Friday, June 8, 2012

Neat Stuff - New era / old world skills~

JERSEY CITY — As he wielded a hand torch in a cluttered two-car garage one recent night, Kiva Ford admitted, “I really don’t have time for a relationship because I love glass too much.”

By day, Mr. Ford is a scientific glass blower for a large pharmaceutical company, creating and repairing medical apparatus — full-jacketed two-neck flasks, custom-jacketed reactors, reflux condensers, hydrolysis tubes — vital to researchers combating diseases like cancer. By night and on weekends, Mr. Ford is usually in his garage, working on his own personal creations — glass goblets, Champagne flutes, flower vases — to sell at art shows or online.

“I must admit, I’ve become a bit of a glass hermit,” Mr. Ford said.

Mr. Ford, who grew up in Milford, N.J., “dreaming of something fun to do with my life,” found it at Salem Community College in Carneys Point, N.J., where he earned an associate’s degree in scientific glass technology through the only degree program of its kind in the country.

Historically, glass blowers have been drawn to South Jersey — considered the birthplace of American glassmaking — because the area’s pure sand and abundant forests provided natural resources vital to the glassmaking industry. In 1739, a man named Caspar Wistar immigrated from Germany and founded the country’s first successful glass factory in Salem County. Many scientific glassmakers still remain in the region.

“Most people do not know about our profession, but we are in demand,” said Bob Pontoon, a former president of the American Scientific Glassblowers Society — Mr. Ford is one of its 650 members — which was founded in 1952.

On this night in his garage, Mr. Ford was squinting through a pair of Didymium safety glasses, repairing a glass vacuum manifold.

“Chemists use these manifolds as a way to control their chemical reactions in an inert atmosphere,” Mr. Ford said, reaching for a blow hose. “The stopcock is broken off this manifold and needs to be sealed back together.”

Mr. Ford connected one end of the hose to the manifold and placed the other end in his mouth. He ignited a hand torch, placed a large flame to the manifold and began manipulating its shape by puffing slowly into the blow hose.

“Blowing air into the manifold keeps the seal from collapsing while it is being heated with the flame,” Mr. Ford explained between puffs. “In this business, you really have to understand what certain glass pieces want to do, and what they don’t want to do.”

Mr. Ford, 28, works at Roche Pharmaceuticals in Nutley, N.J., where chemists, researchers and scientists rely on his works to extract, distill, store and test chemicals used in laboratory and university experiments.

“To me, the scientists are the real heroes because they can manipulate molecules to create new drugs in a way I would never be able to understand,” Mr. Ford said. “The best part of my job is seeing some of the pieces I have made being used to test a brand new cancer drug or something of equal significance — it’s neat to know that I play a role, albeit a small one, in the whole medical discovery process.”

Mr. Ford removed his Didymium glasses, which he said he needed to “filter out the yellow sodium flame, which is difficult to see through during the heating process,” and carefully laid the vacuum manifold in what looked like a box of cat litter but was actually vermiculite, a clay mineral used for thermal insulation. His work complete, Mr. Ford began tinkering some more, breathing into decorative pieces scattered across a large table; it is a pastime that in recent years has become more of a business than a hobby.

“Every morning is like Christmas for me,” Mr. Ford said. “I really love what I do — it never gets old.”

Before closing up shop for the evening, Mr. Ford, squinting again through his Didymium glasses and reigniting his hand torch, went about the business of attaching a glass base to the stem of a goblet.

“It’s a rite of passage as a glass blower to be able to make a technically well-crafted goblet,” Mr. Ford explained. “To make one that is technically acceptable, you sometimes need to throw out about 1,000 of them.”

Mr. Ford held his goblet up to a light to check for any technical errors. He could not find one.

“Looks like a keeper,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in print on June 9, 2012, on page A15 of the New York edition with the headline: Blowing Glass Is His Day Job, And It’s His Other Job, Too.

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