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Shattering Glass Myths, Part 3 of 3

Updated: Jan 31, 2021

In the final installment of this inaugural 3-part series, I'll look at two more glass myths that need to be debunked.

Myth # 5: “Coldworking” Glass is Cold

Can you tell hot glass from cold glass just by looks? If it’s clear or otherwise looks like normal glass, it’s safe to touch, right? NO. In fact, you can find the following maxim on lists of lab safety rules (no matter the lab), coffee mugs, mousepads, and in classroom curricula: HOT GLASS LOOKS LIKE COLD GLASS. It’s one of the first things anyone working with glass must stuff into his or her brain. And it’s sometimes painfully true.

The technical reason glass can be very hot and yet look safe to touch is glass's molecular structure is amorphous (or, put another way, it’s not regular or crystalline). That makes it a very poor conductor of heat: It stays hot for a long time. There’s probably no better example of this principle at work than this great video from the Corning Museum of Glass, which I love. (You’ll see why.)

When we say we’re going to “coldwork” glass, in general, it encompasses two very different states depending on whether you are a kiln-former or a torchworker (or glassblower). The term does imply the glass being worked or manipulated in the finishing process is cold, or at least safe to touch. And in kiln-forming finishing processes, that’s usually true: we finish our glass after it has cooled to room temperature, so grinding off edges, cutting, using a lap, or even gluing other items or glass to the piece is generally safe at least from the standpoint of heat. Glassblowers and torchworkers, however, tend to use the term “coldworking” or “cold” to simply mean the glass is no longer yellow, red, or orange-hot. As the video above illustrates so well, glass below 1,000 degrees F looks like glass at room temperature—quite normal. But it will inflict a serious burn if touched. That’s the main reason why visitors to any glass studio / work area should be cautioned about touching any pieces. If you haven’t yet looked at the video to see what else “cold” glass can do, check it out.

Myth # 6: Glass Art Costs Too Much

This is a difficult myth to shatter in a short blog post, but I’m going to try. There are, as I see it, two main reasons for this misperception:

1. Glass itself is common. It’s everywhere we look: windows, automobiles, in the kitchen, pharmacy, electronics—try to find an industry or part of your life that doesn’t entail glass in some form. It’s as common as sand, which is the major ingredient in most glass batches (See part 2 of this series.) We tend to think that something so plentiful should be cheap.

2. Artists often don’t—or shouldn’t—charge for their time. I’ve actually heard people say, “Well, you’re an artist. You love doing this. It’s not really fair to charge for doing something you love.” What?? (I have to hate it to charge?)

To address the first point, art glass is not cheap. Certain sheets of glass can cost as much as $350 for not quite 5 square feet. Part of this price is directly related to art glass maker Bullseye’s struggles with the Oregon Dept. of Environmental Quality over the last 4 years, which has driven the costs of its sheet glass up around 12% as it had to comply with new environmental regulations (though Bullseye was not at fault). The Oregon DEQ also forced two other art-glass makers out of business, which has limited availability of art glass, a problem that still persists. Had the Oregon DEQ succeeded in closing Bullseye as well, an entire industry might have collapsed, and art glass prices would have surely skyrocketed as demand outstripped supply in short order. Thankfully, that did not happen, but as it is, artists are usually passing price increases on only in a modest way when pricing their works.

For point two, why can’t artists charge for their time? The general, common wisdom or advice given to many beginning artists (not just glass artists) is that the artist should factor in his or her time spent creating the piece (as well as overhead such as kiln time, phone, utilities, etc.). Plumbers, electricians, doctors, and mechanics all charge the customer for their labor and overhead. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ May 2018 Mean Hourly wage for Fine Artists (professional level) is listed at over $28/hr., so it doesn’t take long to realize that labor-intensive pieces could easily cost quite a lot. Is that a bad thing? I don’t think so—unless the market the artist is in cannot support that price. Then the artist has some tough decisions to make—or defend—or must find clients that can and will lay down more for a piece. LA-based online site gyst (I love the acronym’s explanation) advocates careful but firm and informed pricing for professional artists. And even if a glass artist isn’t yet “professional,” his or her time is still worth something per hour. So if you’re not adding in your time in some fashion to the cost of a piece, you are cheating yourself.

There are other considerations, too, but in the end, both of the above factors are related to a sort of “familiarity” fault—it’s just glass, and that’s only Jane Soandso—how much can it really be worth?

Those are tough presumptions—the kind that any artist needs to think about when attaching a price to his or her works of art. I struggle with this issue, as I’m sure many other readers do, too. Art has always been seen as extravagant by many people. But to the artist, it’s a necessary part of his or her well-being and becoming. I submit, therefore, that art glass works are usually priced too low.

Next month, we'll look at a brief history of colored (and clear) glass, as well as what makes it the colors we see. It's fascinating.

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