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.

What’s Up With That Crazy Windshield?

Your windshield—it’s the thing you take for granted, probably almost every day. You might check your oil, or your antifreeze, or your tire pressure before you head out for a trip, but how many of us even think about our windshields, aside from cleaning off the bug goo? Well, the team at Block & Olson thinks it’s time you give your windshield the credit that it deserves. So here’s some cool knowledge about that stuff in front of your face when you’re driving, the stuff specifically designed for you to overlook.

Your Airbag Needs It

When most of us consider the safety benefits of our windshields, we think about it keeping rocks and bugs and weather from smacking us in the noggin while we drive. Sure, it does that, but it’s also an integral part of most modern automobiles’ crash safety systems. Passenger airbags, for example, often use the windshield as a sort of launching pad when inflating. Think of the little starting blocks Olympic runners push off of to start their races. Without the windshield behind it, the airbag ignition canister might not have as much leverage, and the bag might not inflate properly. Other systems use the windshield as a backboard to rebound the airbag toward the passenger. Passenger airbags often release from the dashboard. Consequently, they inflate upward, and let the windshield bounce them horizontally toward the rider. So it’s likely that your airbag depends pretty heavily on the windshield being properly installed and of reliable quality. That’s why you want experienced techs working on your car, installing the best stuff there is.

If It’s Cracked or Chipped, It Won’t Just Cave in or Shatter

We’ve been in the game a long time, and a lot of people seem to worry about the cracks in their windshields making the glass collapse while they’re driving, or rocks blasting through their windshields into their seats. Now, in particularly gnarly situations, those things aren’t out of the realm of possibility, but we’ve been in business for almost 70 years and we can tell you, it’s extremely rare. We once put a windshield in a car that was sat on by a horse. The window was broken pretty badly, but it was not even close to caving in. The fact is, windshields are incredibly strong. Modern windshields are made of 2 layers of heat strengthened glass, sandwiched together with a sheet of extremely tough vinyl. Rarely do rocks make it through the first layer of glass, and almost never into the vinyl. Heck, we have a hard time breaking them to fit in our dumpster. Now none of this should be taken as an excuse to drive around with that crummy, busted windshield in your car. It obstructs your vision, and you can definitely be ticketed for it. So get it fixed, but don’t worry about it flopping on your lap on the freeway in the meantime.

It’s Good For Your Skin

What? How in the heck-sticks is a windshield good for your skin? We’ll tell you. Not only the glass, but the vinyl in between it, these days, is treated with UV protectant. Some of us spend hours and hours in our cars every day, and imagine if the sun was baking malevolently through the glass and blistering your skin the whole time. No thanks. Imagine how much sunscreen you’d go through in the summer. But no! The glass in your car helps keep that nasty, burning jerk from boiling our epidermises—or maybe it’s epidermi. Anyway, want to check our facts (friends who wear transitions glasses will know what we’re talking about)? Find a friend who wears prescription glasses that turn to sunglasses outside. Take them for a ride in your car and watch their glasses. The don’t change! That’s because the material in the prescription glasses uses UV rays to darken. Thanks to your car windows, there’s no—or at least very, very few—UV rays bouncing around in your car. Amazing!

It Might Be Why Your Insurance Costs So Much

Windshield repair and replacement are by far the most frequent insurance claims for auto insurers. At Block & Olson, we replace and repair a ton of car windows every year, and almost all of them are insurance jobs. Rock chip repairs are so commonly reported that most insurance brokers don’t charge at all for the claims. That means you can usually get your rock chips repaired for free. For replacements, you’ll have to foot the deductible, but in many cases, that deductible is less than your collision or comprehensive deductible. If you have a claim or any questions about one, get your insurance folks on the phone and they’ll help you out—or call us up, we’re pretty savvy too. If you do call your insurance company, tell them Block & Olson is your shop! (Hey, it’s our blog, don’t you expect us to self-promote sometimes?)

The Weirdest Fact of All

In many states, you’re not required by law to have a windshield. Yup. It’s a throwback to the days when auto windshields were a luxury, when only the rich could afford cars and only the richest of them could spring for glass to keep the wind from their faces. Now before you go taking the glass out of your car and blasting around the town, you should check your state and local laws, because we’re not lawyers or legislators or cops. But a lot of our classic car clients drive their old hot rods in for custom glass without the windshields. Still, they are required to wear safety goggles. So goggle up! And here’s the weirdest caveat of the weirdest fact today: whether or not you have a windshield, if your car came with them from the factory, you are required by law to have windshield wipers. What?! Yes, even if you don’t have a windshield in your car, you’ve got to have those wipers. Wacky.

So next time you make the rounds about your car, checking the oil and kicking the tires, remember that humble windshield sitting there unnoticed, and probably gooped up with bugs. Remember all the amazing things it does for you while you stare through it every day. Poor, poor neglected windshield, we love you.