When I meet people for the first time (this was a LONG time ago…I have, since Covid, lost all social abilities…), they ask me what I do as a job. When I say I’m a glass fuser, the assumption is immediately that I have a furnace going 24/7 and I spend my life blowing into a steel pipe to make pretty things.
You see, people think I’m a glass blower. It’s glass blowing which involves a steel pipe and funnily enough, blowing into it. This assumption has led me to write this blog: what is the difference between glass blowing and glass fusing? And where does ‘slumping’ come into it?
Glass blowing involves very bloody hot furnaces. This is the reason it’s referred to as ‘hot glass’ (whereas glass fusing is known as ‘warm glass’). In the first furnace, known as the Crucible, clear glass is melted. It is from this furnace that the first load of melted molten glass is collected onto the blow pipe.
After collecting the clear glass, colour can be added by rolling this molten glass into coloured glass powder. The glass is worked on at this point by rolling it to shape and blowing into the pipe to create a bubble. Whilst the glass is worked to shape, it goes in and out of the second furnace, (called the Glory Hole…). This keeps the glass at the workable temperature and allows the coloured glass to melt into the clear glass.
Finally, there’s the annealing furnace, which is also known as the kiln: this cools the glass at a controlled rate down to room temperature, usually over a period of 14 hours. This slow cooling prevents the glass from thermal shock, resulting in a cracked piece.
Glass fusing is using an electric kiln to melt two or more pieces of glass together. If glass fusers want coloured glass pieces, they generally use sheet glass which is already coloured. They can also use glass powder but this is added to the sheet glass at the cold stage, and is heated onto the glass in the kiln, rather than collecting powder onto a piece of molten glass.
Fusers also have to anneal their work to prevent thermal shock however, rather than having a separate annealing kiln, the annealing stage is programmed into the overall firing schedule in the one kiln.
As for shaping, whilst glass blowers shape by rolling the glass and blowing into the pipe, fusers ‘slump’ their glass into shape. This is a separate firing in the kiln: the glass is heated and then as it softens, it ‘slumps’ into the shape of the mould required.
As you can see, the two processes are very different. There is something quite wild and dangerous about glass blowing. I have seen it in action and it is a fascinating process. I literally could have watched all day.
Clumsy As F…
Here’s the thing though: if you know me and/or Rich even slightly, you would know without asking that we could never be glass blowers. We are both very clumsy. Only yesterday, Rich knocked his glasses off just getting into the car. At a friend’s house, many moons ago, Rich walked into their patio door and broke his glasses. The patio door had those bird stickers on to stop birds from flying into it, but turns out they don’t work on humans. I once fell over in town, prompting an elderly lady to ask me if I was alright. Indeed it was a monumental fall in the student café at University which lead to me doing fused glass in the first place: I was on a doctorate course in Psychology and the embarrassment of that incident meant I never went back to university again after that day.
So, you see we could never have furnaces anywhere where we are. The only advantage of them would be not having to pay for cremation after accidentally falling head-first into one of them.
The other day, I wrote an introduction post to Black Cat Glass Designs on our Facebook page. One of the things I mentioned was the music we liked, and ELO’s ‘Mr Blue Sky’ in particular. Turns out a lot of people like ELO and it made me think about how music can make a difference, or not, to people’s work or studio environment.
Working in silence?
Some people like to work in complete silence and I can understand that as there are occasions when any noise to me is intrusive. If I’m really concentrating and trying to make sure I’m cutting glass to the correct size, I need silence. Too many strips have been cut to the wrong size when bellowing out Fleetwood Mac’s ‘The Chain’. However, mostly when I’m in the studio, I do like to have some music to sing along to, loudly. I like to tell myself that as well as being a glass artist, I could also have been a singer. This of course, is not true, I couldn’t have been, not least because my singing voice can be a little ‘squeaky’ on the top notes. I wasn’t called ‘Squeakins’ at school for nothing. But that doesn’t stop my enjoyment of singing whilst I’m working.
For real, feel-good songs, you cannot beat ELO. I love Mr Blue Sky (which incidentally was voted the happiest song ever, in a study by Greatest Hits Radio last year). I also love ‘Don’t bring me down’ – it’s happy and it reminds me of my dad, as he loves it, too. There isn’t a song which reminds me of my mother as she doesn’t really listen to any music. I remember her coming home from Stroud one Saturday with a Manhattan Transfer album. Well, that was almost as disappointing as when she came home with a spatula to get more of the cake mix out of the bowl.
The sad side of music
As well as making me feel happy, I also find music can take you straight back to the past and all the feelings which accompany that. I don’t just mean ‘oh I remember this song’ – it’s more of a physical feeling that I had at the time it was released. Take Whitney Houston’s ‘I Wanna Dance with Somebody’: when I hear the first few bars of that song, I am straight back to the excitement of being 17, in my first ever job, and going out every weekend to Gas, the popular nightclub at the time; I was finding ‘life’. Problem is, it’s this which means I can no longer listen to that song at all because just as soon as I have the fizzy feeling of being 17 again, it’s immediately followed by the constant shock that I’m now 50 and if I cast my eye to the right of me, I might just catch the Grim Reaper playing along with his tambourine.
The culture of lyrics
You can define an era not just by the style of the song, but also their lyrics. As you will have gathered, I was a teenager in the 80s and I like most of that decade’s music. I had an 80s compilation CD for Christmas a few years ago and I downloaded it straight onto my phone, without selecting for the best songs. This explains why the other day ‘Never stop me from Loving You’ by Sonia, was played whilst I was working in the studio. This is literally one of the worst songs in the world. The tune itself is ghastly, but the lyrics! Oh my God! Can you imagine a female artist these days singing the lines:
‘you’ll never stop me from loving you, it doesn’t really matter what you put me through’ or ‘even when you’re home, you won’t pick up the phone’?
I mean, get a grip, Sonia!
Compare this with today’s music – Pink’s ‘U and UR hand’: I’m not here for your entertainment/you don’t really wanna mess with me tonight’; or Lily Allen’s song simply called ‘Fuck You’. Thank goodness today’s lyrics depict women as the strong, independent women they are. In the 80s of course, I didn’t question this and that makes me feel a bit ashamed.
The husband’s sacrifice
When Rich is in the studio, it’s got an altogether different vibe. Rich likes rock, particularly prog rock. I don’t like it, mainly because I can’t stand organ music. The difference between us is, I cannot listen to music I don’t like, whereas Rich can. He can just switch his mind off to it. His ability to do this makes me very grateful because there aren’t many husbands who love prog rock, who would attend an Atomic Kitten concert with their wives. Yes, Rich did this. In the early 2000s, we went to see Atomic Kitten in Birmingham. We were by far the oldest there; the mosh pit was more like the ball pit at a soft play park. I think Rich made a real sacrifice there – I doubt he ever told his friends about it. He can thank me for this, later.
This all means that when Rich is in the studio, he tends to be in there alone. Even the dogs can’t stand his music. He cuts his glass listening to Cats in Space, Spocks Beard and Pig Iron, to name just three. Most have organ solos in them which sounds like a soundtrack to the slow death of a thousand souls (this is no exaggeration). The other day when I popped in there to take him a cup of tea, there was the most dreadful song on. I asked him what it was – he said ‘it’s Thomas Wynn and the Believers – ‘We Could All Die Screaming’.
The other day, I had someone contact Black Cat Glass Designs to ask me how long it would take them to learn stained glass techniques. As always with such question, the short answer is ‘it depends’ but it got me thinking about mindset because mindset is everywhere at the moment, and mindset, particularly when you are learning, is important.
Me, in the beginning
You may have heard of the phrases ‘growth mindset’ and/or ‘fixed mindset’. In a nutshell, a growth mindset means you want to learn and you think you can do pretty much anything if you put your mind and enough effort into it. In contrast, a fixed mindset means you tend to think talent is innate, a natural ability and if you don’t have that natural ability, you will fail. If you are going to fail, what’s the point in trying?
I, Becci Meakins, was a fixed mindset guru. At school, I was useless at rounders (actually, still am but I can honestly say I don’t give a shit about that now…) But I was also useless at art, particularly drawing. I remember one lesson when we had to draw a head to represent our minds and what we were thinking about. For example, a calculator for maths or a dictionary for language.
I just drew a massive question mark.
I recall the teacher coming round and saying to me ‘is that all that’s in your head?’ No doubt, all that was in her head at the time was the need to be massively sarcastic and acerbic, but that aside, the reason I only had a question mark in my head was because I couldn’t bloody draw anything else.
And that’s where I stayed with drawing. I can’t do it and that’s that.
But natural talent does exist, doesn’t it?
Yes, probably, natural talent does exist (although some psychologists argue against this idea: see Oliver James’s book ‘Not in your Genes’ for that argument). My thinking though was that if I couldn’t do anything straight away, there was little point in even learning because in my fixed mindset, it was natural ability, or nothing.
Fast-forward a bit
In view of the fact that I was so fixed, you may be asking if it turned out I had a natural ability for fused glass art. The answer is: no. So why did I try it? I very nearly didn’t. I had already assumed that I’d be the worst in the class. But for some reason, something made me sign up. In a rare moment of positivity (welI, my version of positivity), I thought ‘if I am the worst, I will never see the others in the class again, anyway’. And besides, Rich was on the course with me so if I was the worst, I could always swap my work with his…
My mistakes: All-round idiocy or par for the course?
When I made mistakes with kiln-formed glass, initially, I felt like chucking it all in. Sentences such as ‘people like me just don’t have success’ or ‘why don’t you just go back to bed, you useless peasant’ haunted me for a while. But then curiosity got the better of me: why did that particular piece stick to the kiln shelf? Why did that strip of glass bulge out? Why has that slumped so unevenly? I would go off to find out the answers. And, as I learned the answers, I used it to my advantage. Suddenly, the reasons why things went wrong became another chance to learn, and with learning, I was improving.
This fused glass vessel here was created out of another piece of work which stuck to the kiln furniture and cracked. I not only learnt my lesson (kiln wash was too thin), but also wondered what I could do with the glass which had cracked. This glass art piece wouldn’t have existed if I hadn’t made that mistake. It’s a cliché that you learn from mistakes but you really do – but the learning only really comes if you adopt more of a growth mindset.
So going back to my initial enquirer about how long does it take to learn stained glass. My answer should have been – it depends on your mindset. If you don’t expect to be brilliant from the off, and are prepared to stick at the niggling, annoyances that come at the start, then there’s no reason why you shouldn’t learn quickly. Overall though, give it a go, because how will you know, otherwise?
As for me, I am waxing lyrical about a growth mindset but I still have a fixed mindset in many respects. It’s something I am continuing to work on. My drawings look like they were done by a 2-year old because I am still terrible at drawing. And rounders.
(Note: I had further help with my mindset from the brilliant Lauren Malone from Lemon Tree Coaching and Development. Click here to visit her website).
How to Commission a Piece of Art from Black Cat Glass Designs
Back in the good old days, when we artists could sell face-to-face at craft shows, we were often asked if we do commissions. At Black Cat Glass Designs we do fused glass, and some leaded glass, commissions, provided there is a good fit between what we usually create, and what you, as the client, require. And this is what this blog is about. I have put together some things for you to think about before you request a personal glass commission from us. These thoughts will also help you if you are thinking of commissioning other artists, not just glass artists, in the future. I do hope you find them helpful.
Be Specific About Colour
‘I quite fancy that design but in blue’. Great! I mean, I love blue glass! However, we use Bullseye glass and currently, they have a total of 50 types of blue…to include transparent, opal, iridised and streaky glass. Now we aren’t expecting you to know all these styles of blues, but you need to think more about what type of blue: more turquoise or dark blue, more of a pale blue or a mere tint? We can help you to decide, no problem. If it’s to match a room décor, provide a swatch or sample and we can either match it or contrast it to your preference. But you do need to know that you want more than just ‘blue’.
Have a Good Idea of Design
You do need to have some idea of the types of designs you like. This can even be as vague as ‘something abstract that’s bright and vibrant’ or ‘something square, patterned, fun’. We can ask you more questions to clarify so don’t worry about nailing it completely if you don’t feel you can. Whilst thinking about personal design, check first that we actually do the style of things you like. Take a look at our mission statement here: if you don’t like colour we probably aren’t the right people for you. This may sound obvious but I once had someone ask me to do ‘something with a wolf on’, even though I have no such items on my website and there were no mammal-type themes on any of my work. I admired his optimism though…
Have a look through the website to see what you like. A commission we loved working on was a fused glass house sign for a flat which overlooked the sea. The client told us specifically she wanted a ‘sea garden’ theme, with elements of… and she then listed all the pieces on our website which matched her ideas.
Size of Piece
OK, so this is actually quite an obvious one! But it still needs thinking about. For glass artists, our limitations will be down to the kiln size. At Black Cat Glass Designs, we simply can’t do a full-length piece for your Olympic-size swimming pool! Don’t just think about size overall, also have a think about thickness of your one-off piece – does it matter to you? Is your ideal piece nice and thin or do you like a bit more substance with a thicker piece?
Think about how much time you have
If you want to commission a piece of fused glass art, you need to err on the safe side and request it well in advance. An artist, Black Cat Glass Designs included, usually has lots of work already lined up and simply won’t be in a position to drop everything to take on a short-notice commission. Not only that, but also consider that materials may need to be ordered, which all adds to the time taken. Realistically, the absolute minimum time we would need is 4-6 weeks.
What is your Budget?
This is a big one. Have a think about what you are prepared to pay and you need to be realistic. Firstly, have a look at the artists current items and how much they retail at – that should give you a rough idea. However, you can’t fully use that as a 100% reliable guide. Firstly, the artist will need to factor in costs of design: even if you have good idea of what you want (see above), then the artist will still need some input. Also, in glass art, the colours you want matter. A piece of A4-sized turquoise transparent glass costs approximately £8. The same size in fuchsia pink? £32.58. That is 4 times the cost (pink and purple glasses are gold-bearing glasses, hence the huge price difference). There’s kiln time and process, too. A standard flat fused and mould-slumped piece could be just 2 firings. Other items can be 4 firings or more. Kiln firings are long: a full fuse from start until fully cool enough to open the kiln can be anything from 20 hours to 3 days! We would explain all of this to you, as any artist would but this is just an illustration of how much is involved in calculating costs.
Another thing to bear in mind in relation to budget: it’s not just the materials you need to think about. When you are commissioning a personal piece of art, you are also paying for the artist’s experience: how much they have spent over the years getting to do the standard of work which you are now admiring? It’s a bit like when you go to a hairdresser, you expect a reduction if a trainee is cutting your hair, but you would expect to pay much more for a very experienced stylist.
Terms and Conditions, including Deposits
Take a look at terms and conditions before requesting a fused glass commission . Good T&Cs will tell you exactly how much deposit is required, and whether it is non-refundable. Note that for commissioned, person-specific work, the Consumer Contracts Regulations, 2013 does not allow for cancellation, though some artists may allow for cancellation. Deposits are often non-refundable because an artist could have committed a lot of time to your piece, even before starting work with materials i.e design time, selecting the right materials, research etc. If you then decide to cancel your commission, although to you the work may not have started, the behind-the-scenes stuff may be in full flow. It’s only fair the artist is paid for the work undertaken thus far. All this is in our terms and conditions but please ask for clarity and/or confirmation if you are unsure.
Finally….don’t be upset by refusal
If an artist refuses your commission, don’t take it personally, it’s in your best interests. You want an artist to love the work they are doing for you – you want to see it every time you look at your commissioned art work. At Black Cat Glass Designs, we have been asked on several occasions if we can do a commission using ashes from a cremation. We always turn these down. This is not because we don’t care about you and your loved one but simply an acknowledgement that we are not the best fit for that job. We have never done cremation pieces and it’s not a route we want to go down – you need somebody who has.
I really hope you have found all of that useful. As I say, it will largely apply to any types of commissioned art you want, not just with Black Cat Glass Designs. Just one crucial take away point: make sure the artist you are asking to work for you makes your heart sing and makes you smile every time you look at what they create. That is the artist you want. Hopefully, that will be us!
When we do a craft fair, we get asked all sorts of things. Things like: this is very pretty but what’s it for? Have you made all this yourself? Have you got another one like this in a different colour? And more. However, the most commonly asked question is: how long did this take you to make?
When someone asks how long something took to make, it seems to me, based on their responses, that they think it should take a long time to make, because it’s expensive. Often it is the case; it has taken a long time but I wonder why that’s the only criterion people use when deciding whether a piece is worth the price tag.
Let’s break it down. The most obvious things to consider when pricing a piece is the cost of materials and the time it’s taken to make. In relation to glass fusing, you can rest assured that the materials themselves are expensive. But let’s add to this: in addition to those two things, there is the cost of the training and experience that has led to the artist making the piece that you want to buy.
Training doesn’t come cheap. There’s the cost of the training courses themselves and the time spent in those training courses. There’s the hours and hours of practice in the studio when you return home. There’s the mountains of research done behind the scenes to make things better, to understand why things have gone wrong, to improve on each and every thing you make.
Then there’s the other things: the electricity for the kilns and the other studio equipment. There’s the kiln wash we use to stop the glass sticking to the shelf, or shelf paper which does the same thing. There’s the cost of the drills we use when making jewellery. There’s the cost of sandblast and polishing materials. The cost of glass cleaner and lint-free cloths, cutting oil, glass cutters, running pliers, diamond hand pads, grinder heads, saw blades – I could go on.
So you see it’s not really just the time it takes to make a piece which gives it its value. It’s all the above. It’s impossible to factor in all of the other related costs so the artist inevitably absorbs a lot of the other costs.
Believe me, it’s a wonderful feeling when a customer wants to buy a piece of work which you have created. When you buy a piece of art, whether it’s glass, a painting, a piece of jewellery or a handmade bag make sure you really enjoy it. Enjoy the fact that it’s the result of years of work and time which has gone into creating the piece you love so much. It’s more than time and material costs. It’s passion. That’s hard to put a value on.
When you visit a craft show, what is your criteria for what is an acceptable price? Do you look at what is a small item and think ‘that’s a pretty dish but not at £…., it isn’t’. Or do you appreciate work that has gone in to such an item? Perhaps you don’t even think about it. So here I am going to put across the point of view of the crafter/artist themselves. If you knew the work involved, would this affect the amount you were prepared to spend?
Take this little dish. It is a small piece at 8cm in diameter. You may think it’s pretty or you may hate it – but that’s fine – we all have different tastes. Nonetheless, even as a crafter, I accept that ultimately it is a tiny dish, it’s not made of valuable gem stones, or gold therefore there is a limit on what people will pay for it. Let me show you how this dish is made.
Firstly, I have to cut the circle out of the glass sheet. This isn’t always easy as there’s a definite technique to cutting circles. In addition, the very nature of circles means that there’s more waste when you make something round, than there is when you make something square. To make this dish, I need to cut two circles of glass per dish.
To make a kiln full, I have to cut many circles. After firing and cooling fully, a process which takes around 18 hours in this case, the fully-fused blanks are removed from the kiln.
The next stage is to make the glass decorations, which on these dishes are a mixture of holly, sea shells, daisies and roses. These items are handmade, too. I use silicon moulds and a mixture of powdered glass and water. These photos give you some idea of the process. As to the time involved, to fill a mould with three daisies takes about 25-30 minutes. The powders are placed a small bit at a time into the mould, drops of water added and then the moulds are tapped after each application of water, to get rid of any tiny bubbles. This process carries on until the moulds are full.
When I have filled all the decorations I want, the next stage is to put them into the freezer. When fully frozen, they are then popped out of their moulds and put on to the kiln shelf for firing.
I have done this technique for several years now, but it still amazes me how a fragile decoration made of powder and frozen water doesn’t turn into a puddle of mush when fired in the kiln. Still, better people than me created this technique and I bow to their superiority!
Now we have the fused blanks and the fused glass decorations. The next stage is yet another firing: a tack fuse to secure the decorations to the dish, without losing its definition. For those counting, this is now kiln firing number 3.
This firing goes to a lower temperature than the full fuse, but it is still nonetheless about the same amount of time taken, including cooling. We now have fully fused flat blanks, with their decoration. They just need their shape to finish. They are slumped in to their moulds in the kiln, (firing number 4) – this is the final firing.
To recap, the blanks have been cut and fired. The decorations have been made, frozen, then fired. The blanks and decorations have been tack fused together and finally, they are slumped to take their shape. The finished product looks like this:
You now have some idea of the amount of work involved in these little dishes. And you get all that, for just £14.
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