Emily Rice Published

Inside Appalachia: From Sand To Hand With Blenko Glass’ Wood Mold Maker

An older factory worker with a long white beard lays out wood carving tools on a brown table.
Daniel Chapman, Blenko Glass' mold maker lays out his wooden tools on his workbench.
Emily Rice/WVPB

In an era of speed, algorithms, and increasing automation, Blenko Glass holds true to its ethos: handmade “from sand to hand.”

Blenko Glass’ creative director, James Arnett, describes the process as an art. 

“Blenko is unique in being handmade, but especially unique still being handmade in 2023,” he said.

He said the process includes the careful steps of workers in the shop’s dance of molten glass, heat and classic wooden molds.

“(The) glassblowing process is magical, it’s alchemical, it’s intense to watch, right, there are seven moving bodies per shop, each one doing a different task that makes the glass from sand to hand, as we call it,” Arnett said.

In a workshop with so many vital pairs of hands, one pair touches most everything in the shop: the shop’s wood mold maker, Daniel Chapman.

“But the reason that Daniel Chapman is so important, right, is that he is, he’s the man where the rubber hits the road, right? So it goes from paper, but it has to go into a mold, right? And that’s a cornerstone of our glassblowing process,” Arnett said.

Like most workers at Blenko Glass, Chapman just needed a job when he was hired on at 18 years old.

“Nobody came to glass for glass,” Arnett said. “Not here. We all came from other corners of the world, or just because we needed a job. And we had the sort of thrill and privilege of being able to come into this environment and pick up a trade, a craft and an art.”

Chapman worked with his mentor, Robert Smith for about five years before taking over the woodshop.

“It starts off with a pattern, like you can see down the wall behind you here,” Chapman said. “That is stuff we have made down through the years. To start something new, a customer might send in a piece of glass and say, ‘I want this duplicated.’ So I sketch the whole thing out and make a mold that fits their piece of glass. Sometimes somebody comes up with a new idea, sometimes I come up with ideas on my own. You draw it out on paper first, it is cardboard paper, so you cut that out. I go outside and get the piece of wood I’ll need, cut it and just start carving.”

A wooden mold for glass making purposes is shown with its traceable pattern.
Daniel Chapman holds up a paper outline of the wood mold carved in the background.

Emily Rice/WVPB

“I’ll pull up at 7:30, a little earlier than normal,” Arnett said. “I’ll see Daniel Chapman standing in the parking lot with the chainsaw have enough to cherry wood trees that we’ve drug into the backlog back there. He’s already got an idea in his head of how big that piece is gonna have to be. And so he takes that chainsaw to that tree and cuts off that that first bit of it right it looks just like a stump.”

Arnett said each mold is a benchmark by which to form the pieces. All pieces start as a blob of molten glass which is attached to a long hollow metal pole. A blower blows into the pole, creating a pocket of air in the blob of molten glass.

“So the thing about the way that wooden molds work is that when the blower inflates the glass within the cherry wood mold, which has been soaking and is wet, it creates a pocket of steam on the inside of the form of that mold that the glass rides, right,” Arnett said. “So as the blower spins that pipe with that hot, unformed mass with the air behind it in that mold, it creates a pocket where the glass doesn’t even really touch the edge of the wood. And it creates a sort of a negative space around it that allows it to take its form, our wood molds would burn out really fast if we didn’t have that sort of centripetal technology behind our blowing.”

Chapman not only conceives of and creates wooden molds but keeps everyone’s tools in working order.

“It’s really neat to watch Daniel Chapman interact with our shop floor on a daily basis,” Arnett said. “He will come up to watch to make sure that our new molds are being blown in well, accurately, responsibly. He’ll take a look at the health of our molds. He’ll take a look at the health of our tools to make sure that they’re still effective, they’re still clean, they still work to the purpose that they were cut to. His cumulative wisdom about how glass is blown from the side of working wood really informs the way that we do everything on our hot shop floor.”

A man with a long white beard and wearing work overalls sits at a workbench.
Daniel Chapman has made the wooden molds that Blenko Glass makes for its handmade glassware.

Emily Rice/WVPB

Blenko Glass uses its wooden molds differently from other studios, allowing them to soak for years so they can be used over and over again.

“So it’s a legacy he’s making not just sort of the form in which the glass goes but he’s making an artifact every single time that has a long life in our hands,” Arnett said. “It reminds us to that nothing here it goes to waste. Everything that we make that we use, has multiple purposes as cross purposes has been reclaimed, refashion and reformed or refurbished in some way.”

Chapman takes a two-dimensional drawing and creates an outline of the piece with cardboard and uses those dimensions to carve out the negative space for the piece.

“You stack the pieces up, of course this one is warped where it has dried out,” Chapman said. “But you stack the two pieces up, and find your center, follow that center line all the way through and then these two, the tab right there goes center to center and you draw both pieces, and you start carving and you carve until it is done.”

Ever the humble craftsman, Chapman is sure to let Arnett know he works with dimensions on the patterns lining the walls.

All of these patterns got the dimension on there, the size of the piece it takes to make it,” Chapman said.

Chapman said he enjoys the hard work he has put into the shop each day for almost 40 years.

“I’ve always enjoyed what I do, it is hard work but I worked other jobs here before I came to the mould shop,” Chapman said. “I worked the flattener, made sheet stained glass windows. They don’t do that anymore because the demand left us. I worked the flattener for a few years, I drove trucks for a little while. I started here about 35 years ago making molds and I’ve been doing it ever since.”

Chapman also said that the modernization of his craft, even the addition of metal molds instead of wood, would take away from Blenko’s credibility as handmade.

“It gives it more character for one thing, metal molds we gotta do a process to them, we gotta paste them, bake them in the oven, pour sawdust inside, to actually give it a wooden surface on the inside,” Chapman said. “And a wood mold used will burn out, it will eventually burn out and you’ll have to make another one.”

Wood pieces and pieces of tree bark are shown laying in a basin.
Scrap pieces of wood await Blenko Glass’ next project for a mold.

Emily Rice/WVPB

While the wooden mold may burn out, Chapman said he can create a new one from scratch within days.

“Metal molds, one thing it is very expensive getting them cast and machined and you gotta wait two or three months to get the process done, and a wood mold, two days and I can have you a new mold,” Chapman said.

While Chapman touches most everything in Blenko Glass, his actual wood molds are available for sale as well.

“I take some of them, sand them down and get all the black off of them, get them real pretty and varnish them and we send them down to the visitor’s center,” Chapman said.

A cleaned a finished wood mold is shown in Blenko Glass' gift shop.
A cleaned, varnished and finished Daniel Chapman wood mold is shown in Blenko Glass’ gift shop.

Emily Rice/WVPB

“Down into our visitor center on any given day, and there’s a half of a molds down there, that Daniel Chapman has handcut,” Arnett said. “And then also hand polished, and hand veneered and varnished and brought down there and cured. We keep them up here for a while to make sure that they’re nice and clean and beautiful. And it comes out in this really, richly patina wood, because it shows the evidence of its use, but it shows every bit of the evidence of its making to not just as a usable object, but then also as a decor object, right? So thinking of putting it on display next to the piece that you have completed from that mould, is a really cool thing.”

“Well, I don’t know, it kind of swells your head a little bit sometimes but I try not to, I’m just me, ain’t nothing special about me,” Chapman said.

Chapman is a cornerstone of the Blenko Glass factory and the through line through which all glass moves, from sand to hand.