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The Craft of Stained Glass

The Craft of Stained Glass Introduction to Stained Glass

The art of creating works of beauty from coloured glass in northern Europe dates back to medieval times when returning Crusaders brought the technique back from the Middle East. Today stained glass is used to decorate a profusion of items, from cathedral windows to decorative house panels.

Origins of Stained Glass


The techniques of making stained glass have changed little. Medieval artists worked laboriously to create huge jewelled pictures which decorated the holy buildings and their kaleidoscope of brilliant and shifting patterns filled the congregations with awe.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, demand for stained glass was still great. Artists set up studios all over the country and almost every new Victorian house had some sort of decorative glass panel. William Morris set up a studio which began producing unusual windows, both for churches and domestic use.  


In the USA, Louis Tiffany experimented with new and different types of blown glass and produced a collection of lamps.

Today, churches and cathedrals still commission stained glass artists to create new designs and to restore ancient windows. With the return to more individual styles in public and domestic buildings, there is a greater interest than ever in stained glass.


Basic techniques of Stained Glass


Stained glass should more accurately be called coloured glass since the ‘stain’ refers to the yellow silver nitrate ‘stain’ made popular during the fifteenth century. Various types of glass and colours are available in a number of finishes including streaked, ‘seedy’ (glass with hundreds of air bubbles in it) or textured finishes. A special white glass that has been flashed with a thin coating of colour is also available. This enables the craftsman to remove areas of colour by etching or engraving.  


The colour in all stained glass is designed to have light filtered through it. This means the effect of the light source through different colours is a major consideration when choosing a design.  


The first stage in the process is creating the design and deciding on the colours. The lead lines form an integral part of the design and these also have to be taken into consideration from the start.

The design is usually done in the form of a drawing or watercolour painting. It helps if the colours can be planned accurately and the effect judged.  


The next stage is to convert the painting into a back and white full size working drawing, known as a cartoon. A tracing is then taken as a pattern for cutting the individual pieces of glass, taking into account the width of the leading.

Traditionally glass was cut with a diamond, but now it is usually cut with a tool called a cutters wheel which has a rolling steel or tungsten carbide head.  


The traced paper pattern is placed on a light box, a piece of glass in the required colour is positioned right side up on top of the shape and the outline is scored with a glass cutter and then pressed out by hand or with special ‘nibbling’ pliers.

When all the different coloured pieces are cut, they are built up into the complete picture on a large sheet of plain clear glass using plasticine to keep them in place.  


The pieces are then joined with strips of lead called cames which are H-shaped in section to enclose the edges of the glass. These strips can be cut and moulded (they are quite pliable) to follow the contours of the glass and, once everything is in position and held by glazing nails, the lead is soldered.  


To make the complete panel waterproof, a special ‘cement’ mixture is forced under the edges of the cames with a stiff brush to seal the joints. The glass is then cleaned with whitting – a powdery substance that dries out the cement, making it easy to remove any surplus. Often a special substance is then rubbed on to the solder to darken and blend it with the lead.  


Sometimes, for fine detail and for 3-dimensional items such as lampshades, the edges of the piece of glass are wrapped with copper foil instead of lead and then joined with a fine line of solder. The copper foil is not suitable for pieces that are exposed to the elements.

Another technique which is used for work to be viewed from one side only is glass appliqué. This involves sticking coloured glass closely together onto a sheet of plain clear glass and filling the gaps between them with grout.  


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