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Happiness on the Cutting Edge

by Jim Dee 13 days ago in crafts

The Sheer Joy of Working with Stained Glass

I had no idea I'd fall in love. (But, that's the way so many love stories begin, right?)

When a local glass shop in Portland offered an intro to stained glass class, I had no idea it would change my life, I thought it'd simply be something fun to do for a while. But wow! During the very first class, it immediately became super exciting.

Once you learn the basics (like how to cut glass, and how to grind it), a whole world opens up. You can suddenly make anything you like, in real stained glass. I started out simple, with just a little crow portrait I drew up:

My first original pattern stained glass project.

Not bad for a first-ever thing, right? I was inspired to continue, and knew right away that, with stained glass, you're only really limited by your imagination--and, well, your budget, as the glass can get a little pricey sometimes. (But, I managed to scrounge glass from here and there for relatively cheap at first, also.)

Anyway, I just went a little crazy after that and started diving into more complicated stuff. And, somehow, I'm still going strong, still loving the entire process--even if it means a few band-aids along the way! (Ask any stained glass worker: You do tend to cut your fingers every once in a while. So, you do need to be careful with this hobby!)

Here are some examples of how the process works, taken from some of my recent projects:

Step One: Make (or even Buy) a Pattern

I prefer to make my own patterns, but they're readily available to purchase, as well. Once you have a basic understanding of how stained glass "works" (meaning, structurally, and how the cuts are made), you can pretty easily design your own patterns. So, I'll share a few of my own patterns:

Here's one of the Red Hot Chili Peppers logo, superimposed onto their Californication album cover. I made this using Photoshop:

The little notes on the screen are piece numbers and colors.

Here's one of my daughter's dog, Lupin. Again, I simply traced an actual photo using Photoshop, and then added in proper cut lines where the glass should be cut.

Same as above -- numbering and color notes shown.

Here's one of the Baron character from Studio Ghibli's "The Cat Returns". Same basic process here. (Though, sometimes I also just do freehand drawings of my own. But, I wanted to show some traced-style patterns in order to show just how easy it is, even if you're not the best illustrator!)

Numbering only here, as I hadn't yet finalized my colors.

Step Two: Cut the Glass to Fit the Pattern

To begin, you'll want three copies of your pattern: One to lay down on your board, one to cut out, and one for a reserve in case you mess anything up. So, make your copies and you're ready to get going.

Before you can start cutting glass, you first have to cut out the pattern into pieces of paper. Normally, you'll want to use foil shears for this, which is a special kind of scissors that has a small gap in the middle. What you do is to cut straight up a line, and it makes a cut on both the left and right sides of the line. (This leaves the lines themselves as little scraps. And this leaves room for the copper foil around each piece, as well as for the solder.)

(I should not here that, as you'll also be trimming various pieces, you'll want a nice pair of regular Fiskars-brand scissors (wink-wink) handy at all times to trim pattern pieces, cut your copper foil tape, and attend to all of your other cutting needs during these projects!)

People go about the glass cutting in different ways. Personally, I like to glue my paper pattern pieces to the glass, trace with a paint marker, and then start cutting out the glass. This gets you a giant pile of rough-cut glass. (Some people do one piece at a time, others one color at a time, and still others do all of the pattern's pieces at once.)

After you rough-cut your pieces, you then usually need to fine-tune the cuts and make them as exact to the pattern as you can. You do this by grinding the edges. (It's a pretty quick and easy thing to do, and requires a glass grinder, a fairly inexpensive tool that has a spinning bit and a water tray. Sounds complicated to many, but once someone shows you how to work it, it's super-simple.)

Using my above examples, here's how the patters start to look once you start filling in the pieces:

Good lord, did this one have a lot of pieces! I think 400+ in all. :-)
You can see here how I used crayons on the pattern to help me a bit.
You can see here how I used push pins in some areas to help keep my glass in place.

Step Three: Add Copper Foil

In order to solder the pieces together, you need to enclose each piece with something that solder will stick to--namely, copper foil. This is a cool little product that comes in rolls of various thickness and finishes. (I won't get too into that.) Basically, you just wrap each piece, and then burnish the edges to make sure you have it all stuck down completely.

The pieces will then look like this:

The top-left piece doesn't quite match, does it? lol, I'd run out of free blue glass that someone gave me. I still liked the end result, though.
I'd bought a small piece of mirror glass on Amazon to use as the dog tag. :-)
Most of this was free glass! Someone gave me a big box from an old church window!

Step Four: Solder!

Now it's time for the crazy part--soldering it all into a real window! This part takes the most practice and expertise, as far as I'm concerned. My first few windows were pretty bad, actually, as it's just not the easiest thing to master. (That's why I recommend starting with a few little throw-away pieces or maybe just some things to hang outside as decorations.) And yes, there are some techniques to learn here, which I won't cover in this introductory article. But, the basic process is to brush some flux onto each joint, and then solder it.

Once soldered, the pieces here looked like this:

Shown here while the soldered joints are still silvery. I added a copper patina later.
Finished product, shown with Lupin herself!
You can see here some additional technique--soldering on wire atop my pattern to serve as the cat's whiskers!

I've simplified things a bit, of course. For example, you have various options such as how you want the solder to look (e.g., silvery, or coppery, or black). And there's also a final step of waxing the piece so it stays looking nice. (And others like to add frames or hoops to add hanging chains, etc.)

Man, stained glass is SO MUCH FUN! I encourage anyone interested to give it a try. You'd be surprised at how quickly you can start making gorgeous windows!

✍🏻 Jim Dee maintains three blogs, publishes nonfiction and fiction all over the web, and writes books. His latest novel, the literary-comedic adventure “CHROO,” is a guaranteed joyride. Connect at JPDbooks.com.

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Jim Dee
Jim Dee
Read next: Writer’s Block
Jim Dee

Writer from Portland and St. Louis. (Fairly new to Vocal, but well established elsewhere.) My author site is JPDbooks.com. If you're into comedic-literary adventures, be sure to check out my latest novel, "CHROO," available on Amazon!

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