An Interview with Jason Klein of Historical Glassworks

Glencairn Museum News | Number 9, 2017

What is the name of your business, and where is it located?

Historical Glassworks, in Manheim, Pennsylvania.

How did you first become interested in glassblowing?

Well, I always had an interest in antiquities—mostly functional objects like plates, bowls, and cups. I wanted to make some, but the ceramics class at Tulane University was filled. So I took a glassblowing class. I lucked into it, and it really was a dynamic that suited me very well. Since then I have been hooked, and glassblowing was the right craft for me.


Figure 1: A gather of glass on the end of the blowpipe sits suspended in the small opening of the furnace. This opening is sometimes called the “glory hole.”


Did they have full-scale glass blowing?

Oh yes, Tulane University is one of the universities that has a full-scale glassblowing program, so I was lucky in that way. I was there for business school originally. They have a very good department in almost every discipline, and medieval studies was also a good program, so I got to take some classes in that as well.

So you studied business, medieval studies, and glassblowing. That sounds like a perfect combination for what you ended up doing as a career. What did you do after you graduated?

I worked at Wheaton Village in Millville, New Jersey, doing glassblowing for a short time, and then went into business for myself. I have been running Historical Glassworks for about the last twenty years, but even during the last twenty years I have continued to train. I try to train for at least one week every year, with a different maestro, to keep my skills moving forward.


Figure 2: Jason Klein uses the jacks, a pair of flexible clamps made from spring steel, while his assistant holds a piece of wet wood to mold or guide the rondel they are creating.


What was your first introduction to Glencairn Museum and Bryn Athyn Cathedral?

My first introduction to Glencairn, Bryn Athyn, and its Cathedral was through Ken Leap, who now teaches stained glass at Bryn Athyn College. He said, “you have to see this place,” because of my interest in medieval history and stained glass. And I can remember it very clearly: Ken having me close my eyes, and driving down the main road, Huntingdon Pike, and opening my eyes and seeing the Cathedral and just being floored. And then we turned onto Cathedral Road, and went up the hill toward Glencairn. I was just stunned by the beauty of it, and was very excited about the idea of being able to blow glass here. Glencairn’s curator, Ed Gyllenhaal, was the first person I met when we came here, and he proposed the idea of blowing glass for the Medieval Festival. I set up my furnace just outside the building in the parking lot. I had nothing covering the furnace—which was just asking for trouble—but we had perfect weather the whole time. We were smiled upon that day, and that week! 


Figure 3: The Historical Glassworks glassblowing area at Glencairn in 2006, the first year of demonstrations. On the first year of the event there was no tent to cover the furnace in case of rain.


Figure 4: Jason Klein at the “glory hole.” To keep the glass hot and workable, it is reheated while still on the blowpipe. In the background, Carl Gunther (left, son of Ariel Gunther, who managed the Bryn Athyn glassworks during its years of operation) and Lachlan Pitcairn (right, son of Raymond Pitcairn) reminisce about the glassworks, which was in continuous operation from July of 1922 to April of 1942. The building was torn down in 1952. Photograph taken in 2006.


Tell us about your attempts to duplicate examples of ancient Roman glass in Glencairn’s collection.

Glencairn was very gracious about showing me examples of Roman ware in the collection, which for me was a super highlight, because you don’t usually get to handle extant examples and then run downstairs to the furnace and blow glass with that information so fresh in your mind. That was really a highlight for me, and it still is. I am always learning and getting better, so I relish every time I get to look at the variety of Roman glass in Glencairn’s collection.


Figure 5: A reproduction of a vase in Glencairn's Roman collection, made by Jason Klein during the 2017 Sacred Arts Festival.


What is the relationship between the stained glass at Glencairn and the stained glass at Bryn Athyn Cathedral, and what is unique about Bryn Athyn stained glass?

Both buildings used the stained glass that was made in the workshops here in Bryn Athyn, with the exception that at Glencairn some actual medieval panels were integrated into the windows. I’m unaware of any other glassblowing program that was created specifically for a cathedral. Maybe Lawrence Saint did a similar thing at the Washington National Cathedral, after he moved on from Bryn Athyn, but the information that was being developed in the Bryn Athyn glassworks, and their dedication to getting the colors correct, is fairly unique in history. Even in medieval times, when the streaky copper ruby glass was being made, they were importing that glass to cathedrals in England from Germany. They had the glassed shipped over, so it wasn’t all being made on site. So that is really unique. They also made glass tesserae here in Bryn Athyn for the mosaics at Glencairn, and as far as we know nobody ever made that in the United States.


Figure 6: Light streams through the north chancel aisle window in Bryn Athyn Cathedral, bathing the sandstone wall in a rainbow of colors. The window was designed and made in the Bryn Athyn glassworks. Photograph by Hal Conroy.


Tell us about your experiences with trying to replicate the Bryn Athyn glass made in the 1920s and 1930s.

It has been a real challenge. It has made me really appreciate working with the American Glass Guild and with Ken Leap, and getting their feedback on it. There was a gentleman in England in the 1800s who was trying to reproduce the medieval red streaky glass in order to do restoration work, but it doesn’t have the right tonality to it. The red ruby glass being produced in Germany right now does have a very good tonality, but it is being fabricated in such a way that it doesn’t give the right density of streaks, or the depth of character that you see in Bryn Athyn glass. The depth of layering of color, the streaks, the way they move across the surface—it is really fairly specific to get those to look right.


Figure 7: A panel of the Bryn Athyn red streaky glass, also known as striated ruby. Recreating this color of medieval glass was one of the more difficult challenges at the Bryn Athyn glassworks early in the 20th century. Photograph by J. Kenneth Leap.


Figure 8: The Flight into Egypt, from the Infancy of Christ window of the Abbey Church of Saint-Denis, France, c. 1140-1145 (Glencairn Museum, 03.SG.114). This panel in Glencairn's stained glass collection demonstrates the unique qualities of the medieval striated ruby color.


How close do you feel you have you come to replicating the striated copper ruby glass that was made in Bryn Athyn?

Pretty close, with the exception of the tonality of color. The process I have down, and the streaking and texture I have down. It is just a matter at this point of acquiring the right copper ruby in enough quantity to produce it, or hopefully to build a furnace specifically to attempt the colors that were done here in Bryn Athyn. But I have come pretty close. 

And if you achieve that, what would be the market for the copper ruby glass?

Well, really the best market for that would be the cathedrals in Europe. 

Have the recipe books for stained glass here in the Glencairn Museum Archives been useful to you?

They will be. Unfortunately, I have not had the opportunity to take the time to experiment as extensively as the glassblowers in Bryn Athyn did. They had the advantage of the patronage of Raymond Pitcairn, so they could focus just on making it and getting it right. Hopefully there will be a time when I can do that as a thesis project, and use those notes and Lawrence Saint’s notes to recreate the glass as it was done here. We are already making some headway in discovering what some of the ingredients were that they were using.


Figure 9: In this archival photograph, a rondel of glass is displayed against the light of a window in the Bryn Athyn glassworks.


Two different methods of blowing glass were used in Bryn Athyn; could you describe them? 

There are two methods: a rondel method and a cylinder method. The rondel method involves blowing a bubble, and then opening that bubble up into a flat disc, which makes it round. And if you do that with streaky copper ruby, you get a pinwheel effect. The other method is called the cylinder method, in which you blow a tube, open one end, cut it in half, flip it around, open it again, cut it in half, and then fold it open, like a sheet of paper.


Figure 10: Jason Klein of Historical Glassworks at the glassblower’s bench, using the jacks to create a rondel, a circular disk made by spinning out a gather of glass. Photograph taken in 2006.


Figure 11: Jason Klein demonstrates the techniques used in the cylinder method of blowing glass. Photograph taken in 2006.


After trying to recreate these methods yourself, what can you say about the glassblowing achievements of the Bryn Athyn glassworks?

They were probably the best reproductions of the Gothic medieval stained glass that were available in their day, and haven’t been done that well since. And that comes from me overhearing authorities on stained glass, and restoration managers, and museum curators, and works program managers, over and over again, expressing how they wish they could get their hands on some Bryn Athyn glass in order to fix the medieval windows that need to be repaired.

So the Bryn Athyn glass is well-known to restoration people in Europe as well as in the United States?

Oh yes. When I was at York, when I mentioned the glass at Bryn Athyn, they were like, “Oh yes, if only we had that.” So, all the more reason to redo it again, and make it a living part of Bryn Athyn’s culture again.

What are some of your favorite projects you have worked on?

I have done a few works for various films. For Pirates of the Carribean I made the bottle for the Black Pearl; that was kind of fun. I’m doing some work for the new Ben-Hur. But to be truthful, my favorite project has been the ongoing enigma of the Bryn Athyn red glass. The movies were cool projects, but the red glass is a project that I want to continue going back to over and over. I wish I had a lot more time to work on it. When I demonstrate glassblowing during Glencairn’s Medieval Festival or the Sacred Arts Festival, I demonstrate the Roman techniques, because that relates to the Roman collection here. But I focus on the Bryn Athyn stained glass techniques, since there is such a direct connection to Bryn Athyn’s heritage here; it really was part of the community. 


Figure 12: Jason Klein works on a reproduction of a vessel in Glencairn’s ancient Roman collection.


Read more about Historical Glassworks here.

A complete archive of past issues of Glencairn Museum News is available online here.