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Scientific glassblower at UWM ignites interest in his craft

By Alex Corradetti

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    MILWAUKEE (WDJT) — Neal Korfhage is a scientific glassblower at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee who ignites a passion for the ancient artform. Glassblowing uses heat to melt glass into intricate objects. Sometimes it’s used to create works of art, but other times it can be used for a scientific purpose.

That’s where Korfhage’s work comes in. He says his father got him interested in the field at a young age.

“He was toward the tail end of his career and I was a sophomore in high school. I had to start thinking about what I wanted to do post-high school. He decided to set up at home to do scientific glassblowing. He decided to start training me to see if I would take to it, if I liked it to see if it was something I’d do for myself. By the time I was a senior in high school I thought yeah, I want to pursue this path,” explained Korfhage.

His interest in glassblowing led him to study at Salem Community College in Carney’s Point New Jersey, a popular place to learn the craft.

“The degree program at Salem is also called cuts and burns 101. I burned myself really bad once and it never happened again. Pain is a tutor. After about five years since I started that’s when things started looking really nice,” said Korfhage.

You may be asking yourself, what exactly is scientific glassblowing.

“It’s sort of what you see in movies. If you have a mad scientist, in the background there’s all this glassware and tubing and bubbling everywhere. That’s the stuff that I make.”

Korfhage creates custom-made pieces scientists need to conduct lab work.

“They say this isn’t a stock item but we’re trying to do this experiment or this run, and we need this specific thing that does this specific operation. Here’s our drawing for it we want you to make it its unique. I like to think of myself like a machinist. We’re familiar with the machinist that make metal parts like the shop that makes parts for cars or whatever but for me it’s working with glass and supporting chemists, so it’s fun for me,” explained Korfhage.

However, glassblowing does come with its challenges.

“When glass starts melting, it has the same viscosity as honey. It can be hard to manage. I try to be careful with whatever I’m making because its glass and I’m using a torch in order to fuse two pieces of glass together.”

CBS 58 asked Korfhage to show an example of what he does.

“What I am going to do is take a connection off a large condenser and then I am going to put a new connection on there that will suit their purposes.”

And with great glassblowing power, comes a greater responsibility.

“There’s a unit in this building that focuses on drug cancer research So if there’s something that I make that contributes toward new drug discoveries that are going to help cancer patients that is really satisfying to me.”

When he’s done working on a piece, he puts it inside an oven. Inside, you’ll find vermiculite. It’s a fireproof insulation. He then closes the oven which can reach up to 1054 degrees Fahrenheit. Nowadays, Neal’s craft isn’t as common as it used to be.

“There aren’t a lot of glassblowers that are in research fields like this one at a university. We’re churning out items for their scientists a lot. A lot of those shops have there been eliminated or they’re down to one person. 99% of glassblowers out there do not have a chemistry degree. They just know how to build this stuff that chemists need.”

The community is welcome to view Neal’s work at any time.

“This is a public building and if you want to come and see me it’s way easier to come and see what I do than it is for me to describe to you. If you’re mechanically inclined as they say and you like building things, then glass blowing may be for you.”

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