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.

Is Your Home Insulated?

Most of our homes by now are pretty energy savvy—with fiberglass sprayed in the walls and attic space, foam-core metal doors, and, of course, insulated dual-pane windows. All that stuff keeps the atmosphere inside our houses comfortable, keeps the cold outside in the winter and the heat outside in the summer. That’s where it should be. Door and insulation technology isn’t really too special. It’s been around for quite a while, and only the materials have changed. But windows are another story.

Dual-pane windows, or insulated glazing, might have originated in the late 19th century but became commercially useful around the 1940s. Libbey-Owens-Ford Glass Company (LOF) was the first to produce insulated windows in any quantity, marketing their Thermopanes as the height of thermally efficient construction. Dual-pane windows offered better thermal retention, sound dampening, and improved longevity compared to traditional sash or sash and storm window combinations.

But why are insulated windows so great? Many tend to assume it’s because there are two glass panes rather than one, but that’s not quite it. What makes insulated glass, or IGs, so much better is, well, nothing. That’s right, it’s the vacant spot between the panes that does most of the work.

Okay, it’s not totally vacant. Some manufacturers inject their IGs with inert gasses, like argon or krypton, which have much less conductivity than regular air. Others suck most the air out and leave a vacuum. This is called evacuated glazing, and while it virtually eliminates heat transfer, it’s incredibly expensive and pretty volatile, as the glass is always stressed by the surrounding atmosphere. These VIGs have to be reinforced by glass “pillars” from the inside to prevent collapse. Imagine what would happen if you sucked the air from an empty pop can, then imagine it’s the glass in your window on a hot day. No one wants that mess.

The thicker IGs are, the better thermal properties they have. Most of the windows in our homes range from ½” to 1” thick, and the glass panes vary between 1/16”, 1/8”, 3/16”, and ¼”. The glass can be annealed, which means it is not heat strengthened and will break into shards or larger plates, or it can be tempered, meaning it is exposed to heat treatment. Tempered glass is incredible strong on its surface, and will break into tiny little cubes, which is much safer.

Glass can also be coated with LOW-E (yep, that means low energy) films or liquids. These are typically UV resistant materials designed to deflect the sun rays bouncing around outside. Not only do these coating help further reduce heat transfer, but they also help protect you and your stuff. LOW-E glass prevents carpet, walls, or pretty much anything in the house—yourself included—from the damage caused by sun exposure. That means the carpet won’t fade as fast, and your skin stays younger longer.

To hold the two panes of glass apart, IGs usually have an aluminum spacer—called, well, a spacer—and it’s filled with desiccant to absorb any condensation. The spacer is sealed to the glass first by a strip of sticky butyl tape, then by a thick adhesive called polysulfide. Some IGs might have a nonconductive foam spacer or, for very thin applications, just a cord of butyl.

The process of making IGs is pretty interesting. First, the glass is batched to optimize waste. Then it’s loaded onto huge, air-operated tables—not unlike air-hockey tables—where an automated cutter scores all the cuts and automated breakers pop up from the table to snap the glass. Once cut, the smaller pieces pass vertically through washers and air dryers, while spacers are cut and lined with butyl before being smashed between their corresponding panes. Next it’s the polysulfide, which a worker squirts around the edges of the IG and smooths off with a spatula. The assembled units are laid flat to dry and then loaded up and shipped to the glass shop. Hey, that’s us!

Having been around since the 1950s, Block & Olson Glass has seen and experienced the commercial and residential progress of the IG—from converting older homes to replacing them in newer homes and businesses. We know how valuable efficiency is in every season, and we’ve had a ton of time to master the technology of dual-pane windows. Heck, some of us have been around long enough to remember when IG technology first arrived, and thick plates of glass were spaced with led. Those unwieldy windows weighed a ton sometimes.

Anyway, whether it’s to cut down the noise of a busy neighborhood, to keep your carpet and your walls looking new, or to keep your heating and cooling bills in check, insulated windows shatter single panes every time (sorry, most of us are dads, so we make jokes accordingly).