“We feed 250 kilograms of scrap glass into the furnace in the early evening. The glass melts overnight and we are able to use it in the morning when it has achieved the right texture and pliability,” says Thomas Kapere, the studio manager. “The fuel we use is old engine oil and all our packing material is also recycled.”
Kitengela Hot Glass’ thirsty furnace uses 350 litres of used oil per day. This afternoon, the top gaffer (master glassblower) is going to make a clear ruffle-edged bowl with a blue spiral. The maestro of Kitengela Hot Glass bobs and weaves around the domed room doing a dance of fire. He starts by gathering a small portion of melted glass from the furnace. It’s imperative to keep the tip of the hollow pipe red hot for this gather. He shapes the piece into a round ball with damp, folded-up newspapers.
The glassblower returns to the furnace to gather more glass. For bigger pieces, he must do this two or three times – with wine glasses he would only have to do it once. With this second gather, after shaping, he can now blow and the bubble will inflate evenly. Then the artisan must put a groove (jack line) at the top of the bowl-to-be to create a removal point.
"To put a decorative spiral on the item, we use a powder which is basically coloured window glass. To prepare the spiral, an assistant gathers a bit of glass on a separate rod and rolls it on a steel table (the marver) over the powder evenly, forming a skin,” explains Thomas.
For colouring, Kitengela Hot Glass either feed already-coloured material into the furnace – e.g., broken bottles for green, solar glass for grey – or use exclusive colour powders from Germany to create pinks, reds, yellows, etc.
Now the glassblower signals his helper to bring the spiral; slowly and carefully he applies it to the outside of the bubble as he turns it. No matter what colours are incorporated, all of the material glows a luminescent orange because of the intense heat of the glass.
Back to the fire to harmonise the temperature of bowl and spiral. The assistant is ready with more damp paper to touch the bottom of the item to create a thicker base for the bowl.
The next step involves switching the piece from the original blowpipe to a new one. In a process called the “ponty” or the point of holding, the assistant must gather a bit of melted glass, shape & attach it to the base of the item. It's important that each piece of glass is the right temperature for proper bonding and subsequent release.
“As you can see in glass work,” Thomas opines, “it requires teamwork and split second timing. It’s hard to make a piece on your own.”
Deftly and decisively, the glassblower uses a wet file to create a weak point at the top of the piece. Once transferred, it is reheated and he straightens the bottom using the jacks, constantly rotating to keep the bowl round. Directly after the last heating, he spins the glass so the centrifugal force opens the object up into a flat, round shape. By swinging round like a baton, he achieves the frilly rim – the handkerchief effect.
For the final, crucial, stage, it is placed in an annealing oven at 500 degrees Centigrade where it 'cools' down overnight for approximately 18 hours, ready at lunchtime the following day,