Stained glass is a term used to relate to several different styles of glass panel construction. Typically a "Stained Glass" window panel incorporates distinct pieces of colored glass in a pattern or design. The design may be geometric, an example is the famous Frank Lloyd Wright stained glass windows and lamps, or pictoral, such as those commonly seen in churches, or abstract with a mix of styles and patterns.
The components of a stained glass window are the pieces of glass, the binding material around the glass pieces, and depending on design, support assemblies (frames or rebar supports).
The glass pieces vary widely as well... traditional flat clear glass that has been painted, cut and polished beveled pieces, glass that has a pattern rolled into its surface, glass that has been "chipped" by a glue-based manufacturing process (called aptly enough, Glue-Chip), to the common Art Glasses made by manufacturers like Bullseye, Spectrum, Uroboros, Gecko, and countless others. Occasionally you will see other objects incorporated in a window, such as a painting, cut wine bottles, brass filigree, or sculpted lead pieces.
The binding material is typically of two styles: Lead Came, or Foiled. Tiffany is commonly given credit (debated) for making the foil tape process popular, while the lead came version of construction has been around much much longer. Sometimes, a binder of sand/mortar and concrete or epoxy is used with large chunks of colored glass as well.
The support assemblies used for stained glass panels consist of the frame and rebar supports. Generally, a window less than three square feet in area can stand without additional support, as long as it is installed vertically. Any window will generally benefit from a lead or zinc came edge for support, and if a window is to be mounted horizontally (such as in a ceiling) additional support is always recommended. While rebar support is usually seen as straight bars across the glass, the rebar can be bent to follow lead lines and still offer a suitable amount of support.
Antique glass panels are valuable even when broken. The older art glasses often were considered much more brilliant and had more "sparkle" because the manufacturing process included the addition of Arsenic. Also, since it is harder to recycle the colored glasses used in window making, re-cutting and using the pieces of a window that cannot be restored in another piece is a smart alternative to throwing it away.
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While the art of glass crafting allows for a lot of creativity, there is a common set of things needed to make a stained glass panel. The two most common construction styles (foiled and lead came) require different components to assemble the panel, but the glass used is the same for each style.
Technically, you will need a good working surface before starting any of this process. Something that allows you to drive nails or use push-pins to hold the pieces in place works, like a ceiling tile or plywood. Many people prefer a material called Homosote, a grey paper board made from recycled fiber and paper that is self-healing. It does not contain splinters or fiberglass threads that plywood or ceiling tiles may contain.
First, a pattern is recommended. Patterns are available online, from manufacturers, at stained glass stores, or you can find quilting patterns or coloring books that will work. One caution is that a deep concave curve is difficult to cut in glass using traditional scoring tools, you will either have to modify the pattern or cut the glass using a diamond band or ring saw.
Second, choose your glass based on the pattern and colors or styles you want. The quantity of glass you need is at least the same as the window size, but if you want to use specific parts of a piece of raw glass or are cutting curves, you will need more (at least 20% more). If this is your first time you will likely need more raw glass because you will break pieces incorrectly. Do not throw scrap away, save them for mosaics or other glass panels.
Third, a glass cutter with a carbide wheel and some cutter oil. There are 4-5 major styles of glass cutters, from the old style pencil with a rounded end, to pistol grip, to paddle style, and there are even specialty cutters for people with arthritis. Cutter oil is a lightweight oil used to lubricate the cutter, but it also fills the crack and helps transfer the shock wave that breaks and scores the glass (debated). Your glass cutter will be the most frequently used tool, and it is well worth the money to buy a quality tool.
Fourth, a pair of breaker/grozing pliers and another pair of running pliers are recommended. Breakers are used to chip or pull off small pieces of glass, running pliers stress the glass and drive the glass to crack along your score.
Fifth, a grinder is usually needed by beginners. Traditionally glass artists used a grinding stone to rough up the edges and remove sharpness or grind it down. Today a grinder is motorized, and the vertical shaft spins a diamond coated rod while keeping the piece wet.
Sixth, if you are doing the lead came construction style, you will need raw lead came, which comes in six foot lengths or on a roll. Typically, an H shaped came is used (like RH-6) with a rounded top and bottom and square slots to fit against the glass. U shaped and flat came is available, as is copper, zinc, lead-free, and re-enforced versions. Stretching came is commonly done to pretension it, however, many artists state it is not needed.
If you are doing foil construction, you will need a roll of appropriately sized copper foil with an adhesive back. Copper foil comes in copper, brass and silver color, with straight or wavy edges, in different thicknesses, and the adhesive back can be black or copper colored.
Seventh, you will need solder. The standard solder used is 60/40, but other versions exists (like lead free). Do not use rosin core or acid core solder.
Eighth, You will need flux. Flux is a wetting and cleaning agent for Copper and Solder, and comes in a paste and liquid form. Use a "flux brush" or a disposable brush to apply it. If you apply too much, your solder may bubble when melted. Too little, and it may not stick to the copper or lead.
Item number nine: A soldering iron. Foil can use a smaller iron than lead came construction. Commonly, a 50 watt to 100 watt iron is used. Electronic irons control temperature better than a standard iron, but you can adapt to either with enough experience.
To finish a foil based panel, you may also want "patina" to blacken the solder and metals in your panel. Copper Patina can also give a copper color to your panel. Generally, the patina for zinc is different than the patina for lead and solder, you may need to buy both if your panel has both types of came.
To finish a lead came panel you will need putty (such as DAP, even though they do not certify it for stained glass windows it does work well). To work the putty into the areas between the glass and came, you will need stiff bristled brushes. To remove the excess putty, you will need whiting, and a larger stiff brush. Generally you do not patina a lead came window, as the putty and whiting and brushing act together to darken the metals.
Foiled windows use a different construction method than lead came windows. Generally the glass cutting part is the same, except foil need smaller gaps between pieces and a tighter fit. The basic steps for both are below.
This seems like a lot of work. Once you have completed one window however, it does get a lot easier. If you have not made some friends at your local stained glass store, now is the time to take your pattern up and discuss it with them!
1. Draw, create, copy, enlarge, or reduce a pattern to full size. 2. Use the pattern and your taste to choose what colors and pieces of glass go with each part of the pattern. 3. You may wish to give each pattern piece a number, and place the same number on the front of your glass pieces (with a sharpie marker) after you cut them to shape. This helps you build the pattern and not skip pieces, or reassemble it should your cat decide to knock it off the table. 4. You can prepare a piece of glass to be cut by placing it over the pattern and following the lines with your cutter, assuming you can see through the glass. Otherwise, you may have to use a light table to see through the glass, or you can cut the pattern out and glue it to the top of the glass, then mark or score around it. 5. To score a piece of glass, score with light pressure (no more than 2 pounds usually) from edge to edge using your scoring tool. The glass makes a distinct sound as it is scored. Some glasses need more pressure than others. Some glasses score when they are warm. All glasses should be broken immediately after being scored so the score will not "heal". Scores should be continuous, curved or straight (no sharp turns!) and made in one pass. 6. To cut a concave curve (inside curve) it may be easier to cut a shallow curve and break it out, then score deeper into the curve, break it out, each time cutting out more of a crescent shaped piece until you reach the right depth. 7. Once scored, use the running pliers to force the score to crack. Usually this means that: with the score on the top of the glass, the pliers curve down from the center, so pressing the pliers on the score means the edges of the pliers are bending the score open. You may need to squeeze gently (no more than 5 pounds of pressure usually) on each end of the score to get the crack to start.
So, at this point, you've either got a piece that won't break, a good break, or a couple pieces of glass that broke in some way you obviously didn't intend it to break.
If it broke wrong, you may not have scored hard enough. Your glass may have some flaws. You may not have centered the running pliers on the score, or had them upside down. Was the glass right side up? Usually the line on the pliers is centered over the score mark. You might have scored over another score.
If it won't break, you may not have scored heavy enough. Maybe the pliers are upside down. Did you center the pliers on the score?
If it broke well, congratulations. If some of the break is sharp, which is usually the case, grind it a little to roughen it up and keep you from getting cut.
8. Place the piece on top of a copy of the pattern and work on your next piece. For Foil, try not to have more than 1/8 inch gap. And in general, it helps to start at a corner and work out across the pattern.
9. Foiling or fitting. For foil, once the pieces are all cut and fit fairly well, you wrap the edges in foil, then burnish them with a plastic tool or wood stick so the foil is pressed against the glass well.
If you are using a frame made of straight (or curved) came, cut out at least two sides and make a corner to start building against.
For came, you need to start cutting came and bending it around the pieces you have cut. You may need to cut the came at an angle to have it meet the other came as tightly as possible.
10. Once foiled or camed, you start to flux and solder the joints. For foil, it is recommended to put a drop of solder just to hold all the pieces together, then return and flux the entire line and solder it completely.
11. Once one side is finished, flip the piece and solder the other side.
12. For foil, you would wash or clean the piece and then apply patina to darken the solder lines. For Came, you would need to use DAP or a putty and a brush to push the putty into the spaces between the glass and the came. It will come through on the other side. If this is difficult, try adding a solvent like turpentine to the putty to soften it.
13. After puttying the piece, sprinkle the panel with a layer of whiting and use a stiff boar brush to work the whiting around the panel. The whiting will darken and adsorb the excess putty and oil, at the same time it darkens up the lead came lines.
14. Flip the piece and do the other side. Once you have puttied and removed the excess with whiting, allow it to sit for a day undisturbed.
15. Come back with a bamboo skewer or a stick and run it along the edges of the came, against the glass, to cut any putty off that seeps out. Do not angle the skewer so it reaches under the lead came, just stand it straight on end and remove the excess.
16. Brush the piece one more time with your whiting brush quickly and smoothly to clean it and darken it. After a few days, you can clean the window with a cleaner that has NO Ammonia (this applies to foil based windows too!).
Tips & Suggestions
When shopping for stained glass panels, remember to look at the construction of the lead lines. Cheaper works will have very thin lines on the back or inside of the panel if the construction is foil-based. Remember, the bead of solder between the pieces is what gives the panel part of its strength. There is a balance between something that is too thin (say, less than a 1/4 inch bead) and something that is blobby and unappealing.
Remember to put the panel in an environment at the store similar to what it will be installed at in your home. In other words, if it will get full sun in your home, view it under similar conditions in the store to ensure the lighter colors do not wash out.
When considering the price for a panel, remember that Reds, Purples, and Cranberry colors are typically more expensive to manufacture as they contain expensive elements such as gold. A large number of small pieces requires much more labor to construct. Painting is also likely to drive up a panel's price, as the art of glass painting is being lost, and it is hard to find a good artisan.
Concerns about Lead Poisoning are appropriate if your household has children or women who may be pregnant AND they will handle the panel. Pregnant women and children should not handle lead (this is a good rule for any lead source!), and all people that handle lead should wash the residue off their hands before eating, smoking, or drinking.
Aside from direct contact however, Lead poisoning from a window is rarely a concern. This means that simply enclosing a panel between two sheets of clear glass or locating the panel out of reach mitigates the issue of Lead poisoning. Most building codes actually require that windows with a base within three foot of a floor be covered in tempered glass. More and more cities are adopting energy efficiency rules that make it a good idea to enclose the window in low-e glass. There is another benefit - you won't have to clean it if it is enclosed.
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