JOB MARKET: Blowing glass is cool

GLASS-BLOWING is the process of forming glass into shapes while the glass is in a molten semi-liquid state

The glass-blower takes the molten glass and forms it into different shapes as it cools.

A blowing iron, also known as a pontil or punty, is used to shape the object.

The glass-blower blows down the iron while spinning it around in different directions to achieve a specific, desired result.

Tongs, a palette knife and wooden blocks are used to delicately shape the end product.

This is a highly skilled occupation involving excellent manual dexterity and good eye-hand coordination.

The work is usually carried out in a factory where conditions are noisy and hot, therefore requiring the use of protective equipment.

Clarence Mortlock places a large circular bubble gently between two clamps on the lathe.

Then he puts on safety spectacles and protective gloves and starts the lathe whirring and fires up the burner.

Soon the bubble is glowing orange and he coaxes an opening where he will join a glass tube.

His mentor, Paul Forder, says he's a "natural".

"You have it or you don't. You soon discover if you're no good; you burn your fingers and lose interest fast," Forder says.


Decorative glass-blowers work in lead glass and use "wet blowing techniques" to make wine glasses, champagne bowls, animals and decorations.

Scientific glass-blowers work in borosilicate (Pyrex) and make highly specialised scientificequipment.

Trainees earn R9500 gross a month.

Job description

Mortlock is currently making 200 sets of test tubes, beakers, pipettes, graduated cylinders and heat-resistant funnels for the University of KwaZulu Natal.

During the year, he is responsible for making test tubes, condensers and extractors, which are cheaper to manufacture than to import.

Required studies or experience

Mortlock is an apprentice scientific glass-blower with the British Society of Scientific Glass-blowing. He registered through this society and received a syllabus with various stages to be achieved over a five to seven-year training period. Once all the levels have been attained, an external examiner will fly to South Africa to inspect and examine his work.

Personality types

"You need 'burning' concentration and tons of patience. After a week of making a condenser, you're about to finish it and a hairline crack appears in the inner coil. It's irreparable. You drop it in the bin and start again," Mortlock says.

Excellent manual dexterity is essential.

"You must be able to rotate different diameter tubes at the same speed in different directions, one in each hand, through 360 degrees in every plane. You need excellent eyesight when you're dealing with capillary tubes that are thinner than a hair with a hole running down the middle," he says.

You also need a good background in physics and chemistry as well as creativity, lateral thinking and the ability to communicate with scientists when developing newequipment.

An average day

There's no rhythm or routine in Mortlock's day.

"You deal with the mechanical breakdown of equipment and need to repair and maintain it. You receive orders, process them and meet the deadlines. We work from drawings and discuss the project with the researchers involved. There's constant interruption by students or technicians, who need repairs or alterations to their glassware," he says.

The worst thing about the job

"There are significant health risks: dangerous explosions occur in workshops, resulting in glass in your body; the gases given off by torches are toxic; there are always fine particles of glass hovering in the air that cause emphysema.

"You can't wear a mask because it interferes with the blowing and you only have two to three seconds before the glass cools and loses its viscosity.

The labs have high ceilings with extractor fans to minimise the dangers involved.

"You can't work in a confined space and in direct sunlight. The frustration levels are also a downside.

"When you make a condenser, the apparatus is made in different pieces and you can't access a spiral inside a column.

"If a crack appears in the spiral, then you have to start all over again," Mortlock says.

The best thing about the job

"When new research in physics or chemistry is under way, there's a lot of teamwork involved.

"I make suggestions about what equipment needs to be manufactured. I'm a fellow collaborator in the research undertaken at the university."

And then there's the fun aspect. Forder makes a horse that prances out of the flame, then an elephant the size of my little fingernail, Mortlock says.

"It's a fantastic profession. If you learn to do the decorative stuff, you can travel the world. You'll never be wealthy, but you'll have a good life," Mortlock says. - SACareerFocus

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