As a stained glass artist and owner of a glass studio, I meet many folks looking for a custom window or panel to enhance the beauty of their home. They come into the studio all smiles, admiring our work and explaining why they want a window or panel.
In Florida, people often want stained glass to cut the heat of the sun while still allowing the light to shine through. Many are looking for a bit of privacy in a front window or bathroom. Whatever the reason, talk soon gets around to the cost for the piece.
Almost always people are startled at the cost for design and fabrication of the window they want. “Why does it cost so much?” “Is it cheaper to get a ‘simple’ design?” The questions go on and on.
My best answer is that stained glass art is very labor intensive. There are 6 basic steps to creating a piece, not including the design phase (which often takes many hours as well). If an artist is paid even a minimum wage for his work, and if the cost of materials and supplies are added in, it’s easy to see why these beautiful works of art cost what they do.
Here are the basic steps needed to make a window or panel for your home:
Even the best and most experienced glass artist doesn’t cut glass perfectly. The pieces which make up a panel are varied in size and shape, and require some basic skill to cut so the shape of each is maintained.
Actually, “cut” is an incorrect term. Stained glass is first scored with a “cutter” that has a moving wheel, then a separate tool is used to “run” the score, or cause the glass to break along the path the cutter created.
Since the resulting cut piece will have rough edges that will probably not fit exactly with the surrounding pieces, it must be further shaped by grinding. Using a special stained glass grinder, which has both a continual water supply and a diamond bit, the glass artist can shape the pieces to fit together properly and create the finished look he/she desires. This process often takes a considerable amount of time, depending on how accurately the artist cuts.
After each glass piece is cut and ground to shape, it must be covered with a thin copper tape, called “copper foil.” The tape is bright copper on one side, and has an adhesive on the back. The adhesive can be different colors, depending on how the artist wants to finish the project.
Since glass does not stick to other glass, another method is necessary to connect all the pieces in a stained glass window. Louis Comfort Tiffany came up with the copper foil method, connecting the foil-covered pieces with solder, which provides strength as it holds the piece together.
Each glass piece must be carefully cleaned before application of the foil. The tape is then applied, carefully wrapping it evenly around the edges of each piece of glass. It is then rubbed with a burnishing tool to be sure it sticks tightly to the glass.
The next step in the process is the connecting of the metal-covered pieces to create a single panel from the many different glass pieces. Special solder is used for stained glass purposes so the joining process is effective.
Artists must first coat the metal pieces with flux, which helps remove impurities in the foil and also causes the solder to flow. The entire panel is fluxed and soldered together, then turned and the other side completed as well.
Finishing the Edges
The next step in the process is the finishing of the edges, or framing of the panel. In our studio we generally add zinc came to the outside edges of our panels. It is rigid metal in the shape of a “U” which fits over the metal-covered glass pieces and can be soldered in place.
If this method is used, then small hanging loops must also be added at the top of the panel to allow it to hang in a window. If the panel was made to fit exactly in the window opening, hangers will not be needed as the panel will be inserted and held in by molding.
Some artists prefer to place their panels in wooden frames created for the piece. If this is done, the zinc edging might be eliminated. However, it may still provide some strength for the piece, even inside another frame.
You might think the panel or window would be complete at this point, but you would be wrong. For the most part, glass artists prefer to cover the silvery solder lines with a patina to change the color to either black or copper. This will bring out the color of the glass much as outlining accents the colors in a drawing.
If the silvery solder is left, a special polish called Simichrome” is often used to preserve the shine as long as possible. Unfortunately, the shiny silver look disappears over time leaving a dull, more pewter-like finish.
Whatever the choice, the window must once again be carefully cleaned to remove all traces of chemicals before the patina or Simichrome is applied. Yet another cleaning is necessary after the patina is applied!
While the panel or window is virtually completed at this point, many artists like to polish the metal and glass with a special stained glass finishing compound which gives it a nice sparkle and protects the piece from the elements.
As a final step, most artists will sign the piece.
Did all that make you tired? It’s a long process, but the result will last a lifetime and more if properly cared for. Next time you see a stained glass window, remember the dedication of the artist who created it!