Quirky work: Glass blowing still an essential craft at University of Alberta

Whether they need a batch of test tubes or an elaborate custom-made distillation apparatus, University of Alberta scientists need look no further than the basement of the Gunning/Lemieux Chemistry Centre.

That’s where Jason Dibbs works alone, using air and flame to shape glass.

“Scientists have been working side by side with glass blowers for the last couple of hundred years,” Dibbs said. “We’re not going anywhere.”

Dibbs has been working at the university for 10 years and is the only scientific-glass blower on campus. 

His specialty is crafting customized glassware for chemists, engineers and physicists.

“I think of myself as a custom tailor, so if you want something a bit bigger or shorter or altered in any kind of way, that’s where I really shine,” he said.Jason Dibbs uses air and flame to shape glass for scientific experiments at the University of Alberta. (CBC)

“I can make something perfect for their purpose and they can do their research unimpeded.”

His talents even made the international stage when he was asked to make a glass quartz light guide for the world’s largest and most powerful particle collider, CERN’s Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, Switzerland..

“It was interesting to have one small part in a large scientific experiment,” Dibbs said.Dibbs is the only scientific-glass blower on campus. (CBC)

His career path began at age 15, learning the craft from retired U of A glass blower John Toonen, who had opened a glass-blowing business in Devon, west of Edmonton.

When Dibbs joined the university, he was one of three blowers, but soon was working by himself.

He estimates he’s one of up to three dozen scientific-glass blowers in Canada, one of maybe 500 in North America.Dibbs in his one-man basement lab on the university campus. (CBC)

But that doesn’t mean the craft is following the alchemist to obsolescence.

“I have more work than I can reasonably do,” Dibbs said.

While mass-produced glassware has its place, commercial manufacturers can’t replicate his work.

“I can rapidly prototype something or make something custom far faster than you are going to have a machine make it,” he said.

Dibbs looks forward to shaping glass for many years to come.While mass-produced glassware has its place, commercial manufacturers can’t replicate Dibbs’ work. (CBC)

“I enjoy making elegant solutions to problems. It’s a puzzle and I get to make all the pieces. I get to control how it’s put together.

“And there’s a lot freedom as far as choice in style goes.”

Dibbs’ story is part of a special edition of Our Edmonton called Quirky Work which showcases Edmontonians doing interesting jobs in our community.

Our Edmonton is on CBC TV Saturday at 10 a.m., Sunday at 2 p.m. and Monday at 11 a.m.

The glass shop is in the Gunning/Lemieux Chemistry Centre. (CBC)

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