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A blow for creativity Scientific glass company creates piece for Smithsonian

George Boardman

Wade Martindale is pretty young to have his work on display in the Smithsonian Institution, but then again, he does work that few people would attempt.

The 29-year-old native of Canada is a senior glassblower at Farlow’s Scientific Glassblowing in Grass Valley, a business that uses the ancient craft to produce anatomical models and finely tooled instruments for the medical industry.

Martindale’s latest creation is an anatomical glass model that accurately represents the major arteries of the vascular system of the upper chest.

The model is being made for the chest cavity of a 5-foot-8-inch, 180-pound male skeleton that will display medical devices – such as stents – that can be placed in the body. The exhibit opens at the Smithsonian later this year.

Martindale’s creation is illustrative of the highly precise anatomical models and medical instruments the company has been producing since 1981. Founder Gary Farlow moved the business to Grass Valley in 1994.

The company sells its models, tooling and molds – some made to a tolerance of .0005 of an inch – to medical device companies around the world.

Farlow’s reputation is so solid that it has major customers in Germany, where the most advanced glass work is done these days, and sells glass filters to a manufacturer of dialysis machines in Italy, where Romans started refining the art more than 1,900 years ago.

In the process, the company’s employees have become experts in human anatomy.

“We’ve learned about anatomy as we go along,” said Ralph Joiner, vice president of sales and marketing for Farlow’s. “Nobody does this work in the world except us.”

Joiner said glass has several characteristics that makes it attractive to the medical field: You can watch material flow through the device, plastic doesn’t stick to glass, and the company can provide a quick turnaround for its customers.

The model that will be displayed at the Smithsonian is a good example of how fast the company can work. Guidant Corp., a major manufacturer of medical devices that is working with the medical school at Johns Hopkins University to develop the display, asked for a quick turnaround on the model.

Farlow’s created the model and had it ready for shipment in four days. “That was super fast,” Joiner said. “It was exciting.”

The company has developed several proprietary techniques for its work, rarely subcontracts anything, and uses specialized materials to make its products.

Workers start with borosilicate glass, a silicate glass having at least 5 percent boron oxide that withstands heating and cooling without cracking.

Instead of acetylene, Farlow’s glass blowers use a mixture of either natural gas and oxygen or hydrogen and oxygen to obtain the concentrated heat needed to mold the glass into precision parts.

None of the company’s 22 employees has formal training in the anatomy of the body but have acquired the knowledge through personal study, professional classes, and consultations with doctors.

“I never thought I’d know the body as well as I do,” said Martindale. “The arteries, I’m getting to know them.”

He is the nephew of Gary Farlow, who started teaching him the art of glass blowing when he was 13 and came down from Vancouver, British Columbia, when he was 18 to join the company.

Martindale said he acquired most of his knowledge by just doing the work but has also attended classes and training sessions run by the American Scientific Glass Blowers Association.

He’s glad millions of people will have an opportunity to view his handiwork but admits he doesn’t know much about America’s attic, the Smithsonian.

“Where is it, anyway?” he asked.


To contact staff writer George Boardman, e-mail georgeb@theunion.com or call 477-4236.

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