How They Work: When the art of glassblowing meets scientific accuracy

Sunlight finds Yves Rambour last.

His basement studio looks out onto grass and student feet. When he starts work ‪at 5 a.m., his only illumination is from the overhanging fluorescent lights.

Rambour, 56, is a scientific glassblower at Western University. He creates and repairs laboratory equipment, mainly for the chemistry department.

Sometimes he hosts glassblowing shows in his studio. His cabinet is decorated with handmade cards from children who attended those shows. They surround a photo of a certificate from 1978—one that proves his qualifications as a glassblower.

One piece he often demonstrates is a swan.

Rambour melts a clear glass rod with a torch. The blue flame whistles with a constant sound of wind. Through a pair of yellow-tinted glasses, the rod glows pink in the 1200 C flame.

Picking up a second rod, he seals it with the first as they soften. Rambour shapes one piece of the molten glass into a wing with a graphite clamp and tweezers. His hand motions are fluid from decades of experience.

“Artistic is more interesting for people,” Rambour explains why he doesn’t demonstrate making lab equipment. His 43 years in France linger in his sentences.

Born and raised in France, he was 15 when his mathematics teacher told him about Lycée polyvalent Dorian. It’s a Parisian vocational school with a scientific glassblowing program. After one visit to the campus, he was convinced to enrol.

Rambour says he wanted to work and saw a possibility in glassblowing. After three years of study and certification, he launched into a 28-year career.

When the new millennium came, he felt it brought unpleasant changes to France that motivated his move to Canada.

“In France, now there is too much violence, too many drugs. It’s bad.” He also saw an opportunity in Canada because scientific glassblowing is a smaller industry in comparison. His expertise would be highly sought-after.

Taylor Martino, a chemistry PhD candidate at Western, is one of many who benefit from his expert glassblowing. She often needs new equipment or repairs for her work.

“The things that he can make are very advanced, and not every university has a glassblower like him,” she says. Martino would bring her requests to Rambour’s studio and explain in detail what she wants.

She once needed an electrochemical cell, a piece made of one cylinder inside another, complete with multiple valves of different sizes. They spoke for an hour to ensure the details are correct.

“He talked to me until he understood it, even though it was probably frustrating for him,” she says.

A similar electrochemical cell sits in Rambour’s studio today for repairs. His design work is less frequent with the gradual decrease in glassware use.

“There is more electronic, more machines,” he says. There are now only two to three special projects a year. His clients would come in with technical drawings complete with specifications, as they would when they need a repair.

Rambour says repair requests also come from outside of Western. A box from McMaster sits on his workbench, waiting for its owners to pick it up.

The lab at McMaster would have to pay more. While chemistry labs at Western pay $15 per hour, a lab from McMaster is charged $50 for the same time. Rambour manages the studio and the university pays him as regular staff.

Part of his management role involves administrative tasks. At 11 a.m., more than halfway through his work day, Rambour retreats to his desk where he orders raw materials and bills invoices to his clients. He cranks up ICI Radio-Canada, a French-language radio station by CBC.

The voices of radio hosts bounce off machinery placed along the walls of the studio. One of them is a lathe, a machine Rambour uses to rotate glass around an axis. A cylindrical piece that he’s repairing is clamped onto the lathe.

However, there are repair requests he can’t fulfil. A piece of equipment retired to his display because of its unrepairable coiled pipe.

Rambour says it’s his favourite. He spent one week making it. The equipment featured a pipe coiled around a cylinder, and both are nestled in a glass cage complete with several valves.

“It must work perfect, perfect, perfect. Precise, not one small default,” he says. Scientific glassblowing has no room for mistakes.

Researchers rely on him to get it right every time. His work is acknowledged in many scientific papers.

“They’re very complicated, and he always does such a fantastic job,” Martino says.

Rambour says making chemistry lab equipment is time-consuming and difficult. He has always started work at 5 a.m., because mornings are cooler for spending long hours by a flame.

Even though the sun finds him last, Rambour still enjoys the many aspects of his work.

“I like all, all parts.”