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Glassblowing isn’t just art — it’s scientific craft

February 11, 2008

“This is just stunning,” says Tracy Drier as he lifts a glass sculpture out of a tall, wood cabinet. The sculpture, crafted from more than a dozen sections of glass tubes and rods that bend and twist, and are flawlessly sealed inside each other, could rival any piece from artist Dale Chihuly. But, as Drier points out, the object he holds is not for art museums — it’s for chemistry labs.

Drier, the only scientific glassblower on campus, builds glassware for the cutting-edge science conducted in UW–Madison’s chemistry department.

“Because they’re working on such new things, a lot of the equipment the researchers need doesn’t already exist,” explains Drier. “This glass shop is where it all begins.”

Although he spent the early years of his career as an engineer in the paper industry, Drier has always been attracted to glassblowing. “When I was little, my father took a class in it at a community college, he recalls. “He’d come home, and we’d make little mice and hollow swans filled with colored water.” These early experiences must have left an impression, because both Drier and his brother are in the business of blowing glass for the scientific community.

“The techniques I use are the same ones the glassblowers in the art department use,” explains Drier, standing over a machine that slowly twirls glass tubes and rods as he shapes them under a flame.

When researchers need a piece of glassware, they’ll come to Drier with a drawing — sometimes sketched in pencil, sometimes designed by computer.

Drier then works with his clients to understand their needs. “The researchers tell me what they want, and I tell them what I am able to do,” he explains. “It’s an interactive process.”

Says UW–Madison chemist Shannon Stahl, one of Drier’s most frequent customers, “He combines our concepts and needs, and utilizes his skill to come up with an innovative design.”

Drier and Stahl have developed a special kind of vacuum system called the “Wisconsin Schlenk Line.” Constructing each component separately, Drier will take the pieces to the chemist’s lab and install them under a fume hood, where researchers will study chemical reactions in a contaminant-free environment. Drier describes the system as “beautiful.”

“Tracy’s a real go-getter,” says Stahl. “The [Wisconsin Schlenk Line] wouldn’t have been possible without him. Besides being creative, he has an appreciation for what chemists do.”

Because chemistry studies the reactions between molecules when they meet, Drier says it’s often necessary for chemists to conduct their experiments in an air-free environment.

“Many reactions die in the presence of oxygen or water,” Stahl adds.

Given this, much of what Drier builds are vacuum systems that remove air and other molecules from the glassware.

When Drier isn’t inventing chemistry equipment, he’s repairing it. “Repairing is a big part of what I do,” he says. Fixing broken vacuum lines, he adds, often takes priority over developing new ones. “If one of the lines isn’t working, the researcher’s experiment is on hold until it’s up and running again.”

Whether mending a crack in a piece of glass or creating something entirely new, Drier uses skillful precision to deliver the goods.

“The ultimate goal of any project is to make it look like it was made from one piece of glass,” says Drier. To do this, he uses flame torches to melt pieces of glass tubes and rods so they’re malleable enough for him to seal them together, twist into right angles or poke holes through.

When Drier isn’t blowing glass in the chemistry shop, he’s blowing glass at his home studio. Here, his role shifts from “craftsman” to “artist.”

At his studio, he works with glass and metal to make jewelry, sculptures and intricate goblets. Drier says it’s not unusual for him to spend the entire weekend working on his artistic projects. Even when he travels home to his parents’ place in Michigan, he sits with his brother and father at the workshop bench, where they make glass objects.

“When I was an engineer, I didn’t come home and design things,” he says. “What I did at work and at home were world’s apart. Now, there’s this huge continuum in my life, and I love it.”