We visited Ron Hinkle’s Buckhannon, West Virginia glass studio shortly after the January 2006 Sago Mine disaster that claimed 12 miners’ lives. Alie talked with the brother of one of the victims and his wife, a friend of the sole survivor; I’m not sure we talked with Ron. We did buy a Christmas ornament.
This September we went back to Hinkle’s just to see a glassblower work, but it became a unique experience.
Arriving early on a Tuesday, we were the only visitors. Ron stopped work he was doing on a trailer and invited us into his studio. He asked Alie her favorite color “today.” She said green, and he replied he would make the base color a forest green. [The most popular color is cobalt blue followed by red and then purple. Green didn’t make the normal list.]
He invited us to stand close so we could see better; standard practice is to make people stand behind a barrier, both for safety and so that a few don’t block the view for others. While he worked, his assistant for the last two years, Aaron Harvey, explained what he was doing.
After gathering glass on a “blowpipe” from the main 2400 degree furnace, he rolled it in carefully laid out lines of crushed colored glass on a flat steel “marver.” He then used tools to pull swirls and streaks in the molten glass. Blowing a puff of air into the glass and letting it expand made a hollow spot in the center. Between each step, he inserted the work into the “glory hole,” a 2300 degree fire, to keep it at the correct temperature.
At this point he cooled the glass slightly before inserting it back into the first furnace to gather a layer of clear glass over the colored glass; this way the heat of the new glass would not collapse the air bubble inside the piece. He continued to work the glass making it bigger with the blowpipe and shaping it with a wet ladle-like cherrywood “block,” a flat “paddle” and “jacks,” steel tweezers.
With the help of Aaron, he reversed the work onto a long solid steel “punty” so that there was now a small opening facing out. This he enlarged with another cone-shaped air pipe and continued to shape and work the piece.
Finally, again with the help of Aaron, the piece was removed from the punty and the rough spot on the bottom smoothed. A maker’s mark was stamped in. Then, to keep it from shattering while it cooled, it was put into an annealer to slowly cool over 12 hours . The final step was to sign and date the piece with an engraver.
Hinkle grew up on his family’s farm. When he was 16, rather than doing hay in the summer, he asked for a job in the Louie Glassworks. He was told to sit down and do whatever he was told. Two weeks later they asked him for his name and social security number and paid him. He stayed with Louie and its successor for more than 19 years before becoming an undercover investigator for his brother-in-law in New Jersey. After two years in New Jersey, he returned to the family farm and built his own glass furnace. He has had his own business for 24 years but also worked two years as a Vice President at Blenko Glass for whom he still consults.
In all, Hinkle has 44 years as a glass blower. He made glass peaches to be given to dignitaries and guests at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games. His ornaments have been on trees in governors’ mansions and at the Pageant of Peace at the White House. He has been featured in national publications. He has 8 children, 22 grandchildren and a great grandchild. But most of all, I am pleased to say he is a really nice person.
View the slide show to see how the vase above was made: