Who would have thought that a trip up a goat path would lead to the Museum’s acquisition of a 19th-century lampworking table that was part of the 2007 Botanical Wonders exhibition?
In October 2006, Steve Gibbs, the Museum’s manager of events marketing, embarked on a mission to find a lampworking table similar to the ones Rudolf and Leopold Blaschka used to make their incredibly life-like botanical and invertebrate models.
With glassblower and consultant Charley Parriott at his side, Gibbs traversed the Czech countryside, following a variety of tips that ultimately led them up a rugged goat path to a small rural museum in Kokonin, owned by Libos Stryncl.
Here, they found just what they were looking for: a functional, preserved 19th-century wooden lampworking table, called a mech (m-yeck), complete with a leather bellows. After some haggling and some interesting transcontinental conference calls, the bellows and table officially became the property of The Corning Museum of Glass.
Meanwhile, back in Corning, Bob Carson, one of the Museum’s flameworkers, was developing a metal alcohol lamp in the style of 19th-century glassworking, to attach to the wooden table.
Carson used the extensive resources at the Rakow Research Library to design the original model based on historical data, as well as information provided by Susan Rossi-Wilcox, Henri Reiling, and Philip Bisaga in the 2003 Journal of Glass Studies. He then invited renowned flameworkers Paul Stankard, Shane Fero, and Alex Hamilton to work with the lamp and to help him test its functionality.
Mech tables were used in the cottage industry for flameworking glass beads, buttons and figurines in Northern Bohemia (now Czech Republic) since the early 19th century. The Museum’s wooden table is equipped with a foot-operated bellows that acts as an air compressor, pushing air through two hollowed out wooden pipes built into the table. The crossed pipes have air outlets on all four sides of the table to allow up to four people to work around the bench. The air outlets are corked in each spot until needed.
A slot cut in the side of the table now holds Carson’s metal lamp. A specialized air manifold, or distributor, that holds five metal tubes, is plugged into the air outlet. All five are focused on a wick. The lamp is filled with alcohol and the wick is lit.
Created by the foot-operated bellows, fine streams of air passing through each of the tapered heads converge to create a combined flame hot enough to melt glass. The flame then hits a castiron tool called “the brick,” which holds glass rods. The tips of the rods sit in the lick of the flame, preheated for use.
On top of the brick sits a steel can that is sometimes filled with dry sand. Throughout the course of lampworking, the can and sand also are heated by the flame and hold the finished objects for annealing, or slow cooling. A second steel can is placed as a lid to cover the finished work at the end of a session.
Though called flameworking today, the process used at this table is better defined as lampworking, as the “torch” is really just a trained alcohol lamp.
As compared to modern torches, this process is “a lot more complicated and labor intensive,” says Carson. “It’s kind of like driving an old 1920s car instead of a modern Corvette. But, it certainly is exciting. We’re getting to show people what this era in glassmaking history entailed; how hard the people worked. It’s been a great experience.”