On the Oregon Coast, creating a work of glass art is a bucket-list favorite, and there’s plenty of places to make that happen. But recent weeks have stressed some mom-and-pop glassblowing studios to the point of, well, a meltdown. It seems there’s just not enough glass to go around.
Robin and William Murphy, owners of the Oregon Coast Glassworks in Newport, ran into problems earlier this month when they tried to buy a new supply of “cullet” glass – furnace-ready recycled glass pellets that glassblowers turn into floats, bowls, and other art. There was “no glass anywhere available for purchase,” Robin Murphy said. Nor would there be any until November, they were told. The shortage seems to be the culmination of stricter environmental laws, which led to a cutback in suppliers, compounded most recently by heavy demands on an overseas supplier.
The Murphys have launched a fundraising raffle – of a glass sea turtle crafted by William – to help finance a new furnace that will melt “batch,” a pelletized powder that is an alternative to cullet. It requires a natural gas furnace or what’s known in the industry as a “moly” (short for molybdenum) furnace – a piece of equipment that generally comes with a price tag ranging from $30,000 to $50,000. The Murphys have a less expensive wire-melt furnace, but it doesn’t get hot enough to melt batch.
“We’re the little kids on the block,” William Murphy said. “Our systems can only melt glass that has been turned into little pellets. Bigger companies can melt batch. Batch is a Betty Crocker cake mix – you have to add cake and temperature and time. Cullet is like a Lunchable. You just melt it and use it.”
Oregon Coast Glassworks isn’t the only small shop facing the shortage. The Edge Art Gallery in South Beach is also experiencing it, as is the Lincoln City Glass Center. One of the largest of the dozen or so glassblowers on the central and north Coast with 21 employees, the Glass Center does have a “moly” furnace, capable of melting batch or cullet. Owner and glass artist Kelly Howard prefers to use cullet, but she also has been unable to get any.
Most glassblowers agree that the problem can be traced to 2016, when the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality and the federal Environmental Protection Agency imposed stricter regulations on glass manufacturers, ultimately prompting the closure of two major suppliers. One was Spectrum, based in Woodinville, Wash., which supplied glass products for 40 years to many Pacific Northwest artists. Bullseye Glass Co. of Portland survived the crack-down, but does not provide the type of glass used by glass blowers.
With Spectrum gone, glass blowing studios turned to a German manufacturer, Cristalica, which is distributed through Olympic Color Rods, headquartered in Seattle. But this summer, Cristalica failed to keep up with demand, in part because of the heavy use of existing equipment.
Howard said she heard the German company had a furnace go down a couple of weeks ago “and didn’t give anyone a warning. They said there is no more, and what they had was all given to the big companies. All of the rest us didn’t get any.”
That leaves Howard to work with batch material, which she says is much more labor intensive than cullet. Simply put, glassblowers begin by gathering glass from the furnace on 3-foot steel rods. Each layer is cooled, then more glass is added. Color is applied on a steel table or in melted bars. An initial bubble is started by trapping air into the pipe. The blower keeps the glass in constant motion, spinning it on the end of the pipe. The artist controls shape and form using wooden blocks, air, centrifugal force, and gravity.
The batch cooks at 2,350 degrees, Howard said, and takes a total of 20 hours. “I’m used to putting the cullet in at night and it’s ready in the morning. It’s already had a toll, people are going to stay up all night putting in 50 pounds every two hours, and then you have to cook it for eight hours, and then after you cook it, you have to squeeze the bubbles out by turning the temperature down, and then you can use it. We won’t have as much glass, and we’ll have higher labor costs.”
Earlier this week, the cullet shortage caused Howard to pull all the clear glass from both her galleries and melt it down – “perfectly good pieces, just to keep the furnace full of glass,” she said. She added that the shortage and rearranging work hours to operate the furnace all night is going to cost her thousands of dollars — and cost her staff income — during the gallery’s busiest season.
Phil O’Reilly, owner of Olympic Color Rods, confirmed that the German manufacturer had some trouble earlier this summer, but he said, “That’s over. We’re getting like two containers a week, but it takes five weeks to get to Seattle. It is going to get better.”
The Murphys aren’t taking any chances. They’re raffling off a green glass sea turtle crafted by William and valued at $3,250 to raise funds to buy a “moly” furnace. They’ve found a slightly used one in Arizona for $20,000. Early next month, the pair will head south to pick it up. And glass blowing on the Oregon Coast will go on.
“That’s why we say we’re the smile factory,” Robin Murphy said. “People come in, figure out what they want to do and the next morning when they come in and pick up their finished piece, it’s like Christmas.”
Raffle tickets for the sea turtle are available for $50 here or by calling the studio at 541-574-8226. The winner will be chosen Sept. 2. No more than 500 tickets will be sold, the Murphys said.