This article is part two of a three-part series.
Whenever an American glass artist creates any hole or slit in a pipe, such as the mouthpiece or the holes on a percolator, they create a hole while the glass is hot, using standard glass working tools. The pipe then is annealed and the result is a very solid piece of glass. On the other side of the Pacific, manufacturers often use band saws, drills, and other power tools to create slits and holes in glass while the pipe is at room temperature, after it has already been shaped and cooled. Grinding away at glass like this, while it is at room temperature, creates a network of micro-fractures around the area, greatly increasing residual stress in the glass and damaging the structural integrity of the whole piece.
Sometimes foreign manufacturers will also use second-hand equipment that was intended for other jobs such as metal or stonework – not proper glass-working tools. For example, using an industrial lathe built for metalworking that was never intended for use with glass working. However, alas, second-hand tools are much cheaper than new ones, even if the tools have to be cleaned up and re-purposed a little.
This is not to say that power tools should never be used – some American glass professionals are known to use power tools. Often, this is called ‘cold-working’. When done properly, it usually involves an expensive diamond-edged saw or drill bit, and is followed up with an annealing session or flame polishing to resolve the residual stress.
If foreign manufacturers would do some flame polishing on any cold-worked sections, it would really go a long way. Instead, many of the sawed slits and drilled holes are left untouched. As a result, they often have sharp edges, rough patches, or shards of glass that are barely attached and eventually break off during use. Oftentimes, one can even find glass dust collected inside a pipe, left over from these processes. The unwitting smoker often inhales this dust. Glass dust can cause bleeding, silicosis and even lung cancer. This is just another example of the shortcuts taken to cut costs, with no regard to human health, let alone product quality and customer satisfaction. After all, there is no law against selling cheap products, and any consumers who want to complain are far, far away in another country and have no options other than to buy or not buy these foreign glass products.
In the United States and other developed countries, glass blowing is a skilled profession that incorporates an apprenticeship system. That is, if you want to become a glassblower, you need to find someone who is already a skilled glassblower who is willing to apprentice you. This involves on-the-job training, full one-on-one lessons, quality assessments, and more. After developing their talents, many of these trained glass blowers set up their own studio with their own equipment, and begin trying to make a name for their selves. In this way, many pipe makers are actually becoming early stage entrepreneurs, determining their own hours and controlling how much money they make.
In glass pipe factories overseas, it is a very different situation. Labor is the key ingredient in glass pipes, so to make them cheap, one must have cheap labor. Overseas manufacturers often use cramped factories that are set up and designed solely for profit. Workers work in small stations and are given quotas. Incredibly low wages are paid and workers are forced to work long and unreasonable hours in sweatshop conditions. Often, there are fumes and other toxins in the air, which are inhaled by the employees and potentially contaminating the products as well. Worker safety is not a priority; only profit is the priority. The poor work environments in these low-cost labor countries are no secret. There are a significant number of deaths and injuries every year.
Every time you buy a pipe made in America, you are helping to put food on the table of a local artist and investing in your community and in the glass pipe movement. As Salt Glass has said, “The reason we call it a spoon is it helps feed our families.” Whom would you rather help support, a corporation that exploits the poor and is only in the industry to make a profit, or an American pipe maker who has dedicated their life to the craft?
End of Part 2
(This article is part two of a three-part series. Click here to continue to part 3.)