MAMC helps Blenko preserve handcrafted legacy

Perhaps nothing says Blenko Glass Company like the iconic 384 Water Bottle, a favorite of collectors since production began during The Great Depression. With its dimpled sides and double spouts, the bottle is one of the most recognizable and desirable pieces of handblown glassware on the market.

Blenko artisans continue to produce the bottles the old-fashion way: placing globs of molten glass in iron molds, hand blowing the glass to fit the molds then using a tool called the Clapper to hold the flat-bottom bottles as workers trim away the excess glass and reheat the top portion to carefully shape the spouts.

Like a lot of tools at Blenko’s Milton factory, the Clapper is an improvised device invented out of necessity through what company officials jovially refer to as our “redneck engineering.”

“We’ve been making the 384 Water Bottle since 1938, and some of our existing tools certainly look like it,” said Dave Wertz, vice president of manufacturing. “We’ve been in desperate need to not only recreate the design files (of the clapper and other tools), but to future-proof ourselves by owning and archiving the design files so that we can continue for at least another 100 years.”

Blenko recently partnered with the Marshall Advanced Manufacturing Center (MAMC) to reengineer the Clapper, working with MAMC Design Engineer Morgan Smith to tweak the design and create computer-aided files to manufacture the device.

Smith deconstructed one of the long-serving clappers, reverse engineered the parts, created a 3D computer model, then made modifications to infuse the design with a bit of 21st century ingenuity. He next worked with other members of the MAMC team to machine and weld the Clapper 2.0.

“The changes between our old and new clappers are small but critical – obviating the need to unnecessarily bend and torque the steel to achieve the (desired) opening of the clapper,” said James Arnett, Blenko creative director.

The Clapper is just one of several projects on which Blenko is collaborating with MAMC. The storied glassmaker has enlisted MAMC to produce replacement pipe heads for its blowpipes from 4140 alloy steel – which is strong and wear-resistant – and to create a custom mold for a new glass creation – the Moon Critter.

Blenko artisans sculpted the half-moon critter from clay, fired it to harden the design, then worked with MAMC’s Smith to scan the positive and construct a digital negative. MAMC Machinist James Mohr then machined the mold from high-quality aluminum. “The result is a delightful new critter – our first one in a long while – and the result of a terrific local partnership!” Arnett said.

Wertz said collaborating with MAMC just made sense.

“Being a Marshall (University) graduate and vice president of manufacturing at Blenko Glass, this was a real no-brainer for us,” Wertz explained. “We were seeking partners to help Blenko preserve our handcrafted legacy, one that would work closely with us and allow us to grow with them. Honestly, cost wasn’t a real factor – service, reputation and proximity were crucial for us.”

Blenko also is collaborating with new artists and designers to, as Wertz described it, “begin to tell the story of Appalachia with Blenko’s glass.” One such collaborator is Ravenswood native Don Pendleton, a Marshall University alum and renowned artist known for his skateboard graphics, “organic Cubism” style of paintings and drawings, and his Grammy Award-winning design of the packaging of rock band Pearl Jam’s 10th studio album, Lightning Bolt.

Pendleton, who credits Blenko’s mid-century designs with influencing his style, created suncatchers and bookends with owl motifs, which have quickly become big sellers for Blenko.

“Don Pendleton is one of the many artists who have roots and stories to tell in Appalachia, and we’re proud to work with him to do just that! Wertz said. “Don’s line of work and style is a natural fit for our glass, and we had a gut feeling it would turn out great. It turned out even better than we could have imagined. The suncatchers and bookends have sold extremely well – so much so that we’ll soon be turn an entire melt of glass into a batch of owl bookends in order to meet demand.”

To increase production and leverage the advantages of new technology, Blenko also has been making investments in its Milton manufacturing facility. The company recently installed a new lehr (an oven to heat glass then cool it slowly) that will cut the annealing process from five hours to one and significantly reduce the company’s natural gas bill because of its efficiency and modern technology. In addition, the company built three new furnaces that will be operational soon. “We’ll have over 4,000 pounds of additional glass capacity, nearly 40 percent more than we currently have,” Wertz said.

Meanwhile, Blenko’s 72 employees (up from 28 at the end of the Covid-19 pandemic) are busy preparing for its annual West Virginia Day celebration, which will include new glass shapes and partnerships that salute West Virginia’s impact on space exploration. In addition, on August 21, Blenko will celebrate the opening of New Blenko Now, an exhibit at Marshall’s Birke Art Gallery, which will feature live glassblowing at Pullman Square in downtown Huntington.

For information on everything Blenko, including its product line, history and upcoming events, visit the website at www.blenko.com.

May 31, 2024

 

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