A Look Back Through Our Window of History

Hello, reading audience. Today’s Block & Olson blog is just a little different than the others. Most of the time we like to be pretty informative, putting the kibash on common industry myths or explaining how best to whup some glass related pain—pun intended?—like getting water spots off your shower door (the latter subject only came to me just now, so we haven’t explained that yet, but here’s a hint: it involves more scrubbing than you’d like to read about). SEO best practices tell us to give our readers value, something they can walk away with and feel like they haven’t wasted 15 minutes. But we like telling stories sometimes, too. And let’s be honest, you have an extra 5 or 10 minutes for a story.

Despite the impression given by our cutting-edge website, Block & Olson Glass is an old-fashioned organization, a veritable Vancouver institution. I was in an antique shop not long ago, for instance, and all along their splintered fence-wood walls were black and white photos of the downtown area from the early- and mid-20th century, when the streets were dusty gravel and the cars had swooping, wavelike fenders shrouding pizza-cutter wheels with wooden spokes. In one of those photos, a man stood picketing in front of a building that I immediately recognized as the one I’d walked into nearly every morning for the 13 years during which I served as a technician at Block & Olson. The cemented pebble façade, the large plate picture windows staring out onto what no one in the 1950s guessed would be the daily morning slog of plastic bumpers kissing up to Broadway street. Block & Olson’s building has been virtually unchanged for almost a century now; our window trim and signage have been repainted a time or two, but always with the same afternoon-sky shade of blue and in the same squat, vintage font that seems somehow iconic and anonymous at once.

One of the most interesting things about Block & Olson is the craft history that endures almost unscathed inside the shop. As the industry, like so many others, becomes increasingly automated—I’ve worked at manufacturers with computer driven cutting tables so precise and delicate that they could cut a pattern of my name in cursive, and I’ve toured others that cut auto glass with a stream of water thinner than a single hair—Block & Olson still has and uses some of the most traditional tools and methods in the trade.

There’s a drawer in our decades-old tool bench full of gadgets that in 13 years I never got to use because the types of work they facilitate are forms of glazing extinct since at least the ‘70s. One of them is called a putty iron. It’s an L-shaped piece of iron with a heating element that runs on DC power and a well-worn wooden handle whose grain has all but worn away beneath the calloused hands that used it. It was meant to heat the putty holding old, wood-sash windows in, so that it could be easily scooped out and replaced. I plugged it in once, just to see if it would work (it was a slow day; we all have them). After a minute or two the iron was so hot that it burnt the edges of the sash I tried it on. Now, before you jump to conclusions, it was a window long-forgotten in the storage space above the office, the proverbial cemetery of ancient parts and useless scraps amassed across the years. No harm, no foul.

In the back of our shop, where the cutting table has stood for the last 70 years, there’s an old manual drill press for cutting small holes in table-tops and mirrors. It’s only about two feet tall, with a hand crank and an odd array of lead fishing weights held by fraying duct-tape to its top, so that the user doesn’t need to supply pressure all his own. A huge gear, at least 10 inches in diameter, teeth as tightly packed as knurls on a soda cap, turns the relatively slow cranking speed of the handle into the blurring revolutions needed to grind through glass cleanly. This tool I’ve used a time or two. To cool the heat of friction created by such fast drilling, one has to lubricate the cutting wheel with a thin solution almost constantly, sending up a spray of ground glass and liquid that’ll ruin a pair of glasses in an instant. We’ve got an electrical drill press as well, but the speed control of the manual drill makes finishing the hole without chipping its inner edges, or cracking the glass altogether, much more consistent.

Next time you’re in Block & Olson for any kind of service, peak into the shop for a moment, and you’ll see on the pegboard walls a kind of reliquary, a collection of manual tools and devices that resemble something of a trade museum. It’s been a wonderful place to learn over the years because these fading tools and methods give a stronger sense of the science and the process behind the work.

Block & Olson’s owner, Tim, began working in the shop when he was very young, a teenager. He tells stories of sweeping the floors and emptying trash cans for the journeymen. When he was around 18, Tim took leave from Block & Olson to serve a tour in Vietnam but returned after a few years to begin an apprenticeship. Back then, Block & Olson was strictly a commercial glazing service, designing and installing large, plate glass storefronts and entrances. But soon after Tim returned, the namesake owners began diversifying, and Block & Olson became the full-service shop it is today.

By 1978, Tim had been a journeyman for several years and found an opportunity to advance, buying Paul Olson’s portion of the company and joining Dick Block as co-owner. He and Block were a team until Block’s passing, when Tim became full owner. Our team at Block & Olson hasn’t changed much over the years, and old employees still stop by to hang and shoot the breeze sometimes, so the atmosphere is always just a bit nostalgic.

And while around us everything seems to pick up pace, driven by technology that makes our lives easier and faster, Block & Olson seems to hold on to many of the old ways. What that indicates to me is not so much that we’re behind the times—because we use as many state-of-the-art techniques and tools as other shops—but that we’ve done our best to preserve a sense of the tradition that makes this shop special. It’s fused into the weathered wood and sun-bleached cement walls. And there’s a certain care for process and for detail that its history lends to the Block & Olson team, the veterans and beginners alike. It’s not just experience, it’s an understanding of custom that shows in our craftsmanship as well as in our service.

It’s not my job to pitch Block & Olson here (though it is my job to write a ton of keywords so your search engine finds us); it’s my job to write stories you find useful and interesting. I think it helps to know the folks in our community doing work and making things for us every day, and Block & Olson has been a part of Vancouver since the days of gravel roads and free parking. And what the shoot, you’re still probably learning something, right?

So there you have it, a little history, a little glimpse of the trade’s dusty, cob-webbed secrets, and even a sappy, axiomatic ending to make you feel connected to the community. Until next time, when perhaps we’ll talk about rock-chips and how you’ll never, ever, really fix them. And if you’re feeling curious, ask a question in the comments, and maybe we’ll have a long and charmingly sarcastic answer for you coming up.

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