Ever marvel at colorful glass windows with an intricate design in a church or a craftsman style home? That’s the magic of stained glass, a beautiful and classic glassworking technique.
Making your own stained glass artwork takes care and patience. But the process is easier than you might think. To help you get started, let’s walk through the five basic steps to stained glass making success.
What Is Stained Glass?
In the contemporary definition of stained glass, you don’t have to stain any glass. Most glass artists start with pieces of glass that are already colored. For more on how to color the glass yourself, check out our guide to making colored glass at home.
Today’s stained glass involves cutting, arranging, and soldering together glass pieces in your pattern of choice. It helps to be familiar with fundamental glass coldworking techniques.
Tools & Materials
- Stained glass – Comes in sheets of 1 square foot and up. There’s cathedral glass, which is transparent. Then there’s opalescent, which is not. You can also find a hybrid of the two. Select a variety of colors and textures as desired. Note that cathedral glass is easiest to cut (you’ll do plenty of cutting).
- Glass cutter and cutter oil – Comes with a diamond or tungsten carbide wheel that scores the glass to make your cuts. Be sure to keep it oiled.
- Grozers and running pliers – For snapping the glass along your score line and trimming edges. Use the running pliers for the long cuts.
- Copper foil – Provides the surface for soldering your glass pieces together. Comes in many different widths; 7/32 inch should work with most glass. Look for a quality tape such as AKA Venture Tape. Others are cheaper but will fall apart and frustrate you. Choose from black, copper, and silver backing depending on your design.
- Soldering iron — The electric tool that melts a bead of metal to connect your glass pieces. Don’t skimp on the quality of this one, either. Look for a model that’s at least 75 watts and demonstrates consistent temperature control.
- Solder – The thin metal tube—a mix of lead and tin—that gets melted to the foil by the soldering iron. Look for the 60/40 kind from quality brands such as Amerway and Canfield.
- Flux – Helps the solder flow to the copper tape. Comes in liquid or gel form.
- Grinding stone or electric grinder – To smooth out your edges after cutting. If you’re just doing a few pieces, grinding by hand is all right. But the more you do, the more you’ll want to invest in a good glass grinder.
- Lightbox – Perhaps a nice-to-have vs. a must. But it sure helps to transfer your chosen design.
- Safety equipment – A must: protective glass and gloves for working with sharp glass pieces and hot metal.
1. Design Your Creation
Start small and simple as a beginner. Go for a design with fewer parts and less complicated cuts.
You can either choose pre-made glass designs, or design one yourself. There are lots of free downloads on the web. Or copy one at the library.
Either way, aim for something with no more than a handful of pieces. A simplified flower design is a good beginner approach.
Label the color you want for each piece of glass. Trace each piece onto the glass with a marker. (This is where a lightbox really helps.)
2. Cut Your Glass
Cutting glass takes a calm demeanor and steady hand.
Start with your straight cuts. Line things up with a ruler or similar straight edge. Using a pencil grip, apply light pressure with the cutter. Start away and pull toward you to score the complete cut (edge to edge) in one motion.
A lot of times you can snap the glass with your hands. Otherwise, grip your grozers right down the line to make your break.
Tackle your curves next. It’s the same basic technique. But you may need to do deep curves in stages.
Smooth each piece by grinding it. Here’s where the electric grinder adds a lot of value. It can even help you achieve just the right curve.
3. Apply Foil
Now it’s time to foil all your pieces to prepare for soldering.
Cut your copper foil to length for each edge. Remove the backing to expose the adhesive. Be sure it’s centered. It’s crucial that you apply the foil firmly and evenly. Press along each edge with a firm utensil, such as a tongue depressor.
Relax and take your time with it!
4. Solder Your Design
Speaking of taking your time, soldering is a skill that rewards patience. Give yourself room to develop your soldering technique.
First, apply the flux with a brush to all foil pieces.
Next, “tack” together your pieces at corners. That means applying a bit of solder at the joints to secure things. Then you can do the rest of the work …
“Tin” the seams. This step achieves the core bond of all the pieces. Apply a thin strip of solder along the seams. Coat all of the foil.
Finally, it’s time for the “bead.” You’re aiming for a smooth finish—the trickiest part. Start with another flux application, this time to the newly tinned seams. In a fluid motion, run the iron back and forth along the seam. Then gently lift it up for a sleek bead.
It’s not easy, but you’ll get better each time. You may want to practice on test pieces on the side.
5. Finish & Display
Now that you have your full stained glass creation, it’s time to show it off!
Consider building a frame. You can use lead came (metal channel) along the outside. Follow the same soldering steps.
For hanging, you can do some more soldering practice. Solder loops of copper wire to the top of your creation.
Don’t forget to clean your finished piece with your favorite glass cleaner.
Troubleshooting & Tips
- Make the cut. Be patient. Apply even pressure (less pressure for cathedral glass; more for opalescent). A distinctive zipping sound tells you if you’re getting it right. For long cuts, experts advise standing for better reach. For focus on small cuts, stay seated.
- Solder smooth. Consider the tip you’re using. Wider tips are generally better for beginners. If the tip gets a charred look, make sure you have flux that’s compatible with your temps.
- Mind the gaps. Over-grinding can lead to wider-than-expected spaces between pieces. You can fill in these gaps with solder to salvage the piece.
For help working through these issues, look for a class or workshop at glass studios in your area. There are plenty of online options featuring expert glass artists, as well.
Above all, enjoy the challenge and the journey of stained glass making. The results get more gorgeous and rewarding along the way!