Diary of a Stained Glass Window

The path to every new stained glass window is as unique as a fingerprint and as fascinating as a snowflake.  While each commission has its own unique requirements, an overview of a “typical” stained glass commission can give insight into the steps leading to the successful integration of stained glass into a place of worship, a public building or other architectural spaces.

DESIGN  The information gathering phase of the design process begins as soon as I hear about a project. First conversations, architectural drawings and photographs usually precede more specific discussions or phone calls with members of the extended Project Team.  (By “Project Team” I mean the client, building committee, architect, interior designer, consultants, engineers, contractors, etc.).  A site visit and pre-design meeting is the first priority after the decision has been made to proceed. This gives everyone the opportunity to start exploring the possibilities and expectations for the project. A comprehensive site analysis adds detail and understanding of the interrelationships between site, architecture and those who will use them. A presentation of my previous work also allows team members to express their preferences (and dislikes) which are essential to my first steps toward designing their windows.

After the pre-design meeting, I begin to form the impressions and diverse bits of information into specific concepts. Thorough research into related literature, art and technical information give substance to these first concepts. With ongoing input from the Project Team, I develop these ideas and set them down as thePreliminary Design. The Preliminary Design is typically a scale color rendering.  Complex architectural contexts sometimes require scale models to better visualize the stained glass and its relationship to the architecture , site and sun.

Short of fabricating the design, no rendering, no matter how carefully executed, begins to convey the diverse, ever-changing personality of the stained glass it represents. The Preliminary and (later) the Final Designs are intended as schematic tools to help team members picture the very three-dimensional ideas that  will only be fully realized when the stained glass is installed. To insure that the Project Team is thinking glass when they view the Preliminary Design, they are prepared with slides of similar work accompanied by glass samples prior to the unveiling of the design.

The Preliminary Design Presentation is made by me in person to the Project Team.  Invaluable perspective and feedback gleaned during this presentation are then incorporated into the Final Design. Also presented in person, the Final Design reflects the kneading together of Project Team input with my creative sensibilities. Sometimes further refinements are required, but ultimately team members approve the Final Design and Glass Palette for fabrication.

Concurrently with the design of the stained glass, planning for its smooth integration into the architecture is underway. Details and shop drawings are prepared with and/or for the architect, interior designer or general contractor that underpin a seamless interface between other trades and ASG’s stained glass.

MATERIAL ACQUISITION  Most glass used by Architectural Stained Glass, Inc. is mouthblown (from Germany, sometimes France or Poland). Other glasses we sometimes use include dichroic glass, cast lenses, machine- and hand-rolled glasses, mirror, commercial obscure and plate glasses.  Mouthblown glass exhibits a sparkling, crystalline transparency arising from the fact that its surfaces are molded against  air in contrast with the coarser, more obscuing textures embossed on rolled glasses. The thickness within a sheet of mouthblown glass varies  creating rich, watercolor-like gradations from light to dark that adds sumptuous depth our stained glass.

Once the design and palette has been approved for fabrication, a critical step follows. The Glass Palette is based on small samples provided by the different glass makers. You never know whether a sample came from a thick or thin area of the sheet from which it was cut. Sometimes there is variation from sample to latest batch of a color. For these reasons, except for smaller commissions, I travel to the glass importer’s warehouse to personally hand-select the mouthblown glass.

Unlike the easel painter who has the luxury of adding a squeeze of cerulean blue to create the exact purple they’re thinking of, the critical color relationships that can make or break a stained glass design must be painstakingly determined during selection of the sheets of glass. Fortunately, hundreds of colors and textures of mouthblown glass are available which make a reliable glass palette possible.

FABRICATION   The term stained glass is actually a misnomer coined by English-speaking observers of glass painters in 13th century France. They referred to stained glass in their accounts after mistakenly concluding that the color in stained glass windows was imparted by glass painting and staining.  To further confuse the issue, stained glass today refers to any of several techniques for connecting colored pieces of glass including leaded glass (the primary technique used at Architectural Stained Glass), copper foil (Tiffany-style) and faceted or slab glass (dalle de vere).  As the earliest of these methodologies to arise, leaded glass is still the most widely used for architectural applications. Today the technique for making leaded stained glass windows is very similar to the technique used during the 12th through 15th centuries to create the stained glass in Gothic cathedrals. Some of the tools have been electrified or plasticized, but the basic technique remains the same.

The first step is cartooning: the careful enlargement of the scale rendering into full-scale patterns or cartoons. I personally finalize all cartoons because it not only insures the faithful transcription of the design, but allows a final opportunity to fine-tune the design. By the time cartooning is complete, the glass shipments will have arrived and fabrication can begin. No matter how large, each commission is built panel by panel, one piece of glass at a time. As each new piece of glass is cut, it is connected to previous pieces with lead “calmes” or strips. Lead calmes resemble tiny “I-beams” and adjacent pieces of glass fit into their grooves.

When leading is complete, all joints or intersections between the lead calmes are soldered together on both sides of the panel.  Unlike most production studios whose hasty, production-grade soldering requires chemical patinas to camouflage uneven, irregular solder joints, Architectural Stained Glass does not chemically treat solder joints. Instead, the contrast between bright, precise solder joints and smooth gray lead lines adds rich textural detail and rhythm to our stained glass. After soldering, the stained glass panels are caulked to set the glass into the lead and to add strength. A final cleaning process using whiting (CaCO3) polishes the glass and solder joints while imparting the characteristic rich gray color to the leading.

DELIVERY AND INSTALLATION  Next the finished stained glass is crated for shipped to the project site by land, sea or air freight as the commission requires. The installation of each project is planned from the start and often requires a level of creativity and attention to detail approaching that of the design itself. We prefer to handle each installation with our own personnel, although I have successfully supervised other installers when circumstances so dictate. Each commission presents unique installation needs and conditions that experience has prepared us to plan for and to solve smoothly and professionally.

OTHER SERVICES  ALL related services are an integral part of every ASG proposal.  These include photographic documentation; continuous Fine Art and General Liability coverages; a Maintenance & Conservation Manual; all travel, telecommunication, reprographic costs, etc. providing a truly turnkey approach. Your won’t need to worry about reimbursable expenses or additional services.

THE FIRST TIME, AGAIN!  I hope this overview had provided an understanding of the basic steps leading to a stained glass window.  The experience ASG has with a diverse range of projects allows us to be acutely responsive to the unique needs of each commission.  We never forget that the path to every new stained glass window is as unique as a fingerprint and as fascinating as a snowflake.

Jeff Small Yellow