MILTON, W.Va. — Blowing hard into a long, very narrow metal pipe with molten glass at the other end isn’t as easy as the professionals make it look.
You sputter and puff just to keep a steady stream of air flowing as you try to push the liquid glass into the mold. The experience gives one a real appreciation for the skill and effort that goes into making handblown glass objects. At Blenko Glass, employees have been making colorful collectible glass pieces since 1921.
“You have to want to work, and you have to want to be good at it to do this kind of work,” said Mark Davis, a 40-year Blenko veteran. He was working on an ornamental glass fish when a reporter visited the factory.
“We are happy to continue to operate here,” said Walter J. Blenko Jr. of Hampton, a retired lawyer and president of Blenko Glass.
He is the grandson of the founder, William J. Blenko. Along with his wife Patti, he travels to Milton several times a year to check on operations and sign pieces with a special etching tool.
“There has been a change in the industry that is almost unimaginable. There was a time when there were nearly 500 [handblown] glass factories in West Virginia,” he said. “We are now down to, I think, three-five, and we are one of them.”
His grandfather came to the United States in 1893 from London, bringing with him traditional techniques for making rondels, the round glass pieces used in very old leaded windows. He set up shop in Kokomo, Ind., using newfangled natural gas as fuel. Blenko was a one-man operation, making and selling the glass himself.
“He had several reversals before he ended up in Milton,” said his grandson.
American companies did not want to buy his glass because it was not made in Europe or England. So he went back to England to regroup and finally made a go of it in West Virginia. His son, William H. Blenko, married Marion Hunt of Hunt Stained Glass Studios in Pittsburgh. The couple moved to Milton in 1925 to help with the business.
Blenko Glass is in the windows of Heinz Chapel on the University of Pittsburgh campus. They contain 250,000 handblown pieces. The designer of the windows was master craftsman Charles Connick from Boston. Blenko Glass is also in the Rose window at Reims Cathedral in France.
“When the Great Depression came, churches were not interested in stained glass,” said Mr. Blenko.
So the company expanded into tableware such as vases, pitchers and tumblers. Its most popular product, a rectangular water bottle, is also the oldest. “We have been making them since 1938.”
Over the years, various artists have created specialty items for Blenko. Currently Emma Walters and Andrew Schaffer are the design team developing new heritage pieces. Mr. Schaffer is working on a prototype inspired by some of the mid-century modern pieces in the archives. To see a video of the artists at work, go to post-gazette.com.
“We are honored to be working with such a historic, well-known company,” said Mr. Schaffer.
At the end of the tour, Mr. Blenko sat down behind the counter in the glass shop to etch his name on the bottoms of vases, water bottles and paperweights sold that day. A crowd began to form around him.
“What a lucky day!” said one shopper whose arms were filled with vases, animals and window ornaments.
“We didn’t expect this!” said another excitedly.
“When they know he is going to be here, the line starts forming before the store opens,” Mrs. Blenko said.
Each year, the factory produces a limited-edition piece to celebrate the day West Virginia became a state. On June 16, people will line up to get a ticket to purchase the piece. There will be only 155 pieces to mark the number of years that West Virginia has existed.
“Once they are gone, that is it,” he said.
For information about tours and glass blowing, go to www.blenko.com.