Making glass is both an art and a science. I first started working with borosilicate glass in 1974. Before that I was playing with clay and ceramic glazes in high school. I studied both the arts and sciences in college and glass seemed to be the perfect material that was both technical and beautiful. It was also challenging and fun to work. It called to me with it’s brilliant colors and the way it plays with light. I didn’t know it then, but glass was to be my life’s work.
After graduating from college I spent several years traveling around the USA being a lampworker/craftsman, and exploring the natural wonders of the Western US, Canada and Mexico. Back then there was no colored borosilicate glass to buy. One had to make one’s own. So I hand mixed a lot of color starting with ideas learned from ceramic glaze formulas and a few other lampworkers who knew something about colorant chemicals and were willing to share, primarily Suellen Fowler. I also learned about neon, bought a glass lathe and pursued scientific glass blowing for a while, and was generally a jack of all trades in glass. I was eager and interested in absorbing everything I could. Those were fun and creative years, the origins of what was to evolve organically in the next 20 years. Although I thought of myself as more of an artist, it was the technical side that drew me in creatively.
I was living cheaply and frugally back then and I spent a fair amount of time pursuing other interests as well, notably, the flying of sailplanes. But eventually I realized that it was time to get more serious about a career of some sort. I was trying to figure out how I could make a living pursuing my passion with all things glass. I had tried selling lampworked objects through galleries and fairs, and that was a struggle. I guess I just hadn’t reached a level of expertise that translated into cash flow. But I had become quite proficient in making colored borosilicate rods in the flame, rod by rod.
I was bored driving around looking for broken neon signs to fix and making distillation apparatus for a Eugene company, so I thought I would try to sell some of the color rods. Wale Apparatus Co. took a chance on me and bought a few hundred dollars’ worth... and that started it all. Before long I was getting orders for several thousand dollars of rods from Wale. Other suppliers showed some interest. I ended up spending all day long, twisting color rods in the flame of my Bethlehem PM2D. It was clear to me that there had to be a better way.
That’s when I started researching the melting glass in batches. No one had done it on a small scale before. I went to Corning Glassworks Sullivan Park Library to see what I could find… very little was open to the public for viewing. Corning keeps its secrets as glass makers have done around the world for centuries, or longer. I managed to talk with several retired workers from Corning and Kimble and bought a few technical books. That’s how I gained an idea of what they do in the big borosilicate plants making 1000’s of tons per day of clear glass. But that did not translate into a garage and a few hundred dollars to spend building a glass furnace that could hold 30 lbs of colored borosilicate glass.
So I had to improvise. Within a few months I was melting glass and drawing rods from a small furnace. It was crude at first and the learning curve was steep, but I’ve been improving the process ever since.
I started calling myself Blown Glass Specialties. I made color but the market didn’t really exist. There were a few folks making chotskis here and there, and scientific glass people liked to have a few rods of color to play with. But it was nothing like it is today. The vast majority of borosilicate glass was painted with garish colors of some kind. Definitely schlocky in my opinion.
I started calling myself Northstar Glassworks in about 1986 (or so) and built a pretty successful little company. As I developed more colors, the market grew and by the mid 1990’s I was primarily making colored glass. My scientific glassblowing endeavors gradually fell by the wayside. I was the first company ever to make commercial colored borosilicate glass.
It was a lot of fun creating a process, developing a market and building a company. That really appealed to my creative juices. But running a manufacturing company with 25+ employees has many headaches. I had some difficult times with dishonest employees taking advantage of my trusting nature, and I learned some hard lessons about business and people along the way. Glass Alchemy was born from Northstar, and Momkas born of Alchemy. Lawsuits were involved. It was no fun anymore!
I decided to bail out and sold Northstar to a couple of my employees in 2002. I thought I would try something else out. However, by 2008 I was back making color again. It’s just so difficult to stop doing something you’re good at and love. Color making, I love it! I am also a much more knowledgeable businessman now. I started Northstar in my early 30’s and I’m 30 years older and wiser now.
I opened a new factory in Wilsonville, Oregon in 2012. Everything was going just fine there until early 2016, when the Oregon DEQ made some huge new requirements for anyone with the words “colored art glass” in their name. Based on what was happing in Portland with a much larger glass company, making a different kind of glass, and using completely different techniques, the DEQ required us to buy and install expensive filters on our furnaces. So in order to make this cost effective we had to move to a larger facility. As luck would have it the perfect building went on the market, in the right place at the right time, and at the right price. As of this writing ( August 2017) we are putting the finishing touches on our new facility in Canby, Oregon. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise... we now have a state of the art facility!
As far as the future goes, I am still developing new colors and production techniques all the time. That’s the most interesting and fun part of my job here at TAG. I’m primarily interested in making new colors and new products not currently available, or redeveloping old colors that are much better to work in some way. I’ll never tire of doing that. It’s what got me into color making in the first place. The thrill of discovery.