Lab worker's touch of glass

Challenged by chemistry, staffer still makes a contribution

By Kristina Torres

St. Paul Pioneer Press

MINNEAPOLIS -- In the bowels of a building on the University of Minnesota campus, a solitary, quiet man plies an unusual trade -- glassblowing.

Beakers, bottles and flasks: Tom Stefanek repairs them all as the university's one-man "Glass Technology Services" shop. His workmanship, honed over decades, gives shape to what arguably could be art -- although, he admits, scientists aren't prone to hanging it on their walls.


"It's utilitarian. I sometimes do get into the artistic end of it, and some students will say things look really good, but they use it as a tool," said Stefanek, 52, a New Jersey native who takes a fair share of ribbing about his craft from the guys back home: "Some people say it's right up there with basket-weaving."

Most major research universities employ glassblowers, according to university chemistry department administrator Stan Bonnema. They are used in part as a recruiting tool, offered up as a perk to attract talented professors. But there aren't that many left practicing what once was a bustling trade.

The shop at the university has been around since at least the 1960s, at one time employing as many as six glassblowers. When Stefanek came in 1986, the staff had been whittled down to three. A layoff and a retirement in the past several years have left Stefanek the lone blower.

He likes it that way, enveloped in an atmosphere of his own making. The sounds of saws and sanders and lathes are punctuated by the glow of fire or the Bunsen burner over which he brews his favorite oolong or jasmine tea in a well-used flask.

Glass parts, from tubes to screw threads, are stored in cabinets of gunmetal gray or hospital green. When researchers appear, often guiltily holding broken pieces, Stefanek directs them to fill out work orders so he can make the repairs. Using him can be cheaper than shipping an item out or ordering brand-new items.

"Not all scientific glassware is commonly available. ... There are more choices today than there were 30 or 40 years ago, but they don't have everything," Bonnema said. "There are specialized devices that require design and individualized construction because they're one of a kind."

The cost for the jobs he does range from $5 to as much as $800. Stefanek's outside clients range from Johns Hopkins University to Medtronic.

He tries to charge less for labor and services to be competitive. Bonnema said the shop gets a small subsidy from the university -- about $25,000 -- but otherwise pays for itself.


"I'm operating not in the red" is how Stefanek puts it, the kid who grew up fascinated by fire but stymied in school by, of all subjects, chemistry. It was one of his worst subjects.

At Keane College, Stefanek took fine arts as a major because it gave him the most electives. One college semester involved glassblowing, but it wasn't until a few years later, when he took a job in a factory in New Jersey, that he finally fell under the spell of his craft.

Now, Stefanek insists he has one of the best jobs in the world, one with its own perks, whether or not doing it means toiling away in the basement of Smith Hall.

"It's air-conditioned, and the customers ... really appreciate what I do for them," he said, comfortable in his long white lab coat, jeans and thick-soled black boots. He considers himself a blue-collar man at heart, one who maybe never wanted to be a chemist but, regardless, plays his own important part.

"I get," he laughs, "the rudimentary idea."

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