‘There’s always an interesting job’: A day in the life of UBC’s resident scientific glassblower

Hidden deep in the department of chemistry’s basement lies the workstation of UBC’s only in-house glassblower.

Since the late 90s, Brian Ditchburn has worked as a scientific glassblower on campus. The Ubyssey sat down with Ditchburn to learn more about a day in the life of a glassblower and the inner workings of his career.

Being a morning person, Ditchburn said that a typical day starts “stupid early in the morning to avoid heat.” After arriving, he works on repairs or new manufactures, depending on what graduate students or faculty need. “They’ll place an order, they’ll bring their broken glassware to me, and then I’ll plan my next day,” he said.

Recently, Ditchburn has been making a lot of a specific apparatus: vacuum lines. These “vac-lines,” as Ditchburn calls them, isolate air-sensitive materials using a vacuum to create a controlled environment that often consists of an atmosphere of nitrogen, according to ChemViews magazine. “I have ... a bunch of new faculty who are asking for more vac-lines, so I’m making a lot of those right now,” he said, “and I’m repairing a lot of vac-lines because they break.”

One of the reasons a university may hire its own resident glassblower is cost saving. “Instead of throwing out stuff as it breaks, they bring it to me. I will repair it and put it back into service,” explained Ditchburn. “[It’s] cheaper than buying a new one.”

Another added benefit of an in-house glassblower is the streamlining of the process and the capacity for the production of equipment tailored to a particular user.

“If it’s a manufacturing apparatus that they need, if they have an artboard or drawing for it and they know all the parts, I can assemble it for them,” said Ditchburn. He explained that assembling one in-house is usually faster than ordering from elsewhere.

What makes scientific glassblowing fulfilling for Ditchburn is the dynamicity of the role. “It’s never the same,” he said. “There’s always an interesting job. It’s a lot of fun to do [and] it’s technically challenging.”

He also highlighted the sense of accomplishment that accompanies his profession. “I enjoy the parts of the job where I help students and faculty get to their goals in research,” he added. “So if I can do something that makes that goal more easily achievable, it’s perfect.”

But being a scientific glassblower does not come without its own set of challenges. “Don’t like heat? This is not the job for you,” said Ditchburn. Heat is an essential part of glassblowing. Unlike art or “soft” glass, scientific glassblowers usually only work with borosilicate glass and quartz which have higher working temperatures, according to the Scientific Glassblowing Learning Center. Different torches are used to heat glass, such as a multi-port flange top, four jet lathe burner, hand-held glass blowers and bunsen burners.

Scientific glassblowing is also technically challenging, which is both “good and bad,” according to Ditchburn. “You have to grow with the job, grow with the tasks that come into the shop,” he shared.

“And you have to be honest with yourself,” he said. “If I can’t physically do that job, I’ll tell the faculty … and we’ll find another source for it.”

“But I’m always going to try because nothing’s impossible.”

For those itching to try their hand at glassblowing, Ditchburn offers a course for chemistry students. “It’s just an introduction to cutting glass, making a very simple apparatus, so they have some experience with glass,” he said. The only prerequisite is an interest in glassblowing. He also prefers to accept grad students for the course.

This course is a valuable asset to students interested in scientific glassblowing as opportunities in this field are limited. “There’s only one school in North America that teaches [scientific glassblowing] and that’s in New Jersey,” said Ditchburn. Apprenticeships can also be hard to come by, he explained.

Though a recent article by the Los Angeles Times has pegged scientific glassblowers as a “dying breed,” Ditchburn chooses to stay optimistic about the future. “There’s a lot of positions being cut, but there’s also positions being created,” he said. “They’re few and far between, but they are being created.”

“And your generation, for example, are very motivated for learning this trade,” he said.

So what does he advise prospective glassblowers? “You have to have the skillset [and] you have to be willing to open your mind to try new things,” said Ditchburn.

“But that’s life.”