Stained Glass 101

An overview of art glass’ colorful background and process in pictures

Art glass panels, commonly known as stained glass, found in windows and light fixtures, were popularized by William Morris, founder of the English Arts and Crafts movement in the 1860s. Much of the work I do uses art glass, particularly the lighting fixtures.

Tiffany forges an American style

Tiffany style stained glass lamp shade by Jeff GrainerTiffany-style stained glass lamp shade by Jeff Grainger

Once the Arts and Crafts movement filtered across the Atlantic to America, the stylistic approach was adopted by several glass manufacturers who wished to pursue finding “the art in glass.”

The most prominent American glassmaker was Louis Comfort Tiffany. His use of opalescent glass resulted in his incredibly beautiful table lamps and decorative panels made for wealthy patrons. This highly desirable look was then imitated and popularized for the growing middle class through the 1930s.

The Greenes apply their own philosophy to stained glass

Greene-style stained glass panel by Jeff Grianger
Greene-style stained glass panel by Jeff Grainger

The Greene brothers were influenced by Tiffany’s work, particularly his use of iridescent and opalescent art glasses. However, they chose a more limited palette than Tiffany, often working with just three colors. The Greenes’ philosophy meant their designs were subtle, but intricately constructed. The glass was chosen in service to the design, not to overwhelm the senses with a profusion of colors.

Geometric Frank Lloyd Wright stained glass by Jeff Grainger
Geometric Frank Lloyd Wright-style stained glass by Jeff Grainger

They sometimes layered their glass to bring depth to the colors of the iridescent glass (primarily in their elaborate door panels). The glass they used 100 years ago is available today from the same manufacturer.

Organic designs were found throughout the Greenes’ houses, while Frank Lloyd Wright is justly famous for his beautiful geometric glass designs.

A stained-glass primer

The process of constructing these hand-made panels has not changed much from the earliest days of art glass. There are two main processes, each with its own strength based on the type of design used: organic or linear.

Wright used “lead came” for his linear designs, which required the sturdy strip of lead commonly seen in church stained-glass windows.

The Greenes’ studio used a copper foil method of wrapping glass pieces pioneered by Tiffany. The copper foil is a much thinner and more flexible material that can be easily worked into the curvy shapes prominent in the Greenes’ designs.

In this photo overview, Evan uses the copper foil method:

Stained glass step 1 Trace design
Stained glass step 1 – Trace design

A design is created to fit the space, such as a sidelight panel for a door or a panel for a ceiling-mounted light fixture.

Sometimes designs are constrained by the size of the specified glass, since some glass can’t be manufactured in sizes larger than 9″ x 11″. (All of the glass is hand made, hand mixed and hand poured.) Choosing the proper glass for a project is often the most difficult part.

The glass must have the right color, level of clarity and warm glow when lit — even the presence of impurities and minor flaws are important to get the proper feel of the period. I often request a custom mix to get the correct combination of elements.

Stained glass step 2 Cut glass
Stained glass step 2 – Cut glass
Stained glass step 3 – Cut with saw
Stained glass step 3 – Cut glass with ring saw

The design is drawn out to the proper size, the chosen glass is marked, scored and cut according to the pattern, and fit to the panel.

Stained glass step 4 – Wrap foil
Stained glass step 4 – Wrap with copper foil

Each piece is wrapped around the circumference with copper foil.

Stained glass step 5 – Solder
Stained glass step 5 – Solder

The glass is fitted back into the pattern, and when all the pieces are wrapped and fitted, the glass pieces are soldered, using the copper foil as the conductive element. The solder is worked to create the structure of the pattern, but also to make for a pleasing line: this makes the “character” of the design come through.

Stained glass step 6 – Final fit into panel
Stained glass step 6 – Final fit into panel

Once the panel is complete, a patina is applied to the solder, and the panel is set into its frame, whether a door, window or sconce.

Email or call me at 626-221-5244 to create custom stained glass for your lighting in the Greene, Wright or Tiffany style.