Wissmach celebrates 120 years of glassmaking

Company turns to MAMC apprenticeship partnership to enhance workers’ skills

West Virginia’s rich deposits of silica sand, lime and natural gas supplied more than 400 glass factories throughout the 20th century. Today, Mountain State glassmakers have dwindled to a handful of privately owned producers, manufacturers such as family-owned Paul Wissmach Glass Co. nestled along the Ohio River in Paden City.

One of just five colored sheet glass manufacturers that remain in North America, Wissmach is celebrating 120 years as a leading producer of architectural and decorative glass sold across the United States and around the world.

An intricate network of resellers in nearly 40 states and from Norway to New Zealand, China to the Czech Republic, Peru to Japan and more than 20 other countries in between, resells Wissmach’s glass for use in stained-glass windows, lighting, cabinetry, doors and a variety of other decorative purposes. In fact, 99 percent of its sales are outside of West Virginia and 40 percent are international exports.

“Our glass is used on the face of the clock in New York City’s Grand Central Station,” said Wissmach owner Jason Wilburn, who along with his wife Annabelle Javier purchased the company in 2021. “We also do a lot of work with the Church of Jesus Chris of Latter-day Saints, which continues to build cathedrals around the world and uses a lot of our glass for their stained-glass windows.”

While company representatives promote the glass at tradeshows and other events and leverage the business and export assistance provided by the West Virginia Development Office, the company relies heavily on its storied reputation.

“We primarily get new business through word of mouth from existing customers,” Wilburn explained. “Because we’ve been around for so long, most everybody in the art glass community, especially for stained glass and sheet glass, knows who we are.”

The distinct color palette and textures of Wissmach glass are achieved through century-old recipes that mix chemicals and compounds with limestone, soda ash and sand that’s heated to 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit in one of 13 natural-gas-powered brick furnaces. More than 40 people carefully mix the recipes, heat and anneal the glass and handle the finished products with care at the Wetzel County manufacturing facility.

Wilburn is proud to provide much needed jobs in the region, including offering second chances for individuals in substance abuse recovery and others with criminal backgrounds who need a second chance. The company also collaborates with Jobs and Hope, a state agency that works to provide meaningful employment to individuals in recovery.

“We don’t just want to fill open positions but actually help our employees succeed,” Wilburn said. “We do everything we can to see that they are successful.”

Wissmach recently turned to the Marshall Advanced Manufacturing Center’s (MAMC) Apprenticeship Works for assistance with its workforce needs. Apprenticeship Works helps manufacturers across West Virginia and more than 20 other states create customized apprenticeship programs in industrial occupations. The program is funded entirely through a U.S. Department of Labor grant.

To maintain and repair the specialized glass-making equipment – much of it more than 100 years old – Wissmach employs two maintenance workers, both of whom are approaching retirement age. “A couple more years and they’re going to be moving on, so we need to start identifying people on staff who already understand what we do and train them in the mechanic side as opposed to finding someone who is mechanical and training them in what we do.”

Jared Stewart is the first Wissmach industrial maintenance apprentice to participate in MAMC’s Apprenticeship Works partnership. The 2012 Paden City High School graduate and military veteran worked as a correctional officer, tow truck driver and mechanic before landing a job at Wissmach where he is known as a reliable and dependable member of the team.

The MAMC apprenticeship partnership provides a pathway for Stewart to learn to maintain not only the older equipment, but newer technology the company is installing that includes more electronics and advanced motor systems. Stewart’s apprenticeship involves on-the-job training and related online instruction to develop the requisite skills he needs to successfully perform industrial maintenance.

Wilburn witnessed the effectiveness of apprenticeships during his previous employment at a steel manufacturing facility in Pennsylvania.

“I used to work for a German company with U.S. operations and we had a lot of success with apprenticeship programs in the Pittsburgh area,” Wilburn said. “Apprenticeships provide a structure for teaching required skills. A small company like us doesn’t have a formal training program. [Apprenticeship Works] is a way for us to jumpstart that training.”

Wilburn hopes to enroll a second apprentice in the program when the incumbent worker graduates from high school later this year. And he’s considering adding a third.

“Wissmach is a true West Virginia gem, and we’re honored to assist the company in developing the skilled talent it needs to thrive,” said Carol Howerton, MAMC director of workforce development. “Like Wissmach, many manufacturers across the country are losing highly trained, highly skilled workers to retirement. Apprenticeship Works provides a systematic method for ensuring that the company’s internal core knowledge and related skills are passed on to the next generation of its workers.”

To learn more about Apprenticeship Works, visit www.mfg.marshall.edu/apprenticeships or contact Howerton at .

Learn more about Paul Wissmach Glass Company at www.wissmachglass.com. Factory tours are available by calling (304) 337-2253 at least two weeks before your scheduled visit. Wissmach also operates a factory outlet that is open weekdays from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. and Saturday’s 8 a.m. to noon where individuals can purchase many types of “leftover” glass.

May 1, 2024

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