FEATURE: Sunderland’s 1,100° heart of glass

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As the National Glass Centre prepares to reopen after a £2.3million revamp, Alison Goulding tries her hand and its famous glassmaking experiences

ANYTHING involving 1,100° molten glass seems like something I should be automatically banned from.

Alison Goulding with her glass paperweight she made at the National Glass Centre.

Alison Goulding with her glass paperweight she made at the National Glass Centre.

 Nevertheless, it seems the National Glass Centre team are genuinely committed to letting everyone have a go at glassmaking, and I am never one to argue over a loophole.

 The centre re-opens on Saturday following a multi-million pound makeover, and I was offered the chance to test drive some of the experiences on offer to the public through the holidays.

 Chris Blade, head of enterprise, said: “Last year we had hundreds of people visiting to make a Christmas bauble. About 70 per cent had never been before and many had travelled quite a way, which shows the NGC is a good day out.

 “We’ll be running the experience sessions five days a week from the end of July and throughout August.

 “Each session will be led by an experienced glass maker and supported by an assistant.

 “This year we are really pleased to have two Sunderland graduates joining the team, Erin Barr and Choong Mokyoo, who will be working on the experience days.

 “These experiences are the ultimate present – they’re fantastic and very popular. There will also be three free glassmaking demonstrations with commentary every day, seven days a week.”

 Expert glass makers Ian Spence and Dave Martin bravely agreed to teach me and our collective aim was to make a glass apple, a paperweight and a bauble.

 Last Christmas they helped almost 1,000 people make a Christmas tree bauble – but would they manage to keep me from falling in the new electric furnaces? Ian and Dave first worked together when Sunderland Glassworks was based at the NGC. Both have a wealth of experience when it comes to glassmaking.

 Ian, 56, from Sunderland, said: “I started when I left school at 15, making stained glass windows for Hartley Wood Glass. I then worked in Germany and Norway, always with glass, before I returned to Sunderland.”

 Dave, 48, from Seaham, said: “When I left school I was a coal miner for 11 years and when the pit closed I started working for Pyrex and stayed for 10 years.

 “Glassmaking is a passion. When you’re working with glass, it’s a moving, living thing. You’re working for an hour and a half non-stop with the same piece.

“The range of what you can make and do is massive. I’m still learning every single day.”

 Ian added: “Once you’ve started you can’t go back. You have to finish it.

 “We both enjoy teaching people. They’re really enthusiastic and they want to be here which really helps. A lot want to come back and do more.”

 Feeling encouraged, I watched as Ian and Dave demonstrated the step-by-step process and the various techniques involved before it was my turn.

 It’s a delicate process with as many layers as an onion, but Ian and Dave are so skilled they make it look easy peasy.

 Thankfully, they proved to be equally skilled at talking me through it, without anyone getting burned, maimed or stabbed.

 The first trick to learn was balancing the red hot glass, which comes out with the consistency of syrup, on the end of a giant metal stick.

 If you don’t keep turning and rebalancing it, it blobs off the end and hits the floor.

 It’s a similar technique to keeping your ice cream in its cone on a hot day and requires a lot of concentration.

 You have to fight the urge to panic and drop it, but after a while, the gingerish twiddling becomes part of the fun.

 For the bauble, Dave used a blowpipe to gather the molten glass from the furnace. We then dabbed it into a small pile of white glass chips for a snowy effect.

 To melt the white glass chips, the blowpipe had to go into the glory hole – a very hot oil, drum-like chamber used for reheating glass so it remains hot.

 We then dipped our fledgling bauble into coloured glass chips to create a pattern.

 The essential part of making a bauble is blowing like crazy down the blow hole to make an air bubble, which hollows out the decoration in stages. This bit felt just plain bizarre, but it was great fun.

 My attempt turned out to be rather puny as I lacked lung power, but we had still created a small bauble and I felt my confidence grow a smidge.

 Ian demonstrated making the paperweight, which at first seemed impossibly complicated. I settled for just watching and hoping my brain would soak up something by the time it was my turn. The pattern had to be made and then encased with another gathering of glass.

 The most exciting bit was using a giant pair of tweezers to pull strands of glass out as part of the decoration. There was also an exotic pineapple mould that we squished it into to create tiny bubbles in the glass.

 Although I wouldn’t have wanted to be left unsupervised, it was so absorbing and fascinating to watch that hopeless blob of goo transform into something.

 At times I wanted another hand to help me out, but Ian was always just there to stop it sliding into disaster.

 Our final challenge was to make a glass apple – a whole new technique again.

 This time our first gathering of glass was splodged heavily into a red, sandy powder, reheated in the glory hole and then splodged again and to build up a really strong colour.

 Creating the apple shape was done by hand, albeit protected by a heavy layer of wet newspaper. I had to use my little finger to make the bottom of the apple and my thumb to press down the top.  

 Remember when you were a kid and tried to rub your tummy and pat your head at the same time? It was not unlike that.

 I was a bit loathe to get burned, so I faffed around too much and my apple ended up looking rather stunted.

 Making something out of raw glass from a burning hot furnace is the most primitive and tremendous fun.

 It will get your brain whizzing and test your co-ordination and when it’s all over, you have a unique keepsake. Mine will take pride of place on the mantelpiece.

•To book a glassmaking experience, call 0191 515 5555 or book online at www.nationalglasscentre.com