Marine Turned Modern American Glassblower

Up Close And Personal With Acclaimed Artisan Doug Frates

By  Todd R. Sciore

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Man’s fascination with glassmaking began with simple beads circa 3500 BC, and while the basic concept hasn’t changed, the process has undergone myriad innovations over the centuries.  Refined manufacturing processes fostered the age of mass production, and utilitarian items from windows to wine bottles rolled off assembly lines as fast as the mind can count.  However, the quest for mastering glass also included talented artisans, who despite their small numbers, continue to push the boundaries of creativity.  South Florida Opulence had a special opportunity to speak with Doug Frates, one of today’s preeminent glassblowing artists to get the dish on how he started out and his thoughts on working with glass.

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Doug Frates at work in his studio

Hidden Talent
In a perfect world, Doug Frates Glass wouldn’t exist. He is a walking contradiction of sorts — a rough-and-tumble former U.S. Marine successfully working within the delicate medium of glass. He is friendly with an underlying intensity and is focused yet tangential. A quick glance at a bowl from his alluring yet functional Sedona or Splash Glass collections and one would assume he has several decades of experience. Doug’s foray into glass came by chance just over 10 years ago after leaving the military. ”It was luck of the draw — I pretty much took it [a glassblowing class] on a whim; I didn’t go to college for it.” Laughing, Frates shared that upon his return from a 2003 tour in Iraq, he tried his luck in Sin City first. ”I had a bunch of money saved up. I took a big trip to Vegas and spent it all over a weekend. But, I did have a little left over when I came back and spent it on a glassblowing class. After I took that class I became enamored by it.”

Armed with a new found passion, Doug realized he had a hidden talent for it. ”I was able to grow enough to start working for other people, and through that process, I learned my own techniques and skills.”  Those ”other people” Doug worked for and trained under were none other than Fritz Dreisbach and Tom
Philabaum — two luminaries within art glass circles.  Doug’s family initially thought glassblowing would be just ”one of those phases he would grow out of.” But to the contrary, Doug’s passion was permanent and, within the artisan set, he found a surprising similarity to his military career.  ”We all work cohesively together for one main purpose, and that brings me back to the Marine Corps; there’s a large level of camaraderie and teamwork involved.”
glassblowing techniques

Today, like a conductor of a symphony, Doug is the gaffer of his own hot box studio, guiding and cuing teammates, such as the blower, as he dips the blowpipe into a 2300-degree ”glory hole” pot, twirling it like a honey wand, to gather molten glass. Once enough is gathered, Doug instructs the blower to carefully puff just the right amount of air, with just the right amount of pressure, at just the right speed, to initiate the shape of the intended piece. Doug directs another teammate to get the ”punty” ready — that’s the mass of glass placed on a receiving pipe  to transfer the glass from the blowpipe so that another artisan can work on the other end. ”Grab the caliper to secure the piece,” Doug says to a colleague as he further shapes the fire-red mass with a flat steel plate called a marver. The glass conductor, Doug, may then call for a bit of ”kurling” to add decorative glass bands or beads to the base, as well as some ”caning” to twist and pull the glass to blend in colors and sculpt the precise shape. Then, it’s back into the glory hole for a quick flashing to ensure the glass remains hot and pliable. This continues until the project reaches Doug’s expectations, at which time he performs some final polishing before placing the glass into an  annealing oven that  gradually cools the finished work.

A MysteriousMmedium with a Mind of Its Own
”Glassblowing is an animal unto itself. It requires skill, knowledge, physical strength and respect,” said highly regarded glass artisan William Morris. Doug expands upon this by showing deference to the molten, amorphous substance. ”You learn it by doing it, and that’s what’s cool about glassblowing – it’s always teaching you, you’re never teaching it. There are so many dynamics to glassblowing, that’s what reeled me in and keeps the adrenaline rushing!”
To see additional glasswork by artisan Doug Frates, go to www.DougFratesGlass.com.

Marine Turned Modern American Glassblower