Glass act

The art of glassblowing is on display at Madison Glass Academy.

From the pages of In Business magazine.

Case after glass case of “tobacco accessories” surround Cory Alvarado’s workspace at Madison Glass Academy where he melts glass into pieces of art. Glassblowing is a fairly new career for the 27-year-old who became an employee of the business earlier this year but has been studying the craft for about 16 months.

Madison Glass Academy, in the basement of an iconic house on Frances Street, is primarily a head shop where pipes of every size and shape are on display in groupings ranging from the most basic designs to the whimsical. There’s also a nice selection of glass jewelry, cufflinks, and rings, but a $500 water pipe is the priciest item in the store.

These are not Alvarado’s designs. In fact, he says he’d like to eliminate the negative stigma that he says is often attached to glassblowers. “I feel a lot of people associate glass blowing with cannabis, but it’s a business.”

In this location, separating the two might be difficult.

“The largest-selling items here are the tobacco accessories, of course,” he admits, “but I enjoy teaching the variety of people who schedule glassblowing classes, from construction guys to businessmen. Metal workers and welders come in because this is kind of a way for them to improve their craft, which is cool.”

As the store’s chief glass blower and production manager, Alvarado spends many hours working to perfect his technique, learning from mentors and teaching others to appreciate the art. Lessons are an hour long and classes can accommodate two people at a time.

The glass-blowing area encompasses a quarter of Madison Glass Academy’s floor space and includes a small kiln, collections of long tubes of glass, and containers of colored, crushed glass called frit. Mounted to a worktable, two torches are fueled with a combination of propane and oxygen that is adjusted by the artist throughout the glassblowing process. Other tools are also at the ready, including tweezers, claw grabbers, and punty rods used to handle hot glass. A wall-mounted ventilation fan ensures that fumes are exhausted from the building, and a fire extinguisher is nearby.

Alvarado is not the only glassblower at Madison Glass Academy, but he’s chalked up more than 100 beginner-to-intermediate glassblowing classes, and sales of his hand-made ornaments and pendants are turning a nice profit. He can spend 30 minutes on one item that might retail for between $60 and $80 or more.

“At first, glassblowing tried my patience,” Alvarado admits, “but you get out what you put into it like so many trades.” Now, he finds that working with glass actually relaxes him.

The glass used is purchased in 5-foot tube lengths, with a 19-millimeter tube, typically used for small projects like blown-glass ornaments, costing about $17. “We can make between 10 and 20 ornaments per tube.”

Gathering flames

On a mission to produce an ornament, Alvarado dons green safety glasses to shield his eyes from the bright light. With the click of a standard fireplace lighter, he ignites the torch and a flame instantly shoots forward in a loud whoosh.

He waves the tip of a clear glass tube back and forth rapidly through the top of the flame. “I don’t want to throw it in the hot flame too fast because it might stress the glass,” he explains, watching for changes in the blue heat. With a four-finger grip, he rotates it counterclockwise to prevent any glass from dripping. It takes technique, timing, and practice.

As the temperature rises, melted glass forms a ball, or gather, at the end of the tube. Preparing to add color, Alvarado minimizes the heat. Continuously rotating the gather in the flame, he brings it into contact with a “slime green” color rod and rotates until a line of color encircles the ball. Next, he’ll add cobalt blue.

When heated under these extreme temperatures, colors often appear molten orange or honey-colored, but once the glass is removed from the flame and begins cooling, the colors present themselves.

Alvarado reduces the heat again by lowering its oxygen content and reheats the gather. “You use higher oxygen if you’re cutting or separating something, otherwise you want to work a bit slower. A high-oxygen flame might put air bubbles into the glass,” he cautions, “so you want to be careful how much you use.” He continues adding detail, creating a zigzag design around the bulb’s perimeter. “I’m pushing into it like a pencil,” he comments, melting color onto the glass.

Next, he places the entire bulb back into the center of the flame to prepare it for blowing.

“You always want to moisten your lips so the pipe can rotate freely in the mouth,” he instructs. When it reaches the right consistency, Alvarado lifts the piece to his mouth, inhales, and blows slowly into the tube, producing a 3-inch glass bubble.

This is the wow factor.

The ball hardens almost instantly and will cool under a specialized blanket for about 25 minutes. The blanket ensures a very slow cool down to prevent damage to the item.

Alvarado is continually learning new glass blowing techniques, and especially enjoys creating what he calls implosion pendants, where colors are embedded inside glass much like a marble. “I made one the other day using green slime and ruby red, and then I added a uranium green color which is a glass that reacts under ultraviolet or black light.”

The colored glass he works with can run the price gamut, he says, from about $10 per pound on the low end, to 10 times as much for a specialized glass like uranium green.



Bad breaks

Alvarado is an Oshkosh native who joined the U.S. Army after high school and spent two years on active duty at Fort Knox in Kentucky. Unfortunately, an injury he sustained during training forced him to leave as a disabled veteran and he has trouble standing for long periods of time. “My knees and ankles are rough,” he admits.

He moved to Madison about five years ago a bit undecided and apprehensive about choosing a career until a friend suggested he consider glasswork. That led to a meeting and introduction to the art through Madison Glass Academy and put him on what he hopes will be a career trajectory.

Alvarado works 30 to 40 hours a week and says he’s paid a “flat, but generous rate” to create new designs, teach glassblowing classes, and offer private lessons. The academy also encourages him to learn from a professional glassblower and wholesaler who visits town frequently.

 “I’m very thankful to Madison Glass Academy,” he says. “A lot of my money goes to pay off medical bills, but I can support myself with this job.”

Madison Glass Academy
438 N. Frances St.
Madison, WI 53703
608.422.5033  |

Click here to sign up for the free IB ezine – your twice-weekly resource for local business news, analysis, voices, and the names you need to know. If you are not already a subscriber to In Business magazine, be sure to sign up for our monthly print edition here.