The Craft of Blowing Brooklyn Glass

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Glass blown by Kevin Kutch at Pier Glass in Red Hook. (Lea Khayata/The Brooklyn Ink)
Glass blown by Kevin Kutch at Pier Glass in Red Hook. (Lea Khayata/The Brooklyn Ink)

By Joe Deaux

When Kevin Kutch removes glass from the furnace it is actually in liquid form and measures at 2,150 degrees Fahrenheit – a temperature that is approximately equivalent to what the underbelly of the space shuttle endures when reentering Earth’s atmosphere. The egg-shaped blob of molten glass sticks to the end of Kutch’s five-foot pole, glowing deep orange. Wearing Kevlar gloves to withstand the heat, Kutch clutches the pole at the opposite end and runs water across the middle of it to cool it down, being careful not to let the water touch the glass.

“What’s magic about glass is the hotter it is, the softer it is. The cooler it is, the harder it is, right?” he says. He clenches the muscles in his throat when he speaks, which gives his voice a soft quality reminiscent of Kermit the Frog. A tall, slender man, Kutch, 59, has sandy-white hair, rectangular wire-rimmed glasses, a bushy mustache and broad shoulders that slump slightly forward. His white, v-neck shirt is tucked into relaxed-fit jeans that bunch up at the sneakers. As the pole begins to cool, he grasps it with his bare hands and blows into the end of it. The egg-shaped liquid begins to expand. Five minutes later he displays a finished drinking glass.

Kutch, who is originally from the Rolling Meadows suburb of the west side of Chicago, has blown glass for 30 years. He received a B.F.A. in sculpting at Metropolitan State College of Denver in Colorado, where he met his wife, Mary Ellen Buxton. Buxton and Kutch share ownership of their glass-blowing shop, Pier Glass, located at the southern piers of Red Hook, Brooklyn.

Kutch says he and Baxton are partners in every sense of the word, which quickly becomes obvious in their banter. Kutch answers a question, and Buxton adds to it. They talk about the challenge of glass restorations:

“I guess it comes down to how much time and money has one got to experiment for making formulas,” Buxton says.

“To find that perfect match,” Kutch adds.

“To make a perfect match, exactly,” Buxton says.

Kutch speaks about the many uses of glass:

“We only touch on a few percent of what’s possible,” he says.

Buxton hums in agreement. “Unless you have a school where it’s trying to hit such a broad…” she says and stops.

“Machine glass production,” says Kutch. About glass pieces in museums: “I’ve held a blown piece before the birth of Christ,” he says about an antique piece of glass. “It’s amazing,” Buxton says while looking at him and smiling.

Kutch’s first job was straight out of college, doing glass grinding and polishing at a Denver studio called Blake St. Glass. He became a manager at the studio, and used his sculpting skills to shape cold glass. It was here that he learned how to blow glass.

With his background in sculpting, he eventually realized that glass was wonderful to shape. “Glass was just a wonderful material to make three-dimensional art out of,” Kutch says. “And what they do with glass, you know, I mean the sides of buildings are covered in this stuff. You drive down the road at 70 miles an hour, a piece of glass keeps that rock from hitting you in the teeth,” he chuckles. “You drink out of your glass, you know, I mean there’s so much glass out there and it’s used in so many different ways. Right?” In college he imagined he would end up sculpting steel, that desire changed when he became a glass artisan.

In 1991 Kutch and Buxton moved from Colorado to New York because Kutch was offered a position as the new studio director at a place now known as Urban Glass. By 1994, he and his wife were ready to open their own glass studio in Red Hook. They have worked at various locations in Red Hook, settling into their current, larger location in 2007. Customers typically are people who buy the few vases and cups they have on display, individuals who want specially crafted pieces, and museum curators who want the couple to restore their glass artwork or create pieces that mimic historical glassworks.

Kutch does most of the actual glass blowing and Buxton assists. The process is complicated, even for a simple water glass. First Kutch draws an image of the glass on the floor of his workspace with a piece of chalk to envision what the finished product will look like. Then Kutch grasps a steel pole and inserts it into a massive furnace that contains melted glass; the glass sticks to the pole, which Kutch begins to rotate to even out the liquid. He pulls the pole from the furnace and rests it over a barrel of water to cool, being careful not let the water get near to the glass, which would make it cool and harden. Next, he blows into the pole, which is hollow, like a pipe, to form an air bubble inside the liquid glass. The air bubble forcibly expands the glass and gives it its initial shape.

At a second work station, Kutch rests the pole on two vertical metal slats and it rolls left to right so that gravity does not force the liquid to droop downwards and lose its even shape. If he needed to make the glass hotter to better mold it, Kutch would put the liquid into another oven called the “glory hole” that is slightly cooler than the furnace. Instead, Kutch uses a “block” (a wooden handle attached to a cherry-wood cup) and a damp pad of old newspapers to form the glass evenly, and, with a “pair-of-jacks” tool shaped like a large pair of tweezers, fashions a thin neck and the base of the cup.

Suddenly, he abandons the glass for no more than a moment and returns with another pole that has the slightest bit of melted glass on the end. He then takes the new pole and sticks it on the bottom center of the drinking cup that still clings to the original pole. Two polls bookend the glass. He pulls out a large pair of tweezers and strikes the area near the thin neck that he created on the original pole. The cup breaks away and forms an open hole on the glass where the pole was connected. He sticks the pair-of-jacks into the new hole on the glass and slowly widens the hole while evenly rotating the glass. The hole’s diameter grows from half an inch to 4. Finally, he breaks the bottom of the cup off the new pole. The drinking glass is finished. Kutch puts it into a storing unit so that the glass can cool and harden.

The cup took Kutch only five minutes, half the time he said it would probably take. Speed is essential to success in this craft, he says, because one must finish molding before glass cools and hardens. Suddenly Kutch grabs another pole, dips it into the furnace, extracts the liquid glass and quickly cools it over the bucket of water. He grabs the pair-of-jacks, clenches the end of the glass and begins stretching it out. He continues to stretch the glass, flapping his arms slowly, like a bird. The glass is long and thin and growing, until it measures eight-feet in length and only a few centimeters in diameter. It looks like a whip.

He pinches the glass to prove that it is completely cooled, bends it into a “U”-shape – and it shatters.

He smiles. “With glass, you could build a building out of nothing but glass, taller than the Empire State Building. It has the compression strength, it has the tensile strength. Everything. Right? The only problem is if somebody tapped the cornerstone,” Kutch smacks the pair-of-jacks against some nearby steel, “it would all explode,” he says. “Glass does bend, it bends an amazing amount. But when it fails, it fails catastrophically. Steel, when it fails, bends. When glass fails, it disintegrates,” he chuckles.

Before he begins to close the shop, he goes over to the furnace and dips in one last pole. He takes it out and blows the glass into a balloon. The only difference between an actual balloon and this one is that when Kutch lets go of the glass balloon it does not float. It crashes to the ground and shatters at his sneakers. He looks up and grins through his mustache.

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