Making Dewdrops

Making Dewdrops

An overview of the process from idea to installation


David Patchen Dewdrops

I recently installed eight sculptures titled Dewdrops in a brand new Norwegian cruise ship off the coast of Germany.  This project was a perfect combination of glassblowing, design, engineering and craftsmanship and one of the most satisfying of my career thus far.  The ship had been under construction for two years and by the time my assistant and I left for Germany this past October to install these, the ship was in its last week of outfitting and planned to soon cross the Atlantic to begin service in the Caribbean.  Jon Moreno (a fellow glass artist and my assistant for this project) and I were scheduled to install the sculptures on the ship while it was in port at Bremerhaven for six days.  But to our surprise, within three hours of boarding, a 'sea trial' was announced and we departed the terminal to cruise around the North Sea off the coast of Denmark and Norway for two days before returning to Bremerhaven.  

Consistent with their name, Dewdrops are sculptures comprised of elegant crescents of glass with crystal clear spheres of 'dew' clinging to them.  The curved glass elements relate to each other through gentle curves and gestures through the negative space.  Spheres of 'dew' in various sizes defy gravity by clinging to the glass reeds and like dew, act as lenses refracting light and offering interesting and distorted views of the surroundings.  Designed in a range of earth tones, Dewdrops echo a macro view of the natural world where this phenomenon of condensing water vapor occurs.

While these sculptures are primarily glass and wood, the majority of the work wasn't glassblowing.  A great deal of time was spent determining the interactions between the glass crescents, ensuring the bottoms of the glass fit flush against the base, connecting the glass to steel support pins, bonding the spheres to the glass and designing it for safe transportation to Europe and a straightforward installation on site. 

The project originated with an email in late March 2019.  Final colors were approved at the end of April. Glassblowing was completed the end of June.  Fabrication and bases were completed the beginning of August and they were shipped to Germany mid-August.  The finished work installed on Norwegian Cruise Line's massive new ship Encore, at the end of October 2019.  The work for this was sporadic throughout the duration with a couple of full-time weeks prior to shipping.

Click to link to Instagram for a short time-lapse of installation of one Dewdrops.



The sculptures were designed for niches that are open on both sides in a fine dining restaurant.  The client provided architectural drawings and dimensions along with a color palette of earth tones designed for the space.  

As much as I love the artistic freedom to create from my mind's eye, I also enjoy working with a client to design work that's custom to a space and satisfies a specific aesthetic.  Since the first Dewdrops sculpture was 15" tall, scaling them up to four feet tall and equally wide was a fun challenge. 

Since these sculptures would reside in an environment that moves, designing and engineering them to remain secure was a constant consideration throughout design, engineering and installation. With everything subjected to continual rocking, meant that all mechanical and adhesive connections would have to withstand stress in different directions.  

Given all eight sculptures would have to safely be transported to Germany via freight, shipping them unassembled was the obvious choice.  I carefully considered the degree and nature of the assembly I wanted to undertake on the ship, since tools and jigs for curing adhesives would be limited to what we could carry in a suitcase.   

I designed Dewdrops in 2014 based on some crescent forms and spheres that were leftover from a corporate commission.  These crescents were in bright colors and only about 15" tall; they weren't used in the commission since they didn't quite match with other crescents I had made--perhaps they were a bit too thick, pointed, etc.  When I was cleaning up after completing the commission these extra crescents all lying together on a table intrigued me.  I liked how the curves interacted and I experimented with a few approaches to arranging them toghether.  I decided that I liked them best vertical, with the curves intersecting and interacting.  Experimenting further got me thinking about the way the crescents related to each other and the areas of visual interest or tension.

Dewdrops Prototype

Since I also had some extra glass spheres around the studio from the commission, I started adding them to the crescents.  I loved the combination of these two forms, the simple silhouette, the shadows they cast, and the way the spheres gathered and projected light, as well as the wild lens to look through.  I decided to make another prototype but in colors I preferred.  So I made more crescents in black glass with silver leaf and mounted these on a black glass base and Dewdrops was born.

When I was approached to make these in large scale (each niche was roughly 4' tall x 4' wide x 15" deep) I was excited to return to this sculpture, scale it up and refine it.  I decided I wanted to make these crescents with a couple of encasement layers of clear glass over the color to provide beautiful optics and strength.  I knew scaling up the glass spheres was going to make them heavy and reliably attaching them was going to be a challenge.  Initially, I thought attaching them hot (with molten glass) would be the most secure, so I made a number of spheres and tested adding them to the crescents during the glassblowing process.  This proved to be a poor solution as the timing was critical to add the spheres before the crescents got too cool.  Even worse, the spheres introduced a point of stress into the glass and when breaking the crescent off the pipe, the spheres would tend to break off as well.  I also realized that I would have to determine sphere placement prior to blowing each of the pieces leaving me no flexibility if I decided I didn't like where they were placed.  I considered making glass spheres separately then gluing them on once cool, but I found the glass spheres at this scale to be incredibly heavy--especially for such a small contact patch.  I explored other materials for the sphere and decided to test cast acrylic because it's less than half the weight of glass, has excellent clarity and could be placed anytime after the glass was cool.  The main challenge with acrylic was finding the right adhesive that could securely join them to glass without yellowing over time.

This project began with a mockup of the exact niche in which these sculptures would reside.  Sketching the sculptures into the space allowed me to get a feel for the scale and desired form for the glass, spheres and bases.  Color selection was next; I recommended a palette based on the color samples my client provided of other tones used in the room.  I selected opaque glass colors that harmonized with the room and each other.  I made paper mockups of the glass crescents so I could photograph them and manipulate them in photoshop to ensure I was happy with the curves and scale.  Once I was satisfied with the design, it was time to make the glass to this specification. 


GLASS PRODUCTIONPulling a point on the glass bubble
Elegant, tall flowing forms at this scale are almost always best made by stretching very hot molten glass into the final form quickly, without any re-heats (to soften and re-form). Reheats on very long/tall forms only result in uneven heat and the 'flopping banana'--glass that once hot becomes very floppy (because it's long) and difficult to control well yet never really hot enough to shape well.  With this in mind, I experimented with various processes to create the crescents in the 'hot and fast' approach to determine the most efficient approach to creating consistent curved elements.  I decided once the glass had been drawn out into a long spear and was still malleable I would shape it around a 

Stretching the bubble

plywood form to achieve the final curve.  This way, each glass crescent would have a consistent curve (radius).  Once the color palette was finalized, I ordered colored glass rods and used the overlay technique to coat a small glass bubble on the end of a blowpipe with a blob of the correct glass color.  After heating and smoothing the colored glass bubble, we gathered molten clear glass over it twice, encasing the color with thick clear glass.  Blowing the interior bubble evenly and using a 

folded up pad of wet newspaper to shape the glass into a cone was the beginning of the setup to pull the molten cone into a spear.  Just before pulling the spear, I picked the tip of the glass with shears, pointing the bubble up further and creating a small handle of glass to grab for the next step.  After heating the glass cone until it was very hot and soft in the reheating furnace, I then exited the furnace and attached the blowpipe to a rope connected to a pulley attached to the ceiling.  With my assistant holding the end of the rope, he pulled the pipe vertically toward the ceiling.  Then using a gripping/cutting tool called 'diamond shears' I grabbed the tab I made and stretched the glass into 3-5' in length.  I used a hand torch to keep the glass warm as I stretched it. 

 Once it was the correct length, I neatened up the tip with a torch, then my assistant carefully lowered the pipe and we quickly removed it from the pulley system.  While the long spear of glass was still pliable, we set it on the plywood form and I used cork paddles to gently push the glass around the curved plywood, creating the crescent form.  Then we'd take the finished glass crescent back to the bench, break it off the pipe into my kevlar gloves and load it in a 950-degree kiln to cool down overnight.  This all must happen quickly and seamlessly.  We did this about 80 times in six different colors over a number of days of glassblowing.  (The photos to the right show these steps on a clear crescent).


David Patchen DewdropsOptically perfect acrylic spheres are available in a range of sizes and sourcing a hundred of them was simple.  However, finding the correct adhesive was not.  I'm familiar with specialized glass-to-glass adhesives, but joining glass to acrylic is a different challenge.  The adhesive needed to join the two different materials very securely, be optically clear, not yellow over time, be viscous enough not to run out of a joint and cure at a rate that was appropriate for the pace of the work. 

After researching industrial adhesives at a few different manufacturer websites I ordered five different epoxies to test. My initial test involved attaching a small acrylic sphere to a glass crescent with each of the different epoxies and seeing how difficult it was to remove after 24 hours.  To prep the joint, the glass was cleaned with acetone and surface-ground with a diamond bit to give the glass 'tooth' to aid the epoxy.  On the sphere I ground a concave bevel to better fit the glass, increase the surface area and expose clean acrylic for the epoxy. 

Spheres curing in jigsEnsuring the spheres were secured while the epoxy cured overnight also presented a challenge.  I considering using a dot of UV glue for its instant curing property to hold the spheres to the glass while the epoxy cured around the joint but dismissed this approach since it meant a good percentage of the final glue joint would be occupied by the UV glue, which wasn't a reliable adhesive for this application.  After much testing, I decided to use hot glue to create jigs out of craft/popsicle sticks to hold each sphere in place while the epoxy cured overnight.  I quickly learned I could only rest the spheres on the craft sticks (rather than glue them), as hot glue doesn't detach from acrylic very nicely.  However, hot glue adheres nicely to glass and detaches easily with a drop of alcohol or acetone,which I applied very carefully to ensure it didn't run into the epoxy joint.  After finding an epoxy that passed my tests, I left it for a couple of months (the entire timeline of the project) to ensure the joint had longevity.  Since attaching the spheres was time consuming and required lots of precise jigs, I decided to attach all the spheres in my studio, except for the ones that would touch to two crescents--those I would do on the ship since it would permanently join two crescents together making them impossible to safely ship.  

Once installed the glass needed to be in precise orientation, flush with the base and maintain this position for years. But it also needed to be able to test-install at my studio, come apart, then permanently install on the ship.  

The simplest approach seemed to be permanently anchoring steel pins inside the hollow ends of the blown glass.  The part of the steel pin extending from the glass would then insert a few inches into a hole on the wood base.  This way, I could test assemble them and easily take them apart for shipping.  Cutting 3/8" diameter stainless steel rods into 6.5" lengths and inserting them into the 3" tall bases gave me 3.5" to extend into the glass to hold it upright. 

In order to simplify assembly/disassembly/re-assembly, I decided the pins would be perfectly true (perpendicular) to the wood base; but since the glass curves, this requires that the steel pins need to be bent a bit before inserting into each piece of glass.  After arranging all the glass crescents flat on a piece of cardboard that represented the base, I drew a line on the bottom of each piece of glass to indicate the angle the steel rods needed to be bent to follow the angle of the glass.  Before epoxying the pins into the glass, the glass had to be ground to the right angle so that when everything came together the glass would be perfectly flush to the base. 

Wood base mockups were drilled, pins inserted, epoxy squirted into the void in the hollow of the glass and the glass lowered onto the pin and left overnight for the epoxy to set.  (I used mock ups of the bases for all of this assembly since the real bases were being assembled concurrently and I wanted to make sure that any drips, bumps, scratches, etc. would happen to mockup bases rather than the real, perfectly-finished ones). Determining the correct epoxy for securing the steel pins also required some research as most epoxy is too runny and would drip out of the glass before it could harden.  In my research for viscus structural epoxy I discovered a 'thickened' marine epoxy the consistency of frosting what would stay in the void and hold the pin.  Unfortunately, this epoxy shrinks a hair as it cures which would occasionally create a small stress crack in the glass.  To avoid this, before applying the epoxy I painted two stripes of oil inside the glass in order to prevent the epoxy from attaching to the entire interior, reducing the stress but still securing the glass.  This seemed to greatly reduce cracking.  

My goal for the bases was something warm and organic that was strong enough to hold the pins long-term and didn't distract or visually compete from the glass.  I wanted it to harmonize with the interior of the restaurant but not blend into the decor.  I decided on a tight-grained mahogany base, stained and sealed in a shade of dark espresso.  A fine-grained wood like mahogany provides the warmth of wood but doesn't risk competing with the glass the way I suspected a more prominent looping grain like oak would. A dark stain made the wood recede visually and highlight the glass.  A fine woodworker friend fabricated these with a mahogany veneer laminated to a core of birch plywood for strength and stability from warping.  They are heavy and dense.

To ensure everything was ready to go, I test assembled all the sculptures in my studio with the exception of the spheres that would glue two crescents together.  All crescents and bases received tape labels and markings that indicated their placement and orientation.  I documented this with photos to ensure I would be able to identify what went where even if my tape labels were inadvertently removed in packing or unpacking.  Test assembly was also a chance to ensure I had record of the spheres that needed to come for final assembly.

Crating and packing was done by Connect Art, a San Francisco-based art handler.  They used alternating layers of foam with custom cut-outs for each crescent.  I had anticipated doing this myself but as I got closer to completion realized it would be best left to experts who could safely manage everything that goes into packing the heavy eight bases and close to seventy fragile crescents.  I included spare glass crescents just in case I needed to replace some glass on-site.  I ended up using one of them to replace a crescent that showed a tiny stress crack.

Since my needs were specialized I planned to bring a comprehensive installation kit.  Most tasks were easy to anticipate since I had already fabricated these sculptures in my studio, but I had to anticipate all the potential disasters I could encounter on-site and what tools would be required for a fix.  With this installation kit I was prepared for replacing things as simple as broken-off spheres and scratched bases all the way to replacing an entire glass crescent. It was a balancing act to weigh the hassle in bringing a tool with the risk of needing it but not having it.  Following is a full list of everything that was in my installation kit; I used almost everything.

Our journey to the ship took Jon Moreno (my assistant) and me from San Francisco to Frankfurt, then on to Bremen.  From Bremen we caught a train to Bremerhaven, the port city where the ship was docked.  A short taxi ride and a lot of security screening and we were boarding a staggeringly 

Sorting Dewdrops crescents on sitelarge cruise ship.  At almost 1,100 feet long, 150 feet wide and 17 decks tall the scale of this ship blew my mind.  Not surprisingly, I spent a decent percentage of time on board being lost.  After finding our staterooms, we located the crates containing the sculptures adjacent to the restaurant that would be receiving them.  Upon opening the crate I was delighted to see the packing was impeccable and everything was in perfect condition; we were relieved that we could turn in knowing things were likely to go smoothly. 

The next morning Jon and I unloaded and organized all the glass and bases in a staging area in the restaurant.  After walking the restaurant and deciding the order of the eight sculptures in the niches, we began installation. While I had planned to screw the bases in from underneath the niches, there was no access available so we used epoxy to secure the bases to the floor of the niches.  We secured these overnight with jigs to prevent them from shifting as with the motions of the ship while they cured.  The next day the glass was all placed in the bases and notes were taken about any extra fixes each sculpture required from replacing a sphere that I had accidentally knocked off to replacing a crescent that showed a small stress crack from epoxy.  After all the glass was in bases we began adding the additional spheres; hot-gluing the jigs for support, grinding the spheres and glass and applying the epoxy.  This also required overnight to cure.  The following day was mostly removal of all the jigs, cleanup of all epoxy joints, a final clean on glass and photography.

During the installation the ship was in the final stages of preparation prior to formally launching so there were likely close to a thousand technicians on board addressing all the systems that needed final work, testing or fine-tuning so the ship was a very busy place.  Everyone ate meals in a large cafeteria with a dozen different nicely-done food stations occupying most of the 16th deck so there were fantastic views to be had while dining.  The ship was very well-appointed with 20 different restaurants, likely even more bars and every manner of entertainment imaginable--from laser tag to go kart racing.  I can only imagine what the ship will be like filled with close to 4,000 guests. 





Cool. Congratulations.

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