“We feed about 250 kilograms of scrap glass into the two furnaces in the early evening. The glass then melts overnight and from there, we are able to use it in the morning. It has achieved the right texture and pliability,” says Thomas Kapere, the gallery manager. “The fuel we use is old engine oil and all our packing material is also recycled.”
Kitengela Hot Glass’ thirsty furnaces uses 450 litres of used oil per day. “We’re always looking to purchase more at market rates,” says Anselm. “We have a NEMA (National Environment Management Authority) license that allows us to dispose of both used oil and scrap glass.”
This afternoon, the top gaffer (master glassblower) is going to make a ruffle-edged bowl, involving a technique that means twisting and pulling the glass to achieve the right effect. It will be a clear piece with blue spirals around the circumference.
The maestro of Kitengela Hot Glass bobs and weaves around the domed room as if he’s doing a dance of fire. For the fruit bowl, 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 as he shapes the piece into a round ball, using jacks (heavy-duty tongs) while rolling the pipe to and fro on his bench. Damp, folded-up newspapers help him shape the gob. Periodically, he adds more water to his paper to cool the material he is working with, further enhancing the desired shaping process.
The glassblower returns to the furnace to gather more glass. (Sometimes, for bigger pieces, he must do two or three such gathers, whereas with wine glasses he would only have to do it once.) With this second gather, he controls the temperature of the glass, see-sawing the pipe in and out of the furnace. He can now blow the item and it will “bloat” evenly all the way around. At this stage, the artisan must put a groove (jack line) at the top of the bowl-to-be to create a removal point.
“Since we are applying blue spirals on the item, we use a blue powder which is basically a form of blue window glass. To prepare the spirals, a helper gathers a bit of glass on a separate pipe and rolls it on a steel table (the marver). He collects the powder evenly so it forms a kind of skin,” explains Thomas.
(In terms of colouring, Kitengela Hot Glass either feeds already-coloured material into the furnace – e.g., broken bottles for green, solar glass for grey – or uses exclusive colour powders from Germany to create pinks, reds, yellows, etc.)
Now the glassblower signals the assistant to bring the spiral material; slowly and carefully he applies it to the outside of the “bowl” as it spins round. No matter what colours are incorporated, all of the material glows a luminescent orange like the setting sun because of the intense heat of the glass.
Back in the fire goes the whole piece to harmonise the temperature of both bowl and spiral. (You have to keep reheating the glass because it cools down very quickly.) The assistant is ready with more damp newspapers to touch the bottom of the item to create a thicker base for the bowl.
The next step involves switching over the piece from the original working pipe to a new one. In a process called the “ponty” or the point of holding, the assistant must gather a bit of melted glass and attach it to the base of the item. You have to make sure that each piece of glass is the right temperature for proper bonding.
“As you can see in glass work,” Thomas offers, “it requires teamwork. It’s hard to make a single piece on your own.”
Deftly and decisively, the glassblower uses a wet iron file to create a weakness at the top of the piece so that it will change over to the new punty iron. He straightens the bottom of the item so that it’s easier for him to continue opening up the top, using the tongs and rotating it to keep the bowl round. When the glassblower removes it from the hot flame, he spins the glass so the centrifugal force opens it up further into a flat, round shape. And then by swinging it up and spinning it down like a baton, he achieves the frilly, floppy rim and shape of this particular piece — the handkerchief effect.
For the final stage in making this glass article, it is placed in a cooling chamber at 500 degrees Centigrade where it cools down through the night for approximately 18 hours. Then the following day, voila, our clear fruit bowl with blue spirals.