On a typical day, Kris “Special K” Uhlhorn, AKA the Bongfather, can be seen on IGTV vibing out to classic tunes, wearing Seattle Seahawks gear, and blowing a piece of glass on a stick, manipulating it with various tools before rotating it into a hot kiln. Oftentimes the process for a particular bong is so complex it requires assistance from two or three people.
Uhlhorn started his business Special K Glass in Seattle in 1998, but moved back to his hometown of Eugene in 2005 to raise his two small children. Over the last couple decades, he’s built a cult-like following for his stylish, new age glass pieces that can be found in smoke shops and pipe retailers all over Oregon, as well as on the Special K website.
“Our next T-shirt is gonna say ‘My first bong was a Special K,’" he says, "because we hear it all the time, and I love it.”
Pre-COVID, Uhlhorn had been quite active on social media, but hadn’t yet done retail sales online. Now with online sales and pick-ups, that’s all changed. “They're coming through our warehouse to pick up individual pieces,” Uhlhorn tells me. “That never happened before.” Prior to the pandemic, Uhlhorn only directly interacted with those who were taking home his pieces from lucrative events like Seattle Hemp Fest.
In contrast to the financial distress the pandemic has placed on various small businesses, cannabis dispensaries and head shops were all deemed essential. And for Special K, Uhlhorn says, “This has been the most transitional time for my business in 21 years," says Uhlhorn, whose wholesale business has taken off since the pandemic. “Everybody was home smoking weed, and it was the perfect thing for people who had to stay home and chill, and they wanted a nice piece.”
A lot of glass blowers are experiencing this same uptick of business, Uhlhorn adds. "Just slammed beyond capacity.” Then 4/20 hit, and the first round the stimulus check came out, which he says helped the business go from doing $300 a day in online sales to $1000 a day, almost overnight.
In Portland, you might come across Special K pieces anywhere that sells pipes and bongs, but there’s a particularly large selection at Mary Jane’s House of Glass locations, as well as Nomad Crossing (4526 SE Hawthorne).
Uhlhorn currently lives in South Eugene, close to the University of Oregon campus, and only a couple blocks from his childhood home. “There was a little movement just beginning in 1991… I was a senior in high school, and I bought my first glass pipe out of the Oregon Country Fair at a little booth called Clay Babies. It was a Top Hat. And that was really the kind of piece that started the whole modern big glass movement, made by Snodgrass, the Godfather of Glass.”
One of Eugene’s claims to fame is Bob Snodgrass, who began working on his techniques while following the Grateful Dead on tour during the 1970s and '80s and is credited with developing the glass-pipe-making techniques used around the globe today. In addition to Bob Snodgrass, Uhlhorn was introduced to glass blowing from a high school friend, Sky, whom Uhlhorn calls “a super OG glassblower.” The friends started making pipes and bongs in Sky’s backyard. "And I knew instantly that eventually I would get into it,” Uhlhorn says.
In 1998, while living in Eastlake, Seattle, Uhlhorn found a creative community where he started his business blowing glass pipes and bongs. “Seattle is the epicenter in America for soft glass,” Uhlhorn explains. “There were some really young people working for [American glass sculptor] Dale Chihuly. We opened a small glass studio and it was right across the water from Dale Chihuly’s studio,” Uhlhorn says. Chihuly is known for his many art installations all over the world and paving the way for a plethora of artists in the Seattle area.
“The young kids that were working there, they would come over to our shop and we would make bongs," Uhlhorn remembers. "I was about 25, 26 years old. And honestly, I've just been doing this every day since then.”
Today, you can easily spot a Special K piece by its signature spiral wrap around the neck, twisted handles, and curvy details.
“The wrap is definitely part of my signature,” Uhlhorn says about the elaborate Venetian-inspired design. “It also has a very utilitarian function. People do like it for the grip. And the wrap allows us to shape the neck and tilt it back a little bit.”
While not every piece features a glass spiral grip, all Special K bongs are striking for their vivid color melts in every hue (including some that glow in the dark), as well as epic diversity of shapes; no two bullets, beakers, bells, cones, goblets, or eggs look exactly alike.
“[Customers] love the character. There's so many women that identify with their hair color or their nail color. That's why purple has always been really, really popular. “They love to name them too,” Uhlhorn continues. “I've heard some stores that tell me, ‘Kris, you’ve got to have the most-named bongs out there because everybody that buys one, they come back, and tell us what they named it.’”
About 99 percent of the raw materials that Special K uses—except for the color that they purchase—are post-industrial recycled materials. Uhlhorn uses tweezers, crimps, and shears to make handles, and add design details to each piece while hot. “All those little hand touches are really what have helped me separate myself from the Chinese imported stuff,” he says.
While Uhlhorn serves customers of various ages, he acknowledges “a lot of young people obviously get started with my pieces. They're affordable. I think that's a big part of it.”
For cleaning, Special K says using rock salt and alcohol, and then rinsing with cold water is best. “We do recommend that you don't use hot water,” Uhlhorn says. “It's just not necessary for cleaning. And it can crack the pieces. You learn the hard way on that one.” If a small part, like a bowl or the down stem breaks, however, those are easy to replace.
Despite making more than 100 pieces every day, Uhlhorn doesn’t play favorites with his own work.
“My favorite piece is always the one that I made the day before,” he says. “And I guarantee that every day there's one piece in the oven I made where I tried something new or did something different…. But there are always breakthroughs. And when breakthroughs happen, and you create something new, that's always the most enjoyable.”
When asked if bongs are his preferred method of consuming cannabis, Uhlhorn answers with an obvious affirmative.
“All day, we're smoking bongs at work,” Uhlhorn says. “At home, I have to go in the garage, where I got a little home pipe. I try to be more discreet there, but, definitely, we’re all smokers here at the shop. That's pretty awesome.”