How to: First Stained Glass

Learning something new always gives us a different perspective. This type of work with glass is my first experience and here’s how it went… Follow along my ‘How to’: My First Stained Glass.

What is Stained Glass?

Stained glass is an art of piecing well cut glass shapes together to make a beautiful transparent piece of art; that’s my definition. Since I have been on the teaching side of the classroom I actually love it when I can be on the student’s side so I took a class at my local School of Art. It was a small group led by a local expert Teresa Seaton who runs her own studio as well. It was a beginners class so I knew I’d learn all the basics. We would only have 3 classes so the projects would be quite simple.

Learn to Cut Glass:

Well, obviously the key thing to learn was to cut glass. That was one of the things I had envisioned as being really scary. I know I have worked with glass when I cut the bottles and cloches but I used special power tools then. Snapping a piece of glass long a line seemed miraculous to me!

I was absolutely amazed how easy it was! Using a glass cutter and putting good pressure with both hands while gliding over the glass would make a score line. You can hear it scratch along but hardly see the line. The tool that made it all so much easier is the special pliers; Glass running pliers that have a curve in the mouth that gives pressure to each side of the cut line… And poof, the strips just snap so easily & effortlessly. I made smooth curves that just ‘snapped’ along the magic cut line.

If need be, you can also tap the break line to help it ‘get the idea’ to snap, or even use a pair of grozer pliers to just grab the edge and snap it off.

No bloody fingers or broken glass – I had no idea! Learning to cut the glass was actually the easy part…

So many glass choices:

So once we had the basic glass cutting skill we would now put it into practice and make a small sun-catcher to practice getting the pieces to fit snuggly. There are so many types of glass, glass pieces that were smooth, colourful or even textured. I chose textured glass, not thinking that it could be a bit harder to get a nice cut line.

Well, straight and curvy long lines cut easily… Um, but now how to cut a circle or arch? Well, that may need to be cut in sections. Trying to imagine how far I could get that cut line to snap was more puzzling. I am used to conserving matter (since I sew) and do not cut in the middle of a large piece. That practice makes things a bit harder as when there is no ‘lip’ to grab onto it is harder to have a smooth edge.

The curve wasn’t that hard to cut but you can see how I struggled with the outside edge… it looks somewhat ‘choppy’! The procedure is to cut the first piece and then use the relevant edge to define the adjoining piece. The individual pieces need to be quiet well cut and fitting together. Oh wow…

Welcome to the magic of the Glass Grinder:

Isn’t life always easier with power tools? Yup, I love this thing – an electric Glass Grinder! These are actually not that expensive. It has a spinning diamond tip that grinds a vertical edge on your glass pieces. To test you need to keep referring back to the connecting ‘puzzle’ piece. Under the mesh there is water so that the blade stays wet and thee is no dust. The clear screen helps stop splashing or pieces flying up at you; always be aware of safety (wear safety glasses when in doubt).

Once the first piece is cut the edge is used as a template to cut the next piece. Things started to get easier since I know I can use the grinder to fix any thing that did not break properly… ‘And of course there’s only 2 shapes in this project.

The Joining Method:

Some stained glass works use lead cane; a lead channel that holds the pieces of glass together.  We used a different technique that uses adhesive copper foil tape . The foils have an adhesive on one side to stick to the glass edges and the other side gets soldered together.  Copper foil comes in a variety of widths to accommodate different thicknesses of glass.  The copper foil is well attached before it gets soldered to hold the glass together!  Copper foil also comes in silver or copper backing. The design of your piece may dictate what colour of foil works best for you.  If you are using clear glass, the adhesive backing of the foil will be visible.  We used the copper colour but there are patinas available to change the finished colour of your solder if you like. 

A tool or some piece of wood can help push the foil tape into the edges, making sure it is centred.

The copper edges give the pieces some nice definition and are actually the ‘seams’ of the design.

The 2 pieces took me a couple hours to get right. I now have an appreciation for this art form. The popularity may be a bit lost but I believe with the right designs this craft can have a great revival. I can well imagine working in this medium – I envy the artisans that have stacks of glass in their glass studios just ‘dreaming’ of seeing the sun!

The Soldering Iron:

Once the edges are completely foiled the next step is to apply some flux (to make the solder attach) A very hot soldering iron with a flat tip melts the solder quickly and it sticks to the iron like drop of water. Once the iron touches the foil it seeps in between.

The pieces are first tacked with a couple small spots of solder and then the continuous line is drawn to ‘puddle’ solder all along it. That took me a bit of practice to not be ‘choppy’ and get a nice continuous thick solder. I was alway afraid I would grab the front end – and burn my fingers off!

After a good cleaning of the flux chemicals the foil can be patina’ed to the finish colour of choice. Mostly the historic stained glass seems like it has black seams since the metal has tarnished over the ages. I also opted for the simplicity of a black patina as it give the edges definition. I am happy with the piece and can’t wait to make more designs.

Oooh Coloured Glass:

Now that we had learnt pretty well all the techniques of making stained glass we could now make a more complex piece. We were able to choose some coloured glass from the stack of glass slabs, some even being quite opalescent glass.

The glass various sheets had swirls like freshly mixed paint, even being different from each side. I can’t even imagine what the glass was like in the making for the gothic cathedrals, or even the renaissance period. Whenever a new art form is learnt much appreciation is discovered for those who kept a lost art alive in history. Glass as a decoration and church windows has stood the test of time. Who does know about the lampshades made by Louis Comfort Tiffany?!

I have been tossing some ideas around in my mind (especially when I should actually sleep) that would use some of this method to make glass objects. Perhaps a fresh take on glass design would create a new interest.

I made a grape leaf…

But I realized I did not have the direction quite right in the grain of the pattern. Considering that I always work with leaves, that is shocking!

How wonderful did we do for a couple evenings at the art school? Me, I could just ‘live’ there if I had the chance… Thanks ‘J’ for giving me this class!

Thank you Teresa for your great lessons. Someday I will visit you in your studio… Next time you see stained glass windows take a closer look and realize how each piece was crafted.

Just wait and see how I may incorporate what I’ve leaned here into something completely new, it’s how I roll…

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  1. Barb,
    I am thrilled that you posted this. I have followed so many of your eco prints annd baskets, cement crafts and I love your sense of adventure! Last year I inherited a box of colored glass, soldering iron and flux, and glass cutters. I have made beautiful wind chimes sloughing wine bottle glass rounds in my microwave kiln but I’ve been a little scared to try this. So thank you once again for the inspiration.

    1. I’m so glad that I can help! Oh, microwave kiln! I wanted to try that too… heck, I want to try everything! It’s what keeps me going. I think you may have meant ‘slumping’ as I just tried to see what you are doing via google. Looks like fun! Go for it!

  2. Thank you, Barb. When I moved here. I had planned to start a leaded glass workshop in the garage, but the roof fell in while I was too ill to access the building – one disaster after another. I could not cut glass in the house because the dust from cutting and grinding would destroy the floor. Ah ha! Summer is coming and I am feeling better, and I can work out in the yard. Your stained glass tips reminded me that I have a small amount of glass from Mr. Tiffany’s factory. Can’t wait for warm, dry weather. It will take a couple months to replace my work table, tools and supplies lost in the great cave in but I still have my wonderful glass. I like watercolor because it reminds me of my first love, sunlight streaming through stained glass windows. When I was a child. all of my first paintings outlined each color with black like the lead in stained glass – very satisfying. I only stopped doing that when I discovered that a famous artist had been doing that for years before I was born, and I didn’t want people to think that I was copying him. It was time to try something new, anyway. Colored glass makes fine abstract art. especially with found objects soldered in. 3D?

    1. Sometimes there is a way you can figure out a plan to be able to adapt to limitations. I am always aware of dust and do try to make sure to keep it outside. I was impressed that the grinder was wet to make sure to minimize dust. Here’s to hoping summer will bring you creative joy.

  3. Hi Barb – I’m always fascinated by your work, and you’re extremely generous with your sharing – a hearty thank you for that. What about a cement tortoise or turtle with stained glass pieces for its shell sections. Do you think that would work? I can see it in my minds eye and think it would look beautiful. I must say I’ve never worked with stained glass before, but you’re inspiring me to try. Once again, thanks and kudos.

    1. Well, that’s very coincidental… I have some ideas in my brain that combine glass AND grout AND rock, some of my favourite things! Hmmm a turtle shell would also work. Ah, if only I could have more hours in the day! Stay tuned!

  4. Your post mentions learning to make hats, but the instructions come up for the stained glass project. What to do?

  5. I 2 have taken a few classes I really enjoyed it. I’ve made a jewelry box, lampshade Sun Catchers desk organizers wall plaque. I also decided to get a few diamond drill bits for my Dremel. With the Dremel you could add awesome shading and eyes and little details. Did you know that the black glass has gold in it? I love arts and crafts of all types and I don’t mind the mess.