Handmade Tales: Gabriel Cole, Glassblower
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Gabriel Cole, 39, is a regular guy who happens to be able to expertly transform hot, liquid glass into goblets, vases and bowls. The brand name for his wares is, sensibly enough, Gabriel Glass. But when he raises the blowpipe to his lips like a silent trumpet, it’s hard not to think of the biblical Gabriel. When held up to the heavens, his colorfully stemmed wine glasses and swirled pedestal bowls coruscate as brilliantly as any respectable angel’s nimbus.
Cole describes glassblowing as “magical,” but there’s a simple explanation for the sparkle, he says. He uses high-quality glass “batch” — a white, powdery substance — which makes a heavy, crystal-like product. And the color he applies to most of his pieces is always sandwiched between two layers of clear glass — a time-consuming process that creates extra luster.
In his workshop, a barn beside his Marshfield home, Cole follows a packed peak-season summer schedule. On Mondays, he spends all day melting down 300 pounds of batch in a crucible inside his high-tech pot furnace. Controlled by a computer, it can be precisely heated to 2450º F.
Three days a week, Cole blows glass with the help of Jeff Dauphin. The skilled assistant serves him “gathers” of the viscous substance on the end of a blowpipe or punty, a long metal pole with a solid tip. “You wind it on like honey,” Cole says as he demonstrates, dipping the punty into the leftover glass at the bottom of the crucible: It’s Friday, his wind-down day.
When he pulls the pole out, it has a glowing orange bulb on the end. He lays the instrument across two parallel flat bars and shapes the glass while rolling the pole back and forth. Between shapings, pieces are reheated in the glory hole — the actual name for an adjacent cylinder-shaped oven that gets even hotter than the furnace. A few key tools come into play: a cloth-like edge shaper made from folded layers of wet newspaper, which Cole calls “a bit of magic”; a pineapple mold that punctures the bulb with evenly spaced bubbles. But mostly it’s his dexterous hand and an eye for symmetry that matter.
Cole credits Dauphin with much of the work’s high quality. In order to make a pedestal stem, for example, the assistant has to drop five gathers from above — for the collar, the ball, another collar that Cole works into a motif of successive waves, the foot ball and the foot. Finished pieces cool for eight hours in an annealing oven, a critical process he says cheaper outfits often cut short.
A Vermonter who grew up not far from where he now lives, Cole got his training at Simon Pearce in Queechee, where he made wine glasses every day for 10 years, he says. But he already had a leg up when he started: He’s a second-generation glassblower. His father, Chet Cole, 69, of Marshfield, still makes glass plates with his wife Viiu Niiler under the name Country Glass. “When I did start learning [at 18], it came very quickly because I’d always seen it,” the younger Cole says. “But it takes years to learn how to do anything well, even just how to get a gather.”
When he opened his own shop in 2000, Cole chose to free-blow his pieces — a skill he had honed while renting space at Church and Maple Glass Studio in Burlington. Everything at Simon Pearce is mold-blown and thus identical in shape, he explains; a set of Gabriel Glass wine glasses are minutely different.
The first wine glass he ever made is still kept in the kitchen cupboard. “This is my commute,” Cole jokes, leading the way down the driveway to the house. After taking out the family’s stemware one at a time — all his own seconds — he finds the stubby, egg-cup-sized memento. His two children still love to use it, he says.
More recent pieces, heavy and elegant, sit on side tables and in living-room nooks, despite the 6- and 11-year-old inhabitants. “I recommend it,” he declares. “Art should be used. I want to bridge the gap between art and craft,” Cole adds. “I say the best way to enjoy art is to incorporate it into your life.”