

Slough finishes the sentiment: “Don’t let your sons grow up to be glassblowers.”

The process begins with a molten ball of glass on a pipe. Small pieces of glass, colored by the infusion of different metals, are added to the ball to give it a desired hue. The glassblower then dips the ball into the crucible, or furnace that holds a pool of molten glass, adding another layer of glass. The process continues until the glassblower achieves the desired size and coloring. Rector explained this process allows a paperweight, for example, to contain ornate designs.

“Basically it’s by putting the color on the surface and adding more and more layers,” he says. “People ask how do you get the color in there. It’s a result of covering and covering it up.”

Throughout the process Rector and Slough shape the glass with a variety of techniques, from swinging the rod to stretch the glass, to rolling it on a hard metal surface, to blowing air in the pipe to expand the glass. The air is what eventually hollows out the glass to make an effective lampshade.

Each movement puts them within inches of molten-hot material.

“You learn that burns aren’t as bad as your body tells you they are,” Rector says. “Glass gives a nice clean burn.”

At the end of the job — it took 45 minutes to make the lampshade — Rector holds the pipe and gently taps the now blue-green glass lampshade with a meat cleaver. It separates from the pipe with a clean break. Slough catches it and places it in a warmer to slowly cool down. If the glass cools too fast it will shatter.

Making glass is a demanding job, Rector explains. Once you begin working on a piece you can’t take a break until it’s done. The furnaces, which the two have built themselves, must constantly run and take up to three days to come to a full heat, about 2,000 degrees.

“It’s nonstop,” he says. “If I was doing any kind of art I could take a week off. With that furnace going 24/7, if I’d take a week off I’d be wondering what money am I wasting today.”

And they certainly didn’t become glassblowers for the money, the two explained.

“When we get out after 30 years we’ll have that much,” Slough said, making a zero with his fingers.

Rector laughs in the background. “A nice, even, round number.”

But the job has given them 29 years of memories and a shop adorned with the product of their work. Bowls, vases, paperweights, ornaments and even fish decorate the cluttered walls and tables. They sell to whoever walks in.

“We sell paperweights for the same price we did in 1984: $40,” Slough says. “$40 in 1984 could buy a lot. Four cases of beer instead of one and a half.”