Stan Sheldon places his blowtorch between two spinning glass tubes. He blows into a mouthpiece that looks like a cigarette perched on his bottom lip. Air enters one end of a tube and puffs up through smoldering, wilting glass. As the tubes appear near collapse, they fuse and bursts of light explode inside — tiny fireworks of blue, red and orange trying to escape.
Sheldon is the last remaining glass blower at UC Riverside, where he designs and creates glassware strictly for scientific research on campus.
“I don’t make swans,” he said with a sly smile.
At one time, UC Riverside had three full-time glass blowers and two glass shops. But over the years, as demand for custom glass pieces waned, the jobs disappeared.
Sheldon apprenticed in the glass shop for a year in the 1970s but left for other careers in the sciences.
About seven years ago, when the last glass blower was to retire, the administration considered closing the shop. Instead, Sheldon, who by now had returned to Riverside and worked in the chemistry department, offered to help. The university hired him for only one day a week because of dwindling demand and budget constraints.
Not much has changed since Sheldon’s first stint there. Aging machinery and tools used for cutting, drilling, cooling and heating glass — all of which are decades older than most of Riverside’s current students — fill the shop. Wall slots hold dozens of glass tubes of various sizes. The smaller pieces go in library-style card catalog drawers. The newest addition of technology is an old computer, which Sheldon uses only to order glass online. A foot-high stack of completed work orders sits on the desk.
“Everything here is exactly the way it was,” said Sheldon, 68, who graduated from the university in 1969. Over the years, he occasionally used his glass blowing skills at other labs including those at UC Irvine, Brigham Young University and Imperial Valley College.
The diminishing need at UC Riverside is mirrored nationwide. The profession peaked in the 1960s, when the government spent hefty sums on scientific research. In those days, “bench top chemistry” was the norm.
“If you walked into a chemistry lab in that era, you would see all these pots with coil glass and bubbling fluid going through them,” said Robert Ponton, manager of the American Scientific Glassblowers Society, a New York trade group.
Computer modeling started to replace hands-on experiments — creating less of a demand for the tools created by glass blowers, he said. Since the 1960s, the group’s membership has shrunk by about a third.
Despite the changes, though, Ponton believes the job will never disappear.
“Galileo gets credit for the first telescope, but he didn’t make the glass lenses,” he said. “Somebody did that for him. That’s what we do.”
Every Wednesday, students stream into the Riverside shop. Sometimes Sheldon designs and creates custom pieces, but most of the time he repairs cracks, smooths edges, melds two pieces. Often, the piece he’s fixing is something he made.
As Sheldon worked to mend a crack in a round beaker, graduate student Tom Lopez sauntered into the shop with a furrowed brow.
“What’s the story?” Sheldon asked.
“I broke it,” Lopez sighed.
“Again?” Sheldon said.
“Yup,” replied Lopez, who is working toward a doctorate in mechanical engineering.
The now-shattered glass piece, an intricate tube system, was one of two custom pieces made for Lopez. He had planned to use one of them to observe the crystallization and growth process of nanoparticles as they travel through plasma. But he dropped it.
He’d need a new one as soon as possible. Sheldon said it would take some time, but he’d put Lopez at the front of the line and have it for him in the morning.
“He’s an integral part of our lab,” he said, pointing at the remaining piece. “Try to buy that somewhere — you can’t.”
Lopez thanked him profusely, and Sheldon assured him it wouldn’t be too much trouble.
“But no more Mr. Nice Guy! Don’t break it again!” he said, laughing. Then he added: “If you guys didn’t break things, I’d be out of a job.”
Sheldon’s not sure what will happen to the shop when he eventually retires. Recently, the university closed the campus’ only electrical shop. He hopes the glass shop outlasts him, he said; otherwise, researchers on campus will have to order pieces from elsewhere — putting them at a disadvantage. “They’ll be walking around with their leg cut off,” he said.
Later in the day, Sheldon retrieved for two chemistry students the long tube he created earlier by fusing the two tubes. “Whoa,” they said in unison when he handed it to them. One asked Sheldon if he’d teach him how to blow glass. “Come in any time you want,” he said.
Sheldon said he’ll start to think about retirement when he hits 70. But he doubts he’ll give it much thought. “I’d miss it too much,” he said.
Then he flicked his lighter, igniting the flame. Again.