How It's Done

Stained glass is an old art form that involves several different artistic techniques.  I like it because of the challenge that it creates with each new piece.  It's like making your own jigsaw puzzles, This is a brief demonstration of the process, step by step.  Eventually I'd like to put up a video montage of the process, but for now it's just photos.
I do a lot of designs from photographs.  The more high quality photos I have, the more information I have to work with and the better the panel comes out.  This is a photo of a dog named Henry.  I took dozens of photos of him to get one that would work well artistically with stained glass.

I chose this photo because the solder lines will work well with the glass and with the design.  Step two is making the pattern or "cartoon".  I like to do a quick sketch, scan it into my computer so I don't have to worry about ruining it, then printing off a few copies to draw over.  Once I get a pattern that I like I take a new piece of paper and trace it to get a clean image like this.  It's not always perfect, but thats because I could spend hours nit picking over details that won't even show in the window.  The cartoon is an outline drawing of each piece of glass that will be used in the piece.  I print off 3 copies of the final pattern on cardstock paper.  I then tack down one copy to a piece of homosote board (fire retardant board found at Home Depot, perfect for soldering on). 

One copy I cut up along the lines of the pattern, and the final copy I set aside just in case...  Some times I run the pattern through a program like Photoshop and add colors so that I and the patron can get a basic idea of what the final piece will look like.  This can also help me sort through all the different pattern pieces.  Sometimes I even number the pieces which is extremely helpful when dealing with patterns with a lot of small pieces that are similar shapes.  This is what the pattern for Henry looked like:

Stained glass comes in sheets.  A whole rainbow of colors and textures.  Some are opaque and some are translucent,  I tend to work with one type or the other in a panel.  Opaques look good in any light, but don't get as much of a wow factor as the translucence when the light shines through from behind.  Translucent glass really only looks good when back lit, but it looks absolutely gorgeous then!  With Henry I worked mainly in opaques with just a touch of translucent pink for the ears and tongue.

First I select a piece of the pattern and trace it onto the glass with a fine tipped sharpie felt tipped pen/marker.  You have to be careful how you place the pattern on the glass as some stained glass has patterns and ripples of color running through them, almost like the grain in a piece of wood.  You can see a lot of streaks in the grey glass that I used for Henry.  I wanted to use those streaks to emulate his fur and how it falls on his face.  t I wasn't aware of that then the piece could have turn out very odd looking.

Once the pattern is traced on a piece of glass, I then have to cut it.  You don't really cut the glass, it's more of a controlled break.  Use use a glass cutter, which is a lot like a pizza wheel cutter but with a very tiny wheel.  You use this to score the surface of the glass.  Glass wants to break in straight lines, but when you score the surface the glass will often follow that line, sort of like creasing a piece of paper before you tear it.  Curves are difficult to cut out and can involve several scores and breaks to complete.  The best comparison is a 3 or more point turn in your car, some curves are just too tight to do in one pass.  To complete the "cut" you take a pair of special pliers and snap off the unwanted side of the glass.  (I really need a video to show this process!)

I then use a glass grinder to finish shaping the piece of glass and make sure that all of the sharp edges have been worn down.  I prefer to leave a little too much glass on my pieces.  Since this is a subtractive process, it is much easier to shave down the edges to fit later on than to cut and grind a whole new piece of glass if I make a mistake!  I take the shaped piece of glass and place it on the pattern that is affixed to the homosote board.

There needs to be small amount of space between each piece of glass to accomodate the copper foil.  Copper foil is a tape that is used to wrap the edges of the glass.  Solder only sticks to metal and the copper foil allows the glass to be held in place!  Usually I wait until I have cut and fitted all of the glass before I start foiling.  This is a tedious process that I usually do while watching tv on my couch.  The foil has to be place just right, evenly, or the foil will be lopsided on the two sides.  An even wrap means that the solder lines with be a uniform thickness.

Once every piece of glass has been wrapped in foil I use a thin brush or Q-tip to apply a chemical called "flux" to the copper foil.  Without the flux the solder will not bond with the copper foil.  Once the flux is applied it is time to solder.  This is usually done with a 60/40 lead/tin solder or with a new lead free solder called Silvergleam.  I tend to only use the lead free stuff when doing ornaments or other items that will be handled a lot.  Lead free solder is about twice as expensive as the normal 60/40 solder.  The rising cost of metals has hot the stained glass market hard.  Solder and copper foil is now 3 times what it was last decade!

A soldering iron is used to heat the solder and melt it along the coper foil lines.  This creates the solder line or the solder bead.  The bead should appear to be rounded on the sides.  A nice solder bead is the sign of an experiences stained glass artist.  You want long, uninterrupted solder lines.  Think of it like drawing a line with a marker on a piece of paper.  You don't want to start and stop a lot because it will look funny.  Once you have soldered one side of the panel I flip it over and flux & solder the second side.  I usually wait until I have soldered both sides to attach a zinc frame to the outside of the piece, but some people do that before starting to solder.  It's a personal choice, but if you need the finished piece to be a specific size to fit a window opening then you must be confident of your measurements!  The zinc came is a U shaped channel.  It adds structure and rigidity to the glass panel.  Without it a panel is much more likely to bow or break under it's own weight.

I clean off the piece with soap and water, often using an SOS pad and then a copper scrubbie for the final wash.  Some people apply a patina to the solder lines at this point.  You can basically paint the solder lines different colors.  I prefer to leave them their natural silver color.  Black patina is very popular and is a great way to cover up your bad soldering technique.  I haven't used patina in over 7 years...  You can finish the panel by applying turtle-wax to the stained glass and solder lines.  This will help fight off oxidation on the solder lines which can turn them white and green.

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