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UK's Glassblower Combines Art with Science

by Jeff Worley

Jeff Babbitt, in a basement room of the chemistry-physics building, turns a mysterious-looking glass object on the glassblowing lathe, sweat beading on his forehead from the constant tongue of orange-blue flame that heats the glass.

"This is a rotary evaporation condensing unit," he explains, "which is used to distill high-boiling solvents. One of the hose connections broke off, so I need to put a new one on." This is a routine job for Babbitt, the chemistry department's resident glassblower. He builds or repairs from 1,000 to 2,000 pieces of glasswork a year for UK faculty.

"About 75 percent of my work is for researchers in chemistry and physics," says Babbitt, who came to UK from the University of Michigan in 1989, "though I do get requests from other departments, too." The typical equipment he builds or repairs includes vacuum manifolds, rotary evaporation traps, Schlenk flasks, and solvent distillation heads.

Photo of Jeff BabbittBabbitt starts his various jobs with straight tubing and fitting which he buys from suppliers, but he does all the tricky--and sometimes dangerous--work himself. Sitting at his workbench beside what looks like a welder's torch erupting with blue flame, Babbitt holds up a foot-long cylinder with four valves attached to it. "This is a vacuum manifold system," he says. "For someone in the chemistry department here to buy something like this from a catalog would cost anywhere from $300 to $500. I can make this for the cost of material, and there's no labor cost involved since I work at the university. So this piece ends up costing about $120."

A vacuum manifold system falls into the category of "standard requests," but Babbitt also gets quite a few requests for pieces that are highly specialized and unique. Researchers often come to him with a rough drawing of what they need, and Babbitt will take it from there.

"In planning sessions like this, you have to be a lot more than a glassblower," he explains. "You need to know a little bit about metallurgy, you need to know some chemistry and stress factors of the material because you'll be working with very precise measurements. Glassblowing is a fine line between being an artist and being a mechanical engineer."

An essential part of the job, Babbitt says, is the mental preparation necessary before he blows the first breath into a pocket of molten glass. He says he builds the object four or five times in his head before he actually sits down to work, and tries to imagine every possible thing that could go wrong. "Once you've started and gotten the glass hot, you can't stop until you're done. You can't go off and talk on the phone for a while."

And there's the added pressure of nearing completion on a job when something unexpectedly breaks. "Things don't always work out. My theory on glassblowing is that things never go wrong until you're almost finished with the job. You can have 12 hours in a piece and 'pop!' something breaks and you have to start all over again."

Jack Selengue, a professor in UK's chemistry department, says Babbitt is indispensible to him and many of his colleagues. "Jeff has built virtually all of our vacuum lines and Schlenkware. He is able to build to our exact specifications, and often helps us design our apparatus. Jeff has modified many pieces of standard bench-top glassware, such as quartz cells for spectroscopy, with glass joints or stopcocks for inert atmosphere use. He even custom-builds our Dewar flasks (silvered 'thermos' bottles)."

Selengue adds that Babbitt is one of the top scientific glassblowers in the United States and that a major benefit of having him in the department is saving time. "Commercial glassware can take over a week to receive, even when it's in stock. Custom glassware can take months. Jeff can help us out quickly, sometimes the same day in emergency situations. He can also do on-the-spot repairs, seal glass sample tubes and do many other small jobs which we just couldn't get done without an on-site glassblower."

Babbitt has been a glassblower for over 20 years and learned, as many glassblowers have learned, from his father. "I grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where my father worked as a glassblower, so I've been around it all my life," Babbitt says. "I started doing a little work with Dad when I was in junior high school and ended up doing my more formal apprenticeship in the chemistry department at the University of Michigan."

"Was I surprised my son went into glassblowing? Well, yes, I guess I was at first," says Babbitt's father Joel from his shop, Blue Dot Limited Inc., in Lexington, South Carolina. "I didn't know he was that interested until one day after high school he announced that he really wanted to get into it." Joel Babbitt says that Jeff "progressed very rapidly" in the art and seemed to have a natural talent for glassblowing.

When asked whether the son had reached the father's level of proficiency as a glassblower (Joel has invested over 40 years in the trade), Joel unhesitatingly says, "Oh, yes. Yes, indeed."

As rewarding as this work is, it's not without its dangers. Jeff Babbitt says that he's been both burnt and cut several times.

"I almost cut my finger off once," he says, adding that he had to have immediate microsurgery to sew the nerve back together after a "scoring accident" with a piece of tubing. And along the line of accidents Babbitt lists one final talent a glassblower needs to be successful--agility. "You learn to move real quickly when hot glass is coming at you."