David Jacosbon at one of two reheating chambers in Waterfall Arts Glasswork. These chambers, also called "glory holes," are powered entirely by recycling spent vegetable oil from a nearby Belfast restaurant, The Only Doughnut. Credit: Courtesy of Chris Battaglia

As crafters across Maine look for ways to be more sustainable, studios are getting in on the action, too.

Waterfall Arts in Belfast launched a glassblowing studio that is powered in part using recycled vegetable oil from a local doughnut shop. Months later, the project is still going strong — and looking to expand.

Carmi Katsir and David Jacobson are the glassblowers in Montville who led the development of the studio for Waterfall Arts starting last November. Jacobson used to have classes in his private studio and Airbnb, but business dried up with the pandemic. He talked to Waterfall Arts about donating a glassblowing studio to them for public and community classes and roped Katsir in on his efforts.

Sustainability is part of Waterfall Arts’s mission, though, and glassblowers tend to use propane to fuel their high-heat craft. Katsir and Jacobson were tasked with the mission to move away from fossil fuels in their studio to something more sustainable.

“We have in our mission statement that we’re always trying to do things in harmony with nature. That’s how the organization has started,” said Chris Battaglia, marketing manager at Waterfall Arts in Belfast. “When they were pricing out [the studio] and the logistics of setting up the studio with propane, it became a reminder that part of our mission is to do art in harmony with nature.”

After some research, they came across a company in North Carolina called Organic Combustion, which produces furnace burners for glassblowing, blacksmithing and pottery that are modified to run on high-energy vegetable oil. As a point of comparison, vegetable oil produces about 130,000 BTUs, or units of heat, per gallon, while propane clocks in at just over 84,000 BTUs per gallon.

Katsir and Jacobson reached out to other industry experts to see if they could use recycled vegetable oil to power the burners they bought for their studio. Once they figured out it was possible, they reached out to local restaurants for used oil.

“We quickly realized oil is kind of a pain for the restaurants,” Katsir said. “They have to pay for it to be disposed of. They pay a company to come pick it up weekly and it costs them a little bit of money and it seems like just a headache for everyone.”

Soon, they found their source: the Only Doughnut, which uses gallons upon gallons of soybean oil to fry its doughnuts every day and has more than enough supply for the new studio.

“To be able to keep this in our community is just so wonderful and now we just have this oil cycle — oil to glass,” said Sherian Swindell, owner of The Only Doughnut. “It’s just awesome.”

The “mother tank” for Waterfall Arts’s glassblowing studio holds 250 gallons of filtered oil. Credit: Courtesy of David Jacobson

As vanguards of this process, though, there has been a bit of troubleshooting. Used oil isn’t as pure or reliable as propane — plus, the oil has bits of donuts leftover from its first use.

Katsir and Jacobson had to figure out how best to strain matter out of the oil before burning it — they let gravity do most of the separating, but then run it through several strainers to get as much oil as possible until all they’re left with is, as Katsir said, a “floury sludge.” They also had to figure out how to best ignite the oil and keep it at a constant temperature, so they now use compressed air to atomize the oil into fine droplets to make it easier to ignite.

“The start up of the reheating chambers is somewhat difficult to get the oil to ignite in the beginning and burn cleanly,” Katsir said. “It’s a little bit smokier in the beginning. We’ve had a learning curve of learning how to burn it well in the beginning. As a glass maker we want a pretty specific temperature range depending on what we are making. We need the reheating chamber to behave in a certain way. We’ve been learning how to tune the equipment to meet our expectations.”

Not all of the equipment in the studio runs on used fryer oil. The reheating chambers are, but the furnace is electric, and a torch for detailing is still powered by propane. (Jacobson said that converting that piece of equipment to vegetable oil power simply wouldn’t be possible.)

The furnace at Waterfall Arts Glassworks, holding molten glass at 2100 degrees Fahrenheit. Credit: Courtesy of Chris Battaglia

However, the studio has been innovative in other ways. Jacobson said that the studio even developed its own one-of-a-kind automated system to move oil from the tank to the burner with as little spillage as possible.

“When you’re dealing with 50 gallons it can get a little messy. Every week and every month we’re moving in a better direction and getting more streamlined. Now we have a sophisticated pumping system that moves the oil from the 200 gallon holding tank to another holding tank and that holding tank allows the oil to flow directly to the two burners that we use.”

The studio is special for other reasons, too. Glassblowing studios are usually artists’ own private studios that they open occasionally for classes. Public and community studios aren’t common at all, much less in Maine.

In addition to guided glassblowing experiences, the studio opened up an elective this school year for high school seniors to take glassblowing classes at Waterfall Arts. As an extra element of serendipity, three of the students taking the glassblowing elective also work at the Only Doughnut.

The first meeting of the Glassblowing Elective with four students from the Belfast Area High School (BAHS). Carmi Katsir (left) and David Jacobon (right) go through proper safety elements and explanation of the craft. Credit: Courtesy of Chris Battaglia

The studio has only been open since July, but there are already big plans for it. Katsir and Jacobson hope to expand its public programs, as well as reach out to other restaurants to get more oil to meet that demand.

“We really don’t know what kind of maintenance the burners are going to need or how often,” Jacobson said. “Right now we’re operating pretty well but there’s going to be some kind of maintenance and upkeep.”

They have another challenge ahead of them too: winter. Oil turns to a solid fat between 45 and 50 degrees Fahrenheit, and since they usually strain and process the oil outside, they are stocking up supplies for the winter.

“We’re just going to be doing as much as possible to build up the storage that’s in the building before the weather is too cold,” Katsir said.

Katsir and Jacobson said that the demand for the space continues to grow, and they are hoping to partner with more schools and organizations over time.

“It’s taking off, it really is,” Jacobson said. “Neither one of us saw this happening but we just kept saying yes and it kept moving in this direction.”