This weekend we had the opportunity to try making a stained glass piece. It was a cool experience that involved many different steps. It was a refreshing break from painting and drawing to work with my hands. Here's a bit of a walkthrough of how things worked.
What you need
There are quite a few materials needed to make stained glass. This isn't an exhaustive list, but some of the stuff we used includes:
- lots of pre-stained glass of varying colour and size
- glass cutting tools (a special sort of knife that scores the glass) and cutting mats.
- glass breaking pliers (for breaking along a score-line)
- copper tape
- soldering equipment and "flux" solution.
- polishes and patina solutions (optional?)
- a glass grinder/sander
There are quite a few materials involved, and I'm sure I'm forgetting some of them. I imagine the tools might be a bit expensive (even second-hand). In our case, the materials had been passed down by another family member, so we were able to try it out at no cost.
How it went
Let me take you on a little journey of the steps we took to complete our piece.
Picking and preparing your design
We spent some time browsing for inspiration online. Most pieces we saw were far too complicated for us to do. We were cautioned against anything circular, as cutting the glass in that fashion can be particularly difficult. In the end, we found a piece that was cool and decided to make a copy of it with some small alterations. We printed it a few times - one copy to paint over top of with some watercolours I have to get an idea of how it might look, and two others - one for reference and the other to glue onto the glass.
It's a little hard to see, but the design is supposed to be two walls and a floor, sort of an intersection of a piece of a room.
Then we spent some time picking through a box of glass (sounds more dangerous than it is?) looking for colours that could fit into the shapes we had to fill. This part was fun! Once we had a good batch of colours, we cut out the shapes of the design using special scissors that are able to cut out the shapes as well as the outline that connected each shape to its adjacent shape (it's quite hard to describe these scissors, but they save a fair bit of effort as it accounts for where copper + solder will join the shapes).
Once the shapes were cut out we numbered them (I would recommend doing that before cutting them out!) and glued them onto the respective pieces of glass we wanted to use. Then came the cutting of glass.
Cutting and preparing glass
I was a bit nervous about this part, knowing my notoriously clumsy side. Sure enough, it is a simple process to cut glass, although it takes some practice (and you will make mistakes). First, you select the glass to cut (making sure it's not too small, otherwise it will just break apart into even smaller pieces), then, grab your glass cutter and score the area you want to cut. You can only cut full pieces off of the glass - ie, you can't cut halfway into the length of a piece, turn, cut more, and then cut down to shape a box, for example. Each time you make a cut it needs to score all the way to the edge of the piece.
Once you have scored the glass, you use a special plier-looking device that clamps onto the glass at the score, and when applying a bit of pressure -- crack! The glass just snaps along the line (if you scored it well).
After you've cut out your pieces you can try to reassemble them to see if the pieces align well. The closer it is to the original design the better, just like putting together a little puzzle. Ours didn't work out that well, as many of the pieces did not have clean cuts. So, the next step was to use a special "grinding" tool, which allows one to place the cut glass against a spinning motor and grind it down to where you need it to be.
I'm not sure how this tool works, but I was fascinated by it. It seemed to have water underneath the grate that held the glass and it was suggested that we put a sponge next to the spinning rotor. I'm not sure why. Ah, The tacit knowledge of new things!
Adding copper tape
After that, we had to wrap the edges of the glass with some kind of special copper tape. Once you do this, you then fold down the edges of the tape so it completely encases the sides of each piece of glass. This part is time-consuming and requires attention to detail as the copper must be aligned and fold over the edges of the glass nicely. This is because the copper tape is the bonding agent for the solder, allowing you to join pieces together. So, we wrapped something like 17 pieces of glass in this fine copper tape. Next, it was time to solder.
I haven't soldered anything since I took a crack at circuit bending old keyboards I got from Value Village. That was …. 2014? Fond memories. Anyway, the goal now was to join the glass. We started by laying out the pattern as close to its original as our somewhat misshapen glass allowed. Then we joined all the pieces at the center. To do that we had to brush something called "Flux" onto the areas we were about to solder. After doing the corner pieces, we continued along filling in the actual edge joins, and any large gaps left from first attempts at cutting and grinding glass. Soldering took quite a while as it's a tricky skill to get right. It feels kind of like trying to start a fire in that you are trying to coax something both delicate and dangerous into giving you what you want.
After soldering all the pieces, and the edges, we flipped it over and did the same thing. Then we added two copper rings to the top of the piece and soldered those on so that the piece can be hung.
At this point, things were looking pretty good and it was time to add some finishing touches.
We started by rinsing the pieces off in the sink with soapy water. This helped get the extra bits of solder off the actual pieces of glass and not the edges. Then we applied a patina, going with copper over black (I'm still not sure what would have looked better.) After that, we applied polish to the patina (after it had been rinsed off and dried).
There were a lot of small steps here that I'm forgetting already (and this was only a few hours ago). While we were working there was a sheet with a list of steps - I imagine that's something you'd need to have around for a while before it became second nature.
All in all, we were very satisfied with how far we got! I was a bit skeptical that we would be able to pull it off, but my partner, an experienced artist, led the effort and made a good estimate of what was possible.
Like with painting and drawing, now that I've had some insight into the process of what is required, I can already see how my appreciation for other stained glass has grown. Even as I write this I'm looking at a lamp in the corner of the room I'm in - and the entire lampshade is stained glass. I can't stop looking at it. It's just… it's incredible! How did the artist curve the glass into a center point like that? And even to add roses around the whole thing? Just incredible!
Alright, that's it for now. I'm tired in the way that working with your hands makes you. Surely I am off to a sleep full of dreams of coloured glass doorways and portals.