North Texas Daily

UNT master glassblower retires after 48 years

UNT master glassblower retires after 48 years

UNT master glassblower retires after 48 years
June 13
13:45 2014

Tim Cato / Design Editor

Whistling Loretta Lynn’s 1960s classic “Honky Tonk Girl,” Bill Smith is working. Fifteen minutes in, and it seems he still hasn’t stopped moving.

To his workbench to grab a pair of tweezers. A quick trip to his office directly across his hall. Back to the lab and the machine called a “glass lathe” in the center, used for his craft of glass blowing. To his left to throw away broken glass, then to his right to carefully pick up the gas oxygen blowtorch shooting out a six-inch blue flame.

He only slows down to carefully apply heat to glass he’s meticulously reshaping. The lathe – in the center of his lab in the UNT Chemistry Building – rotates it in a circle and the flame of the torch, reaching 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, applies constant heat to all sides.

Unlike everything else the 71-year-old tried, Smith said he never got tired of glass blowing. “Everything you do is different.”

The cylinder he’s working on was a four-hour job in the books, but he’s finishing up in about an hour. He’s still moving. Always moving.

The End of an Era

Once 5,000, the number of glassblowers in the U.S. has fallen to about 300. Smith retired from his position of master glassblower at UNT a couple of years ago, but came back part-time to work on Mondays and Tuesdays. However, after 48 years of glassblowing, Smith went into full-time retirement at the end of last semester.

“As long as I have something to do when I come in, it’s not a bad way to spend a day,” he said. “But I found before I retired, there were a lot of days and weeks on end that I didn’t have a thing to do here.”

Smith’s life has revolved in a constant cycle of movement – over and over, he’d find a skill or occupation that caught his interest, become an expert in it and then get bored with it, turning his attention to the next idea.

But glassblowing was different. It takes 10 years to become a master glassblower, and Smith mainly taught himself the craft through trial and error. Although the process stayed the same, the many different things he had to work on always provided a new challenge.

“I hate to do more than one or two of anything,” he said. “I get bored.”

After failing the physical to get into the Navy, Smith found his first job in the industry at Texas Instruments. There, he began teaching himself to blow glass. He joined the glassblowing shop when they had an opening, and within two years, was building stuff in the shop that the other glassblowers said could not be built.

“He can go outside the box, outside the rules, and do things that people say couldn’t be done,” Smith’s longtime friend Lee Capps said. “Nobody would want to try to do it, but he’d make it happen.”

At the time, each task given to the workers had an average time assigned to it. Working an eight-hour shift, Smith said he was producing 60 hours of work a day.

Smith later joined U.S. Fused Quartz, where he began working with larger sizes of glass that became more and more demanding as a glassblower.

“I would burn enough hydrogen and oxygen in 30 minutes that would be equivalent to the heat and force of standing behind a jet engine taking off,” he said.

Several short ventures in the glassblowing industry later, Smith settled in with his role at UNT, where he spent the next 20 years designing and building much of the glassware needed and teaching students the basics in his craft before his retirement in the spring.

“I know he likes the college atmosphere better because it’s not a production-type deal, where you’re doing the same thing over and over again,” said Steve Timmons, the supervisor of the UNT science instrument shop who has known and worked with Smith over the past decade.


The Art of Glassblowing

Glassblowing is broken into two types: soft glass and quartz.

At UNT, Smith works with soft glass, or pyrex, which is the material commonly used for most glass cylinders, such as beakers and kitchenware. The clear glass must be heated to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit before it can be moved and molded into shape.

Quartz is more difficult to work with, only allowing modification when it reaches 3,000 degrees. However, it can withstand high temperatures and doesn’t contain sodium like pyrex, which messes up electronic systems. Many usages of quartz are behind the scenes for the production of computer chips, but it can even be used to make church bells.

“It’s worth it because its chemical process is so clean, it doesn’t contaminate the other process,” Smith said.

Smith worked with quartz from the start at Texas Instruments. Because of the extremely high temperatures in the workspace, Smith would work in 30-minute shifts and had to be fed oxygen by a hose connected to his facemask, because the heat would burn away the oxygen in his workspace.

Smith said he sometimes lost 15 to 20 pounds simply by sweating in a day’s work, although he’d gain it back that evening by rehydrating himself.

Glassblowers use graphite rods to move and adjust glass. Graphite can withstand high temperatures, and though it will burn away quickly, it does not contaminate the glass.

But glassblowing has a bleak future – it’s a dangerous craft prone to cuts and burns and much of the work that used to be done by hand has been replaced by machines or exported to other countries like China.

Tragic Circumstances

At dinner with his wife one night in 1988, Smith faced the biggest challenge of his life.

“I had a new granddaughter, my son had a wonderful job and we were doing well in my business,” he said. “I made a terrible mistake. I told my wife, ‘You know, things are wonderful. They just can’t get no better than this.’”

His 20-year-old son, Shane, was hit by a drunk driver in Denton and died instantly. Smith described him and his son as “super buddies,” working together to build and race motorcycles – something he doesn’t truly know how he overcame.

“They always talk about ‘how did you do this,’ and I don’t have a clue,” he said. “I’ve just learned to survive day to day. You’ve really just got to learn to say, ‘hell with it.’”

In 2003, Smith and his team broke the flat land record of 198.7 mph at Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, but Smith thinks that with Shane’s help, they could have easily broken 200.

If there was anything that helped, Smith threw himself into his work – glassblowing or racing –   just like he had done all of his life.

Capps was one of the members of the racing team, building the record-breaking engine. But if the team needed anything built, Smith was their man.

“If he sees a challenge or if he feels like he can do something, there’s no stopping him,” Capps said. “He will figure a way to make it happen.”


Moving on from UNT

As he nears his retirement, Smith isn’t sure where the next stage of his life will take him. His health will determine some of his future.

“I’ve really done most everything,” he said. “I’m reaching the stage where I’m going to end up in a damn wheelchair and not be able to do stuff.”

But Smith and his wife have a motorhome, and he said it might be time to do the traveling he always wanted to.

“I can’t say I planned my life,” he said. “I just lived it the best I could.”

The only real plan he has is to keep moving and doing things, anything, until he can’t anymore.

Featured Images: Bill Smith demonstrates the heat at which he would shape quartz glass, at UNT. Smith uses pyrex, which was more common and easier to work with. Photos by Tim Cato, Design Editor. 

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1 Comment

  1. Charlie
    Charlie December 31, 20:35

    Bill was my neighbor in Houston 1975. We were a young couple just out of college. He and his wife Judy were great. I had our first baby not long after in moving in next to them. She was so helpful. Bill was making glass ships in the garage. He gave me one, but the wind blew it off the mantle. I was so broken hearted. Congratulations Bill!! Go RVing!!!

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