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Blenko: The class of glass

MILTON, W.Va. -- Verdella Ball traveled 2 1/2 hours from Stoutsville, Ohio to cross glassblowing off her bucket list.

An art education major at Ohio State University, she had tried for years to take a class on how to shape molten glass. Ball finally got her chance Saturday, and spent the morning learning how to blow, spin and shape glass at the sixth annual Blenko Glass Festival in Milton.

"This was a girls day," Ball said. "Get away from everybody. Not do any cooking, not do any cleaning -- just have some fun."

Ball and her niece, Christy Rupe, tried for three years to register for the workshop before finally securing spots this year. The festival, which took place Friday and Saturday, included all things glass, such as glass chime class, stained glass panel class, glass paperweight class and tours of the Blenko factory.

Walter Blenko Jr., the fifth member of his family to run Blenko Glass Co., said classes provide an opportunity for people to work with cold and hot glass. Blenko has added more sections of each class and more class options since the festival started.

"There are a large number of people here today taking classes, very enthusiastically," Blenko said. "The numbers keep growing each year."

Rupe, who works at a bank, couldn't stay behind and let Ball have all the fun. She had never tried glass blowing and said the instructors were great, walking them through the process. Both said they hope to return to the festival soon.

"It's addictive now," Rupe said.

Blenko is the nation's only factory that makes mouth-blown, hand-pressed glass products.

In May 2011, the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

"We're doing well," Blenko said. "We're working ahead of our budget in this current fiscal year."

The company is looking to save money by taking advantage of lower natural gas prices. It's also changing furnace designs and modifying some of its methods for melting glass to try to conserve fuel.

"The more time we have it just sitting there under heat, the more heat it takes, the more natural gas it takes," Blenko said.

At the festival, Blenko spoke with visitors from Michigan, Ohio, Virginia and Missouri.

"I think there is an ongoing interest in our product," he said. "People are telling us how much they appreciate us, how much they like it. We hope to have that continue.

"What we are making is really art glass."

Jessica and Dustin Mann came from Cincinnati for the glass workshop.

"It's nice, because I've had previous experience in glass blowing in college, so they let me do a little more free-hand," Jessica said.

Her husband, Dustin, was confident his wife would craft a better piece than he would but was still enjoying the process.

"It's interesting how the different motions that they do change the shape so drastically," he said.

Perry Bays has worked as a glassblower for Blenko since 1990. Bays helped others learn the craft Saturday.

First, he made sure participants knew which end of the pipe was hot to the touch. He'd place the glass piece in the furnace to heat it enough to begin to shape it. Then he took a paddle tool to the sides of the glass before handing it over to participants.

Once the glass began taking shape, Bays would add a bit of water and air before taking the pipe and attached glass piece to a nearby set of three stairs. There, participants stood high enough to blow lightly into the pipe and watch their creation expand with air. After the glass was in the proper shape, Bays would take the cutting tools and cut off the top of the piece before placing it into a conveyor belt-like cooling system.

"They enjoy it, but it's not as easy as they think it is," Bays said. "There's more to it than people realize."

The glassblowing process takes about eight minutes before the glass is placed into the cooler for four to five hours. Those in the workshop may either pick up their glass creations at the factory or have them shipped to them.

"They don't come in like that every day," Blenko said. "We're happy to have them, of course."

Reach Caitlin Cook at caitlin.cook@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5113.


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