After more than twenty years of working with glass, including a time of study on the island of Murano in Venice, Ethan Bond Watts had never heard of anyone making glass completely from scratch, using naturally gathered materials. Glass artists typically begin with “cullet” — recycled bits of glass from former creations that can be remelted with relative ease.
To make glass directly, three primary ingredients are needed:
- Silica (SiO2) — to create the basic structure of the material
- A “flux” such as potassium carbonate (K2CO3) — to lower the required melting point of the silica
- Limestone (CaCO3) — to increase the hardness of the resulting glass
These ingredients are typically sourced in bulk from industrial suppliers to guarantee their purity. Once sourced, they’re usually heated in a high-powered propane or electric furnace to reach the temperatures required for the so-called “glass transition” to occur (2,500+ degrees Fahrenheit). This complexity makes the prospect of manual glass-making essentially quixotic, and so it is rarely attempted.
Beyond the quest for glass itself, this ritual was also a way for me to become acquainted with the physical realities of life at High Acres Farm. For most of my adult life, I’d worked within the global “idea economy” as an “Internet artist” of “data visualization” and “interactive storytelling.”
I’d never really worked with physical materials before — never driven a tractor, never used a chainsaw, never swung a maul. Through my work with Ethan, I was learning not only the creation of glass, but also the ways of being a Vermonter.
To gather clay, we dig a series of test pits in the meadows of High Acres Farm.
We use a wheelbarrow to carry the harvested clay to the stables.
We mix the clay with water, gravel, and straw to create cob mixture to be used for the walls and doors of our future furnace.
We harvest ashes from the dying bonfire with a wooden sieve.
We dissolve the ashes into water, then pour the settled water through a series of smaller plastic sieves, so that only the liquid solution remains.
We use a propane turkey boiler to evaporate the liquid solution, in order to isolate its potassium carbonate (i.e. potash) to use as our flux.
To gather silica, we visit the “scree fields” of the nearby Bristol Cliffs Wilderness to harvest Cheshire Quartzite — the mineral with the highest concentration of silica found anywhere in Vermont.
We take a few large chunks home in a red backpack.
Back at High Acres Farm, we enter the old shed.
We build a crushing station using pieces of plywood, centered around my grandfather’s heavy steel anvil.
Using my grandfather’s steel sledgehammer, I start to pulverize the quartzite.
We crush the quartzite even further with an old steel tamper bar. We pour the resulting powder through a funnel and through a set of plastic sieves to isolate its finest particles, ending with a granularity of 300 mesh — which is now our silica.
To gather limestone, we visit the Shelburne Quarry on a quiet Sunday afternoon and harvest a few small jar-fulls of powder from atop their giant mounds.
Certain other steps are not shown in the film — notably the lightning strike that destroyed the nearby “Old Dairy Barn” at Shelburne Farms.
The barn housed a collection of local lumber that was blackened and largely destroyed by the fire, but much of it we salvage for fuel to feed our furnace.
All together, these steps took around seven months to complete.
Two triangles meet and converge — the smaller one pointing up into the larger one, forming a new empty space in the mutual center.
Original music by
Quartzite harvest filmed at
- Bristol Cliffs Wilderness, Bristol, VT
Limestone harvest filmed at
- Shelburne Limestone Quarry, Shelburne, VT