You might say that an appreciation for stained glass is as timeless as the art form itself. Windows with colorful mosaic patterns were once revered for casting beautiful rainbows over church-goers in the Middle Ages. According to historians, artisans of the past would use a color-by-numbers technique to design a life-size sketch of the window, then cut and assemble the glass pieces together into a lead frame. Bubbles in the glass caused the light to dance to a stunning effect indoors.
Courtesy of Janel Foo Glassworks, Reed McKendree, and Debbie Bean
As of today, the magic effect of sunlight pouring through colored glass still captivates us, and contemporary artists are reviving the technique through modern design. Etsy found that stained glass projects were a popular trend going into 2020. Dayna Isom Johnson, Etsy's in-house trend expert, has seen a 127 percent increase in searches for stained glass craft supplies and gifts. While you can purchase pre-made kits that help you to get started with stained glass, there is a whole new world of sparkling beauty to discover when you get into the craft technique. We spoke to three such artists to learn more about stained glass and how it's transforming our living spaces.
Tricks of the Trade
If you ask Debbie Bean, based in Los Angeles, she'll tell you that there are three main techniques used on a stained glass project. Traditional lead work involves taking long strips of lead, she explains, and cutting the lead into the shape and angles you need for the glass pieces to fit. She frames her lead in zinc so that the structure of the project is sound. "This is the technique that really resonates with me," she says. Other artists might choose to use the copper foiling method—or the kiln method—of heating up the pieces of glass and fusing them together with heat. The copper foiling method essentially involves "wrapping the work in copper foil tape," Bean explains. You can do this by hand, carefully going around the piece of glass with your copper foil tape, or use tools like Glastar GlassFoiler to assist you with the task. Once the copper foil tape is on the glass, the next step would be to crimp, or fold, the tape to ensure that it stays on, and finally, burnishing to seal it onto the glass and remove any wrinkles or air bubbles.
Janel Foo, a stained glass artist who is also based in California, likes the copper foil technique. She sketches her ideas on paper and cuts a sheet of glass down to the size she needs. "I use a grinder to further shape pieces into the forms I like. I then wrap each piece with a copper foil tape which allows glass to be soldered together," she says. "A patina is applied to turn the seams between the glass pieces black or copper. Lastly, the piece is finished with wax to control its natural oxidation." The process is very time-consuming and labor-intensive; even so, a project can be completed in a day or two. You'll have to practice to get the level of precision that is needed for your project, whether you do lead work or copper foiling, but the final results of a piece make all of it worth it. You'll need to learn how to cut and shape glass, how to frame the artwork in either lead came or copper foil, and how to solder to hold it all together. Solder is a low-melt metal alloy that you would melt down with a soldering iron to seal the seams of your stained glass project.
Courtesy of Janel Foo Glassworks
How to Get Started
Lesley Green, owner and stained glass artist at Bespoke, earned a BFA degree that focused on glass from Alfred University—but it didn't teach stained glass, specifically. She never considered it until she took a stained glass course as an elective during graduate school. It was very hands-on, and Green was hooked. "I love that you can have an idea and produce a finished piece in one day, which is pretty much impossible in most other glass practices," she says. "That's immensely gratifying." Similarly, Bean took a stained glass course and fell in love with the technique. The course she took showed how to do the different techniques for making patterns, cutting and shaping the glass, and putting it all together into a finished project. She started her business at age 38, with the support of her husband and family, and learned how to perfect her craft and develop her own style. She worked hard to turn it into a full-time career, but stained glass is great as a hobby as well.
Foo, who majored in Jewelry at Pasadena College, found her way to stained glass when a friend commissioned a stained glass piece from her. She found courses at a local stained glass supply store and practiced for over a year before turning it into a business. "The materiality of stained glass immediately appealed to me—the way I could arrange sheets of different textures, colors and shapes. It's not unlike arranging pieces of a puzzle," she says. The supplies that you'll need to get started slightly vary depending on your project, but these are the fundamentals: drafting supplies like paper, rulers, pencils and erasers for your designs; breaking-grozing pliers for manipulating glass; a self-oiling glass cutter; glass sheets; a glass grinder for grinding glass edges; a soldering iron; flux, a surface-cleaning chemical; and a brush for cleaning the surface of glass before you solder. Safety glasses are ideal for eye protection as you work.
Ideally, you should have a workshop or a space that you can turn into a workshop. You may also be able to rent space at a community artists' workshop for your projects. Signing up for a few classes before you do it is also a good idea. "Find a place like a stained glass shop or community college where you can receive professional instruction," Foo says. With a class, you'll not only learn the art form but also how to work safely with glass and the tools that you need to shape it into a final piece. Be prepared to make mistakes. Working with glass is not easy when you first get started with it. Your lines aren't going to be straight. You might accidentally put too much soldering, or not enough. Bean recommends learning how to solder. "It can take a while to get the hang of it," she says. "So, it's not going to look clean until you practice." The more you practice at stained glass, the better you will become.
What if you want to sell the artwork or display it at galleries? "Find your own voice as an artist," Bean says. "Any work that you sell or display should be original." You can find inspiration for your designs from a variety of sources but give credit where it's due and work on developing your own style.