Sunday, June 11, 2017

DIY Stained Glass

Three years ago I wrote an article about being a real life long learner. The two skills that I had recently learned at that point were milking cows and making stained glass. At that point, I had only made a turtle after one session of stained glass work, but I really enjoyed it. My mom had supplies, a friend had several boxes of glass, and I had a table in the garage that just needed a future project to sit on it. And sit on it the supplies did, for three years.

Then, this past spring, my wife and I were looking at this ugly curtain that covered a south facing window above our sliding glass door. The curtain came with the house, I think it had once been white but was so covered in dust that its color was indescribably filthy, and the window was just screaming for some class. We had talked about doing something with stained glass for that space, but the window is about five feet by two feet, and the turtle that I had previously made was about four inches by three inches. I didn't know if I was ready to
tackle this large project, so I continuously put it off.

Cut pieces dry fit together
As we stood staring at the greyish-brownish curtain, we talked about the stained glass again, and my wife, in her amazingly encouraging way, reminded me of some of the projects that I had done in the past that she really liked. I had been staring at the window trying to figure out how to create eight stained glass panels of a story ala Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling, and I was terrified. She was thinking of something more geometric, like my previous tile work projects. Once she said this, something in my brain clicked and I was a man with a mission.

I spent the next two months working on this project. I wanted eight panels, so I divided up the window into eight sections, taking out inches for the wooden frame that I was planning in my head. I marked the dimensions for each panel (14" x 15", which included 1/2" on each side that would be covered by the frame) on my garage table, attached a 90 degree raised edge for support, and I was ready to begin cutting glass.
Little helper breaking glass

I separated the glass by color. Then, I simply started. As I approached each panel, I had absolutely no plan for what it would look like by the end. I would look at the glass piles, select a piece, cut it, and then just begin to see what colors and shapes I liked around it. I didn't really have any practice panels, so the process was really interesting as I used eight pieces of glass in the first two panels that I made, but 24 pieces of glass in the last panel that I made. As I progressed, my pieces became smaller and more intricately put together.

My kids of course were a part of this, as much as any responsible parent working with glass, lead, and 1000 degree solder would allow them to be. After I scored a piece of glass, I would let them use the running pliers to break the piece (of course making sure that they were wearing eye protection and guiding them with gloved hands). They also helped smooth out the copper foil banding that each piece was wrapped in, and they were fascinated with watching the soldering process (yes, they think that daddy is a super hero because he can melt solid metal into a liquid--why would I tell them that anybody with a soldering iron has that ability?).
Copper bands, joints soldered

Here's where the process got interesting. After I had finished the eight panels, I went to a stained glass supply store to get some patina for the solder. I explained what I needed, and the store owner directed me to the bottle. She asked what I was working on, so I proudly showed her a picture of one of the panels, expecting a comment like, "Wow, that is amazing work. How many years have you done stained glass?", or "Our artisans cannot do work that beautiful. Do you want a job?", or even, "That is amazing. Hey Joe, come check out what this young man has made." That is not what I got. What I got was, "Oh, honey, why didn't you come see me before you started? I suppose you don't want to start over from scratch, do you?" I was somewhat deflated, but I still had hope.

How old is this glass?
Apparently my solder joints were not thick enough, and I had failed to edge around the outside of the panels to strengthen them. So I got to work, adding solder to the lines to thicken and raise them up (cue the Celtic Woman song here). After the solder was stained with a black patina, it was time to shift to the frame.

Panel 3 of 7
I used black walnut that I inherited from my father-in-law's dad. I have a very hearty pile of black walnut, so of course I planned on utilizing this for the frame. I planed it, cut my pieces, and used a slot cut router bit for my glass pieces, while using tongue and groove joinery for the frame itself. After the frame was assembled, I finished it with a Danish oil finish.

Finally, I needed to keep the piece in place in the window. I cut some strips of quarter round from the same black walnut, and applied the Danish oil to it as well. Once the piece was in place (with the help of Little E), we nailed the quarter round around the outside, attaching it to the window opening, and we have a stained glass window.

Extra solder and patina
And while the panels do not depict a Biblical story, nor the story of how I met my wife, nor a story of each of my kids, there is still a story there. With each panel, one or more of the glass pieces were intentionally placed as I thought about people in my life. My kids each have several pieces that were specifically for them. One panel has a small blue piece, reminding me of my wife's eyes as I placed it in the panel.

So while there is no specific, obvious story, this project is the story of life. It is the story of generations of work (my grandfather-in-law's lumber), the story of relationship (my mom and I learning stained glass together, and my kids working with me on the project), the story of encouragement (my wife encouraging me through an intimidating project), and the story of perseverance (more than two months in the making). But, almost as importantly, it is the story of completing yet another project with all of my fingers intact.

Frame boards cut
Frame glued and clamped

And the pieces start getting in place
The finished project installed.

Detail of the quarter round frame in place

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