All About Glass

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Josh Simpson's 100-Pound Megaplanet

All About Glass

In April 2005, The Corning Museum of Glass commissioned the artist Josh Simpson to create the world's first 100-pound glass paperweight, which will be part of Simpson's series of solid glass spheres he calls "planets" or "Megaplanets." It will be the 1,000th paperweight in the Museum's collection and one of the key pieces in the exhibition Worlds Within: The Evolution of the Paperweight.

Like Simpson's other work, the 100-pound Megaplanet (2006.4.154) is inspired both by the natural world and by glass itself. His Megaplanets are made with many layers of luminous glass enclosing vast seascapes and minute terrestrial details, also of glass. Simpson's work reflects his joy of exploration and discovery, and it encourages the viewer to appreciate even the smallest details of our complex universe.

Upon receiving the Museum's commission, Simpson spent about a year preparing to create the 100-pound Megaplanet, which is about 20 pounds heavier than any of his previous works. Keith Clark, an independent producer-director for WGBY, the PBS station in Springfield, Massachusetts, has filmed each step of Simpson's process in order to make a documentary about this challenging project. In the summer of 2005, the artist disassembled one of the glass furnaces in his studio, enlarging the door to accommodate the piece. He also upgraded his studio's electrical power and installed a larger backup generator.

Simpson realized that he would need special tools to attempt this ambitious project. He collaborated with Steinert Industries to design a stronger blowpipe, which was made at a local machine shop. In addition, he ordered special wooden blocks that would be big enough to form the giant Megaplanet. It took a month to find a tree large enough to be used in making the blocks. Simpson had also worked out regularly to improve his strength for handling the piece.

With the creation of this extraordinary 100-pound Megaplanet, Simpson is taking his talent and skill to a new level. He is pushing the boundaries of the material, and he is achieving something that has never been accomplished by any other artist. The result will certainly be both technically remarkable and stunningly beautiful. It will be an exciting addition to the Worlds Within exhibition and the Museum's permanent collection.

Steps for Making a Megaplanet

Step 1

Before creating his Megaplanets at the glass furnace, Josh Simpson makes hundreds of different types of canes. Simple one- or two-color canes are made by gathering enough layers of glass on the end of a blowpipe to form a molten "softball." Another blowpipe, which has been dipped in hot glass, is attached to the other end. Two people pull and twist the ball apart like warm, gooey taffy, producing pencil-thin rods of glass that are 50 or 60 feet long.

These rods are cut into small lengths called canes. Simpson then bundles various canes together, according to the colors and patterns he desires, and heats them in an oven. When a bundle is sufficiently hot, it is attached to two blowpipes and stretched again. After cooling overnight, the composite cane is either rebundled to achieve even more intricate designs or cut into quarter-inch segments, ready to be placed on the surface of a Megaplanet.

Simpson knows how much visual "information" he wants to store in the canes he uses to create a particular Megaplanet. He repeats the cane-making process as many times as needed to achieve a particular design.

Spaceships, satellites, and UFOs are other elements of the Megaplanet that are made from pieces of cane. A segment of cane is heated over a torch to soften the glass. It is then twisted and pulled into a desired shape. Creating these tiny objects takes a long time. Sometimes, it takes a whole day to make enough orbiting spacecrafts for one large Megaplanet.

Megaplanets are made by gathering layer upon layer of glass. The inside layers are usually made with colored opaque glass and the outer layers are made with transparent glass.

Step 2

The process begins with a small gob of red-hot molten glass gathered on the end of the blowpipe. Simpson continually turns the blowpipe so the gather does not drip off.

Step 3

Layers of dark colored glass are gathered onto the blowpipe, and the gather is repeatedly reheated in the glory hole, or heating oven. With the addition of silver picked up onto the hot glass, the evolving Megaplanet now has stormy seas and deep oceans.

Step 4

With tweezers, Simpson places gold leaf, small chips of colored glass and powdered glass on the surface of the growing Megaplanet. Continents and islands, and even coral reefs, begin to take shape. Next, he reheats the glass.

Step 5

Small pieces of colored glass canes are heated under a torch to 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit and then picked up or rolled onto the molten surface. Each piece contains specific color combinations and textures that will become the Megaplanet's cities, mountains, spaceship-launching areas, and other unique features like a volcanic eruption, a tornado, or a fiery explosion. Simpson reheats the glass again.The inner details are now in place. Back at the furnace, Simpson gathers colorless glass over the Megaplanet. He then picks up heated glass spaceships onto the molten orb from a steel plate. The glass is reheated again.

Step 6

Perhaps Josh makes a Megaplanet with many technologically advanced civilizations. Step 5 can be repeated to add other orbiting spacecrafts such as satellites, or even a UFO, in layers of colorless glass. Here, Josh draws on the surface of the Megaplanet with glass cane that he melts on with a small torch.

Step 7

The Megaplanet is ready to be carefully shaped in a series of graduated wooden blocks that have been soaked in water. Forming blocks of different sizes are made from fruitwood such as apple or cherry because its grain absorbs water well. The extra water in the block creates a layer of steam that makes it easier to turn and shape the Megaplanet. When the gather is small, the molten glass can be shaped with wood blocks or hand-%%size%% pads of folded newspaper that have been presoaked in water for months. Shaping the gather with padded wet newspaper is as close to touching molten glass as Simpson can get without burning his hands.

Step 8

After three hours of non-stop work at the furnace, the Megaplanet is ready to be knocked off the blowpipe and put into the annealing oven, where it will cool slowly. Josh Simpson's 100-pound Megaplanet, consisting of 20 to 50 layers of glass, required two months in the annealing oven.

Additional information about Josh Simpson and his work may be found on his Web site at

Published on October 7, 2011