How Much do You Know About Your Glass?

Glass today is pretty ubiquitous, to the extent that most of time we just look right though it without any thought. Yeah, that’s glass’s job, I get it, but it was a figure of speech. Anyway, there’s so much of it around us, and it facilitates so many things in our everyday lives, but how many of us have a clear idea of what it really is, how it’s made and where it came from?

So what is it, really? What’s in it? Typically, most basic glasses comprise various percentages of three crucial components: sand, potassium carbonate, and chalk or lime. What percentage those things come in really depends on what the glass is being used for, but, generally, it’s about 75% potassium carbonate, 24% sand, and 2% lime. Coincidentally, potassium carbonate is also used sometimes in soap, cocoa powder production, and as an ingredient in those delicious Chinese mooncakes with the fancy designs on them. Here’s the Wikipedia link, in case you need a rabbit to chase.

Most people would probably have guessed that, to actually make the glass, these three elements would be melted down into a molten-like form. And that’s exactly right. It can be heated any number of ways, so long as it reaches about 1000°-1600° Celsius. That’s hot. For those of you still clinging to standard measure like it really works (don’t worry, so am I), that’s upwards of 3000° Fahrenheit. Again, hot.

Once its molten, there are various ways to remove any impurities, including chemical additives and agitation. I’ll tell you, though, agitating a vat of viscous, sticky, 3000° incandescent sauce seems like a bogus plan to me.

With impurities gone, the burning goo can be drawn and rolled into giant sheets, for flat glass. Or, it can be pressed and blown, for hollow glass like light bulbs, fixtures, and fishbowls. Colored glass can be dies while in its molten stage, and it can also be printed or coated to achieve various colors. Mirrored glass is usually coated with a metallic, paint-like substance—mostly silver.

Considering the temperature at which this stuff is made, how long do you think it has to be cooled? Good question. It depends. The cooling time effects the final product’s brittleness and strength, but, generally, the slower the better. The strongest annealed glasses—those that aren’t subjected to further heat strengthening—can take up to several months before moving to other phases of production. I’m glad my pizza doesn’t take that long, because most of the time I barely have enough patience to wait for the cheese to cool. Man, I hate cheese blisters.

So how long has this whole process gone down? Well, a while. The approximate recipe we mentioned was probably drawn up by the Assyrians some time around 640 BCE, but we think glass has been produced as early as 8000 BCE, especially in Egypt, but maybe in Mesopotamia and Mycenae, China, and Northern Tyrol—a tiny little region of northern Italy and southern Austria.

Glass is obviously a lot different, and a lot more widespread today. But even as recently as the early Industrial Revolution glass was something of luxury. For example, you may have heard that in the late-17th century, the UK parliament imposed a window tax on its citizens across Scotland and England. Since glass was so expensive, having a lot of glazed windows was seen as an indication of prosperity, and thus the government felt added revenue could be extracted simply by adjusting taxes based on the number of windows a household enjoyed. The tax lasted until 1851—well into the Industrial Revolution—when it was repealed, as prosperity was no longer seen as a legitimate basis for increased taxation.

Now glass is everywhere. It’s easy and cheap to get, and we’re even coming up with new concoctions, like Gorilla Glass, by Corning, which uses alkali-aluminosilicate sheet glass stretched and flattened to be incredibly thin and almost unbreakable—almost. My old Galaxy 7, using the fourth generation of Gorilla Glass, didn’t quite make a shoulder-height tumble. Think we’ll have Gorilla Glass in our cars some day? Porsche does.

See you later.

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.

A Tale of Clarity

We live in fervid times. Things are happening big, and they’re happening fast, so to keep our readers up to speed, the writers at Block & Olson’s blog tackle only the issues that really matter—the stories that carry weight, the ponderous problems convulsing the very core of what it means to have agency and independence in this age…the serious stuff. Today, we approach a controversy as old as glass itself and as contentious as a Florida primary; we’re talking about the best window cleaning stuff and the best ways to use it.

Weather it’s the mirror in your bathroom that seems to gather toothpaste freckles even though you brush your teeth three feet away, or the windshield in your car that turns into the Milky Way whenever you steer into the sun, you clean and clean and only really stop when you finally admit defeat. Well not any more. We’ll tell you everything you really need to know to get those glassy entities so clear you won’t even know they’re there. Except the mirror; you’ll know that’s there.

Let’s start with what not to use and what not to do with it when you’re not, well, using it. Don’t use Windex. Sorry SC Johnson, but there are a number of reasons why your glass cleaner can’t be found in a single reputable glass shop this side of the heliopause. To begin with, Windex (and cleaners like it) are too aqueous. Those types of cleaners—the ones in trigger spray bottles, usually—are too runny, and they don’t really do the cleaning work you need them to. The solution kind of splashes right where you spray it and drips away. You need something foamy, something that clings to the glass surface and stays there. Foamy cleaners mostly come in aerosol cans (don’t worry, the one we suggest is CFC free), but we’ll get to that part soon.

The runniness of the abovementioned cleaners also has another drawback: Streaks! They say they’re not streaky, but most of the trigger spray cleaners streak worse than a college freshman at the semi-finals. This could be in part the type of towel you’re using—more on that later—but it’s largely because there’s just too much liquid involved, and there isn’t anything to make it evaporate faster. They rely on you and your elbow grease to spread the liquid thin enough that it evaporates quickly and evenly. But how often does that happen when you’re sitting in your passenger seat twisted half upside-down, wiping the glass with the back of your hand to reach that part above your defrost? Aerosol type cleaners usually have some alcohol, or are entirely alcohol based, and those ones evaporate faster and more evenly, relying more on chemistry than manual labor to get the job done.

Another reason to stay away from Windex and its soggy friends is that most of them contain ammonia. Not all of them do, but a lot, and you can smell it from a mile away. But ammonia cleans stuff really good, you say. Yes, it does, because it’s caustic. What that means for your windows is that any coating or film on them will eventually be eaten away by the nitrogenous waste product, including the tint on your car’s windows and any performance or energy coating on the windows of your home. Maybe your car windows are as clear as day, but it’s a safe bet that if you have double-pane windows in your house, they’re coated with something to keep that nasty sun from hot-boxing your living space. So always check the ingredients of your glass cleaner, and always avoid ammonia.

What do we use at Block & Olson? We use Sprayway glass cleaner. They’ve been our go-to for at least 50 years. You can find it almost anywhere, but there are other products on the market just like it. Just make sure it’s aerosol.

The next critical thing is the towel you use. Forget about newspaper. For one, newspaper usually makes the things it touches dirtier. And who the holy internet actually buys a physical paper anymore? I call it reading the paper, but it’s all pixels these days. You need a thin, coarse, tight-knit paper towel. Think the kind of towels used in most public restrooms—more pliant and absorbent than computer paper, but not by much. Avoid the soft, fluffy stuff. Those kinds of things are great for sopping up milk on the kitchen counter, but they’ll leave a billion little fibers on the glass and probably a dent in your bank account too, at least compared to the rougher stuff. You can find the good stuff at a janitorial supply company that sells to the public, and at places like Home Depot, too.

Once you get the right equipment, the technique becomes markedly less important, but here’s some best practices to get you started:

  • Use the cleaners sparingly. You don’t need to slather it on; the more you spray, the more you have to wipe off, and that’s a recipe for streaks.
  • Instead of wadding up the paper towel, fold it nicely. Doing so will put more of it in contact with the glass. And it’s easier to get a dry spot if you need to, which relates to the next point.
  • Once your paper towel is saturated, it’s useless—just smearing dirty solution all over the glass. So flip and re-fold your towel frequently to make sure it’s pretty dry.
  • If it’s an especially icky job, smear the cleaner around with your hand before you wipe it up. Clean it like you’d clean yourself in the shower. Really dirty glass just won’t be a spray-on-wipe-off job; you’ll need some agitation, and who doesn’t like agitation?
  • When you’re wiping off the glass, use fast, circular motions. The faster you go the better, because you’d rather the towel deal with the dirty cleaner than the sun’s evaporative bent.

So there it is, the momentous scoop of the day from the writers of Block & Olson. We’ve been cleaning glass for 7 decades, we should know. And if whatever you’re cleaning just won’t clear up, it’s probably stained. At that point, there isn’t much to do but replace it. Fortunately, you know the guys to get that job done. Thanks for reading, and now go off and tackle the big problems of the day. The world is counting on you!