"It's like no other material," he says of the 400 pounds of molten glass that glow from the inside of the main furnace, which can register more than 2,300 degrees and is never turned off.

"It isn't like metal and it isn't like clay. I love mixing the colors to get the abstract look," says Ries, who enjoys making Venetian goblets the most. His colored-stem creations sell for $200 each, and his parents — who he says were initially skeptical, to put it mildly — now understand that he can make a living doing what he loves.

Emma Weaver, a junior at Virginia Tech, is another one who came and stayed. She is an industrial design major and she wanted to do a project — a citrus juicer shaped like a question mark — in glass over her spring break. This summer, she is trading chores for instruction.

"The more you know about a material, the more you can push its limits," says the Mount Airy resident. (She got an A on her project.)

As the afternoon wears on, Hansen and Ries take more breaks to recover from the heat and the physical demands of their work. Glass blowers can never stop moving, or gravity will take over. They rest away from the ovens and drink lots of water.

The day's work is placed in a 900-degree annealer to cool; overnight, the temperature will gradually drop to about 250 degrees. If the pieces were cooled any faster, they would shatter.

"The [economic] downturn has taken 40 percent of the craft business," says Holcombe, who also rents his ovens to other glass blowers. "I am just glad I still get to be my own boss."


Where the color comes from

How does glass change from the clear, molten liquid at the bottom of the furnace into solid shapes in the colors of the rainbow?

There is a reason why that shade of blue is called "cobalt blue," Foster Holcombe explains. Each element on the periodic table produces its own color when heated. Manganese, for example, produces lavenders and purples.

The colors are mixed with bone dust if they are to be opaque. Unalloyed, they are translucent.

Holcombe purchases color in a variety of forms — powders, crystals, chips and even rods of color. The glass blower harvests some of the molten clear glass with the end of his pipe and then dips it in the color, or colors, he wants. If he is using a slice from the color rods, he will soften it in an auxiliary oven first.

The rest, as Josh Ries says, is magic.

Where to buy

Art of Fire, 7901 Hawkins Creamery Road, Laytonsville, 310-353-6642, artoffire.com. Open for visitors and sales Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Classes meet once a week for four weeks, Saturday or Sunday mornings or Wednesday evening, for three hours. The cost for each course is $499. Two students per instructor. Classes resume in September and there are special ornament-making classes in December. Private instruction is also available.

About this series

Today, furniture from all over the world is easy and often inexpensive to come by, but there remains a demand for quality furnishings made by hand. Maryland is home to dozens of businesses producing handcrafted, often one-of-a-kind, furniture, mirrors, lighting and other items for the local market and beyond.

So we're turning the spotlight on some of the Maryland companies that produce top-quality furnishings for the home. Some are small shops, consisting only of one or two people crafting custom pieces for clients with specific needs. Others have grown to become large companies with a national footprint, establishing a presence in some of the country's wealthiest locales.

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