In the name of science, Curt Sexton and Gary Dobos practice one of the world's oldest arts.
They spend their days at Savannah River Site's research and development lab, surrounded by examples of their work -- elaborate, delicate contraptions with tubes that twist in perfect spirals and pour spouts fashioned to prevent any spills.
The vessels would be impressive enough if they were mass-produced with the plastics so common today. But these are glass, and most are one of a kind.
Mr. Sexton and Mr. Dobos are glass blowers, the only ones at the federal nuclear weapons site. They make the tubes, valves and beakers that are the miniature infrastructure of the site's scientific research.
"You can get a machine to fuse a valve on and blow a flask, but you can't get one that can do this," said Mr. Sexton, holding a long cylinder with seven valves protruding from its curved face. "It's a dying art."
The men craft intricate, cylinder-within-cylinder devices with names like "molecular still" and "polarographic cell" and "modified snyder distillation column."
It takes patience to make such instruments, Mr. Sexton said. Some vessels are created with little more than a verbal description, and maybe a crude sketch, of what a scientist needs, he said.
"You never know if you're going to get a good drawing, any drawing, or whatever," Mr. Sexton said. "Sometimes you have to go a long way to get to exactly what the customer wants."
He recounted an exchange with a scientist who had broken the last model of a particular beaker that had been used for years at the site. The glass blower couldn't find a diagram for the piece in the old drawings filed away in the shop, so he asked the scientist to bring him the shards of the shattered vessel.
"I got a cup of coffee and some Scotch tape, and was able to tape it together to get the diameter and the height," Mr. Sexton said.
Most knowledge of glass blowing is gleaned through hands-on experience rather than instruction, Mr. Dobos said.
"It takes a lot of hand-eye coordination," he said as he welded a valve to a small glass column, heating both pieces over a bright-white fire that hissed like the harsh scrape of grinding metal.
Within minutes, the craftsman was stretching a lava-orange strand of molten glass like it was freshly pulled taffy at a county fair.
"It's just an accumulation of a lot of years and experience that you have," Mr. Dobos said. "It doesn't happen overnight, that's for sure."
To make larger works, the men spindle massive cylinders of glass to lathes, then blast the glass on all sides with multiple torches that reach more than 1,200 degrees.
During a recent workday, the jets of flame screamed at rock-concert levels as Mr. Dobos worked the lathe's gears, levers and pedals with ease. Slowly, the glass became malleable and the blower carved a near-perfect circle from its face.
Even after years of practice, glass blowers never perfect the skills needed to perform such work, Mr. Sexton said.
"One thing that I learned, and it was a cruel lesson, was that you will humble yourself," he said. "There's always something you can learn."
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