Orwell Glass heats up workshops

ORWELL — According to John Chiles, Orwell Glass’s owner and chief glassblower, the newest and coolest thing to videotape on a GoPro is molten glass.
Chiles leads glassblowing workshops throughout the year at Orwell Glass’s space at the Maritime Museum in Orwell. The workshops are open to anyone with a curiosity about the craft. Many of these curious folk are children.
“We’ve had little kids show up, and they’ve got their Go-Pros on. It’s pretty fun,” Chiles said. “Most people have never been in a glass shop before, so they’re a little bit nervous, but they’re holding something that’s glowing, and you have to respond to it or it just falls on the floor. So it’s enthralling.”
Standing in front of a red-hot — 2,350-degrees to be exact — furnace this month, Chiles explained his work. The company has two sides. One is Orwell Glass, which welcomes intrigued outsiders to attend 20-minute workshops and make simple glass pieces to take home. The second is John Chiles Glass, in which Chiles designs colorful and quirky goblets, vases and bowls that he sells to high-end markets under his personal trademark.
In the classes, participants blow Christmas balls and stamp sun catchers in the color and design of their choosing. Recently, he taught a group to make glass ornaments for Christmas. Soon, Chiles hopes he will be able to expand his offerings to include more adult classes.
“You’d be amazed how many people sign up for our classes, and then they get here, and say, ‘This has been on my bucket list for so long,’” Chiles said. “So we’d have (different levels), because a lot of people will make a Christmas ball and a sun catcher, but then they want to make a tumbler. And then, of course, the next thing is a goblet, or a vase, or a bowl. And then we’d have date night, so you could go and make tumblers together and do stuff like that. That’s the ultimate goal.”   John Chiles holds one of his glassblown vases in his Orwell studio.
A true expert when it comes to glass, Chiles also makes equipment, like ovens and furnaces, that he sells to other glass manufacturers. He recently sent the makings of an entire craft shop to Bangkok, Thailand.
“We’re one of the only places in Addison County that loads containers and ships them to the east,” Chiles said. “We ship equipment to Shanghai, southern China… all over the place.”
Chiles also engineers tools that help other glass crafters create specialty products. Recently, he created a gadget that allows one of his customers to make lots of tiny glass octopi. Processes for making new products like this often involve weeks of design work, and the mental challenge that comes with it.
“Sometimes you have to say, ‘We’re in way too deep right now, we should just turn it all off and go rethink what we’re doing,’” Chiles said. “It’s hard to model it — you can’t just use cardboard and some foam. It’s gotta come out of the furnace, and it’s gotta be the right temperature. We have different glasses that we melt depending on what the project is.”
But Chiles said he wouldn’t rather be doing anything else. He discovered glassblowing in the early ‘80s while teaching woodworking at a community college in Pennsylvania. Ever since then, he said, he’s been hooked. From the beginning, Chiles made glassblowing his full-time gig. Though his equipment business pays the bills, his favorite thing to do is sit in the shop making bowls and vases.
And it’s even better when he can share his passion with the public.
“People are happy,” Chiles said. “Most people don’t have any attachment to the physical world — picking something up and putting it in the wood stove, or cooking — that’s about as close as some people get. But actually making something they’re going to have around that’s going to last for generations, most people don’t have that kind of experience. So when they get to do that, they’re pretty excited about it.”

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