Kenai resident Jack Dean has an admittedly modest setup, from which he can turn out 10 simple pipes in only one hour. That is, after sobering investment and years of serious practice.
With a small pool of fellow professionals and enthusiasts with which to share knowledge, and the severe cost of shipping in materials with a $300 order of glass costing $200 in shipping, expansion of his glass blowing operation has been slow, but steady.
“For a guy doing it for fun in his garage sometimes, that’s not really affordable,” Dean said.
But the payoff outweighs the price.
Dean said he had been looking for nearly three decades before finding an activity that provides the natural gratification glass blowing offers. He’s watched his friends pick up guitars and experience an instant connection to the instrument, but never had that experience until picking up an instrument of a different sort.
“I got behind the torch and it just clicked,” Dean said.
Entry into the industry in Alaska is not easy.
The lack of utensils and materials available to glass blowers has proved to be another barrier the amateur artist has had to overcome, but one that makes taking a step back a little easier.
His Glass Torch Technologies Inc. blowtorch is tucked away in the corner, with boxes of yet unused and retired glass, and piles of clawed and sharpened tools, some of which he weeded out years ago as less than essential. Dean did extensive research before picking out what fire he would buy. The brand he settled on is one that, in some cases, gains value over time, he said. The kiln he had shipped in would be snatched up in a second if he decided to retire from the hobby.
Dean mostly crafts glass tobacco pipes.
“I still have my favorite piece in a private collection of glass,” Dean said. “…It’s a beautiful blue piece with stripes made with silver fuming (a technique for coloring glass) and clear overlay.”
Most of his work he sells directly to local retailers. That has meant staying on top of what is hot on the market, he said.
Right now, it is slime green.
Color rods are also pricey, but Dean closely watches for economical supply options. He said he has been able to walk into shops and drop off between 50 and 100 pipes in one go, although, it can be hard convincing buyers if the product was made by inexperienced hands. By selling it directly to retailers, Dean can save money on business taxes, and stores have a more rigorous process for identifying who they are selling to, he said.
“It can be a land of extremes on that front,” Dean said.
It takes awhile to gain necessary experience. Dean said he hasn’t even touched on the variety and wealth of techniques that glass blowers worldwide have perfected, although he aims to learn a few.
“The first couple of months, I had to teach myself where my hands can go without being cut or burned,” Dean said.
Another important lesson in glass blowing is, when actually blowing into the formation, the glass must be kept in the flame or there is a risk of inhaling minute, floating shards of glass if the paper-thin figure breaks, he said.
Because his operation is small, Dean’s garage doesn’t require much ventilation, but it is necessary to have some in the event that an accident does occur, and of course to air out fumes from the blowtorch.
“It spits out at 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit, and you do not want to be unfriendly to it,” Dean said.
He reiterated that the lack of fellow glass blowers has proven to be somewhat vexing. He knows one experienced gaffer, an experienced glassblower, in Nikiski and has heard of a few more scattered across the Kenai Peninsula, but finding them has not come to fruition just yet.
Online forums and tutorials have been his friendly mentors. Dean grasps what time he can find away from raising a family of four with his wife, Danielle Edwards-Dean, and working at his day job at Smokin Deals 3X in Kenai, to practice and take advantage of the foundation he has built for himself.
“It has kind of becomes my Zen thing on the weekends,” Dean said.