The U’s scientific glassblower melds science and artistry into his work.
Photos by Stephen Speckman
Kevin Teaford learned what it could really mean to be a glassblower during an otherwise ordinary week in the early 1990s.
At the time, Teaford was working for a glassworks in northern California that made a wide range of custom glass products, including brain and lung models used for medical training. When he got the work order for a bifurcated aneurysm model, a product he built all the time, he assumed it was for a routine training purpose. But the order for this model had very specific requirements, and, he recalls, “I was told to drop all other jobs, because this had to be ready and out the door before noon.”
After Teaford quickly built and checked the model, it was sent by chartered plane to a doctor on the East Coast. The doctor then ordered another one the next day, with slightly different specifications. It turned out that the creation was a practice model—for a procedure the surgeon was getting ready to perform on a patient that week.
“About a month later,” recalls Teaford, “out of the blue, I got a handwritten letter from the patient, thanking me for saving his life.”
While Teaford is quick to note that, of course, he had simply made a tool to help the surgeon, he says that letter made him see the impact custom glassware could have.
Teaford, at the University of Utah since 2002, is now the only full-time scientific glassblower in the state (though there are a few part-timers), and during his busiest times, work orders can be three months out. He works in a relatively small laboratory of sorts on the first floor of the Henry Eyring Chemistry Building at the U, tucked down a hall past classrooms full of students bent over various labors at long work tables, safety glasses bedecking each young face.
Teaford himself teaches a class in glassblowing every fall to six or seven students at the large central work table in his glass shop, each student equipped with a torch and tools. He also has a glassblowing workshop at his home in West Jordan, where he creates freelance pieces not connected to his university work; he recently made repairs to a $2,000 heart he had created for a Japanese company while working in Denver. His reputation as a glassblower has grown such that he now gets more requests for piecework than he can handle, so a few years ago, he trained his wife, Rhonda (his high school sweetheart), in some of the basics, and they now work together on many projects at home. (This summer, they were working on a large order they referred to in shorthand as their “vacation fund.”)
Teaford became a glassblower by happenstance. He grew up with his brother and sister in the lower Yakima Valley, Washington, the son of a Benton County sheriff and a homemaker mom. After finishing high school in 1984, he was somewhat at loose ends for about a year before deciding to join the Marine Corps, where he became a construction surveyor and managed rifle and other training for a battalion of 1,500. He liked the work and the responsibility, but it just wasn’t feeling like a “career” for him. So after four years, when the time came to consider whether to re-up, he found what sounded like an intriguing position as a patrolman at the Hanford nuclear facility, near where he had grown up.
But within a year or so, he knew the job wasn’t for him and began looking again. He came across a glassblowing position advertised at Hanford and decided to interview, “just for the experience.” The next day, he got the job offer—and decided to take the leap. He had never even seen glassblowing, let alone knew what to do with a lathe and torch. But he was intrigued by the challenge and quickly learned. “I think you should always have a positive attitude and make the best of things, so I just went for it,” Teaford notes. “But I did set myself on fire a couple of times.”
At Hanford, as in his position now at the U, much of Teaford’s work was creating custom glass research pieces by modifying flasks and tubes with different valves or sidearms, the parts that protrude from the main body of glass. Teaford also makes simple repairs (such as a recent fix to the lip of a 50-liter, $2,000 flask that took up nearly the entirety of the workspace on his large steel lathe) and minor modifications to flasks (such as adding “baffles,” indentations that maximize mixing, which take him only minutes and add up to hundreds of dollars in savings to scientists over buying flasks made commercially with baffles).
After about three years at Hanford, Teaford’s position was eliminated as part of federal defense cutbacks. But he knew he’d found his craft, so he searched for something similar, finally finding Farlow’s Scientific Glassblowing in Grass Valley, Calif. There, he made his first aneurysm models, including his eye-opening bifurcated design, as well as bladder, stomach, and arterial heart models. “When I left Hanford, I thought I was doing really good. But after I got to Farlow’s, I realized I had a lot to learn,” says Teaford. In particular, he had to teach himself “tight tolerances”—working within very firm specifications, such as no more than 2 millimeters over or under specs for a smaller piece; if it didn’t meet the specs, it was rejected, and Teaford had to begin again. “At a place like Hanford, and at a university, requests tend to be more for something like ‘about 18 inches of straight ¼-inch glass with a sidearm about a third of the way down,’ ” he notes.
After a few years at Farlow’s, Teaford moved to a better position at a similar facility in Denver, where he made his first complete anatomically correct hearts (each of which can take 25-35 hours). But after almost 10 years in heavy commercial production, he began looking for a position at a university, applying and receiving offers from institutions in Connecticut and Nebraska, as well as the U. After discussing it with his family (Rhonda and their children Courtney, then about 12, and Isaac, 10), they decided to stay in the West, and came to the U.
Most of Teaford’s work at the U is performed for the Department of Chemistry, and he does nearly all of it seated at his lathe, working with torches and graphite rods to cut and reshape pieces of glass held in the lathe’s chucks, the grasping jaws providing him internal and external, nearly 365-degree access to the glass. When he works bent over the lathe, both hands are busy, with at least one holding a torch to heat the glass (or both wielding fire, if he needs to heat both the interior and exterior), then busily marking off cutting points with a titanium pencil (creating a tiny mark visible through his tinted protective glasses), using a blowing tube to gently inflate a glass cell, or employing graphite or brass tools to help reshape the glass, perhaps flaring the joint (mouth) to a different requested size or tilt, or prepping a cell for a new joint. Besides the more routine flask modifications and repairs, he has also created specialty items such as plaque-mounted display pieces to be given as thank-you’s from the U to University donors.
Some of the freelance glass pieces Teaford and his wife create in their home shop are of the literally cut-and-dried, test tube variety, but he has also made unique items including a reproduction globe for an antique gumball machine, a large hourglass to be used in a cancer commercial, and replacement globes for street lamps.
Teaford also gets to express himself creatively by making highly detailed wine goblets, which have become the statement pieces he now presents each year to the American Scientific Glassblowers Society conference. Teaford sketches and then experiments with creating a selection of highly complicated stems until he has work he will feel proud to share at the annual symposium, where he is also an instructor.
His goblets regularly sell for hundreds of dollars to fellow glassblowers bidding for his work at the conference. “It is really something to get to make something that impresses other glassblowers,” Teaford acknowledges with obvious pleasure.
“I don’t really think I’m an artist, just persistent,” he notes, turning over some of his practice stems. “I just think you don’t let anything out of your shop until you’re satisfied with it.”
—Marcia C. Dibble is associate editor of Continuum.