From Up In Smoke to a puff of hot air: the art of glassblowing

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I stepped in Up In Smoke Too, a sister store to Moncton’s Up In Smoke, located in the industrial park area of Fredericton.

“I heard there are some pipes that are made so well, they won’t break when they hit the ground. Is that true?” I asked.

“This one is one I made,” said the man behind the counter.

He threw the pipe onto the floor, but not a piece of glass chipped off.

“I’ll take one,” I said.

Michael Whitton, 28, is known to most as the manager of Up In Smoke Too.

What people don’t know is that he’s been a full-time glass blower for two years now. It’s not just pipes and bongs he’s making either.

From pendants, to Christmas ornaments, wine glasses and marbles, Whitton can make almost anything.
In fact, he might be one of the few glass blowers in all New Brunswick.

Tools of the trade

To the left of his shop, you see two big tanks filled with fuel and oxygen. To the right, you see a kiln and two heating stations, with the ability to turn glass into a goopy liquid.

Under the heating stations is a selection of different glasses. There’s every colour from pine green to blood red. The commissions roll in and Whitton gets started on each masterpiece.

The hissing starts, Whitton puts on his didymium goggles and lights the fire with his sparklighter.

“It starts out as a smaller tube, and you blow it out to a bigger diameter,” Whitton said. “Once you blow it out, you see everything, it throws itself around. I make it look easy but it’s not.”

As the glass expands, Whitton pushes other colours of glass into it as they melt together in harmony.

For a mushroom pendant, Whitton heats the outside of the glass while the inside is cool. As he pushes glass inside his initial glass cylinder, it expands into the cool part and creates the head of the mushroom.

“It follows the cold wall essentially, it’s pretty cool, but happens pretty quick.”

Through the burns, frustrations and shattered art, Whitton has been able to memorize how to create anything he dreams of.

It’s not for everyone

“If you don’t have thick skin, it’s probably not for you,” Whitton said. “I’ve wanted to give up multiple times. At the end of the day it’s frustrating. You waste time, waste glass, waste oxygen, which is expensive. And you’ve achieved nothing. Other days, everything clicks.”

Whitton says many glassblowers say the art is all about fluidity and flow.

“If you hesitate, glass will show hesitation, and ripples and inconsistencies which don’t look good,” he said.

In fact, Whitton learned some of what he knows from a textbook called Advanced Flameworking by Milon Townsend. Whitton says in the book, Townsend describes glassblowing as a dance, and even credits dancers in the book as inspirations of his works.

Now he gives lessons, and has even done live glass blowing, like at the DeFrost Festival in Moncton.
But trial and error is key.

Whitton originally went to St. Thomas University to take criminology before he realized that flameworking was calling his name.

“I planned to be a glass blower a long time ago.”

Whitton bought all his initial equipment. Nobody in his family was a flameworker, so he saved up around $5,000 to purchase all the necessary equipment to fulfil his imagination.

If he needs extra tools to make something specific, he heads off to Home Hardware or Home Depot where he says ‘everyone knows him.’

“It’s such an old trade or niche. So if you didn’t hear it from your parents, grandparents, or a long line of flameworkers then you don’t really get those tips,” he said.

It’s scary too. Whitton says if you don’t have the confidence, the only one to blame is yourself.

“Glass cuts, fire burns,” he said. “You will get cut, and it will burn you. It’s unfortunately inevitable.”

Future nostalgia

But does it give Whitton bliss? Is there anything therapeutic about the stress of handling molten glass that can shatter and burn?

“Very much so. I love doing it. You get very lost in what you’re doing very easily,” he said. “Any problems you have, anything like that is generally gone when you’re glassblowing by the end of the day.”

Some days Whitton will make a perfectly fashioned pipe with someone’s name on it. Another day he’s making a decorative turtle for the shop, or something for a special someone.

“[My parents] have my very first wine glass. I made it for their 30th anniversary,” he said. “I actually specifically learned how to make it for them.”

Whitton says while huge machines can make cups or shot glasses with ease, it’s actually one of the toughest things for a glassblower to make by hand. It’s a struggle of time management, patience and extreme focus.

Whitton’s focus once he’s perfected the craft goes beyond his smoke shop.

“I’ll eventually be making lines and selling them on the Internet. To the point where I’ll be doing glassblowing for a career,” he said. “I’ll still be managing this place though.

“There are a lot of marble collectors out there. They want locally made stuff,” he said.

For Whitton, his high point is coming soon.

“I plan to be at a professional level potentially by this year or next year,” he said. “In the next ten years I plan on making very nice flawless wine glasses, drinkware, very nice marbles and I will be making pipes. I always will be.

“I plan to make this a career, this is what I will be doing for the rest of my life,” he said.

For now it’s a long, hot road ahead for Whitton. But he says he loves every minute of it.

“Glass has completely taken over my life. I sleep, I breathe glass. I dream in glass, I dream about glass, I dream about making things. I dream about what I will do tomorrow,” he said.

For those who might be interested in glass blowing: “It really is absolutely magical.”

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