Joe Gregar is anything but your average Joe. For nearly 50 years, he’s become a world-renowned craftsman, melting glass and molding it into instruments for scientists to use in their experiments.
“You can get it so hot it’s like honey and it’ll actually drip off onto the table. But because of this unique characteristic, you can melt it and shape it many different ways and make different things that the scientists need for their research,” said Gregar.
Joe started his trade working for his father and grandfather for the family business, Milwaukee Glassworks, when he was ten years old.
“I had responsibility in our factories on Saturday morning, so I’d clean and sweep and unfold newspaper for packing material, and I would work until noon and then I was allowed to go up onto the 2nd floor where our lamp room was and I could play with melting glass and building things.”
From there, he went on to blow glass for a company called Pope Scientific, Inc. before coming to Argonne National Laboratory where he’s worked for more than 30 years, making glass items like custom beakers, test tubes, and flasks that aren’t available anywhere else.
“Many of the reasons that glass is used. For one, it’s transparent and then the glass we use, it’s manufactured to be inert to call chemicals,” said Gregar. “There’s only one acid that will crack it, but other than that it’s pretty versatile. [It’s] reusable and you can fashion a prototype in just hours to get started.”
He’s molded countless objects throughout the years, including the glass for neon signs that decorate his shop, but most are ones scientists custom order.
“The scientist will come in and tell me what kind of experiment what they want to do. Some know exactly what they want their glassware to look like. Some don’t have any idea. Some come with sketches, very seldom do I get blueprints. A lot of times I have to sit down with them at the desk and sketch out what they want. I have a chemistry background from college so that helps but by no means am I a chemist.”
The largest piece of glassware he’s made: 18 inches in diameter and 48 inches long. Another is an award-winning item aptly named, the Gregar Extractor, which was one of the top 100 inventions of the year in 1999.
As a past president and active member of the American Scientific Glassblowing Society, he takes a dozen beginners under his wing for a five-year apprenticeship, hoping they’ll get fired up about this trade just as he does every day in his shop.
“It’s great to work shoulder to shoulder with the scientists and I feel very gratified that I get to help so many people and I enjoy the work that I do. There’s not a morning that goes by that I don’t want to come to work. I have mixed emotions about retirement plans but I think when that day comes I’ll just tinker.”
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