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The underrated art of scientific glassblowing

Newly appointed Fellow of the British Society of Scientific Glassblowers, Phil Jones tells us what it’s like being the University’s only glassblower.

Phil holding up his prize-winning glassblowing piece.
Phil and one of his prize-winning pieces

I’ve been scientific glassblowing at the University of Bath for 17 years, and for 37 years in total. I specialise in the design, repair and manufacture of scientific glassware for research and teaching labs. I work across faculties but my main client is the Department of Chemistry.

How did you get into glassblowing?

I started out at Birmingham University in 1982 as a glassblowing trainee. When my trainer and mentor considered I was of sufficient standard, he retired. I then took over the workshop and had a trainee of my own. Training to become a University standard glassblower takes about six to eight years.

Whilst I was in Birmingham, I joined the British Society of Scientific Glassblowers (BSSG). After 20 years in Birmingham, an opportunity arose to move to Bath. I then became the BSSG council representative for the University and Western area.

Tell me about your newest achievement. What’s it like being made a Fellow of the British Society of Scientific Glassblowers?

I was very proud to be awarded with the Fellowship. It’s a global achievement, and I believe only the 23rd person in the World to be made a Fellow. It came as a pleasant but complete surprise though! I’ve been involved with BSSG in various ways since 1994. We meet three to four times a year for social events, to conduct BSSG council and Board of Examiner duties and for various demonstrations and workshop sessions in scientific glassblowing. As well as being a council member, I'm now treasurer and most recently an examiner, where I invigilate practical and written work for each stage of the trainee scientific glassblower course.

What does it take to be a scientific glassblower?

I would say the main qualities needed are manual dexterity and hand-eye coordination, which can definitely take a lot of practice. There’s a lot of trial and error involved with this practice, particularly in the early stages of training, and it requires a lot of patience and perseverance. Also be prepared to work in extremely hot conditions; I remember a summer where it was 54 degrees Celsius in my workshop! There are occasional pitfalls like burnt fingers but with perseverance and practice, you’ll be amazed by what you can produce.

What do you like most about glassblowing?

I really like the notion that this piece of glassware I’ve produced could help the next scientific breakthrough. My preference is to make custom, bespoke glassware.

I enjoy having to think up techniques involved in making more complex bits of glassware and anything with internal seals. Pieces can take me a few minutes or hours to make, but more complicated pieces can take me up to three days. Then there is the annealing stage, which brings these complex pieces together in 565 degrees Celsius temperatures. I use special glassblowing spectacles that block out the sodium or UV glare from the open flame, so I can see the glass I am manipulating more clearly.

Where do you see the future of scientific glassblowing?

Scientific glassware is used in all kinds of lab environments, and there is still a need for it, generally in the form of smaller more complex pieces as opposed to larger lab-filling structures I used to create.

With very basic scientific glassware there is a certain amount of semi-automation, however for the foreseeable future there will be a demand for bespoke items.

There is research looking into 3D printing of glassware, but this is limited in its use; it’s not as versatile, chemically inert and thermally impervious as the scientific glasses presently used. Although, if 3D printed glassware becomes the next big thing, it's definitely a technique I'd be keen to learn!