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Cutting and assembling colored glass into pieces of art.
Stained glass windows involve the art of cutting colored glass into different shapes, then assembling the pieces using channeled lead-came strips, or copper-foil. Once assembled, the pieces are then soldered together and installed in a frame to create a window or other decorative piece.
The term "stained glass" today generally refers to glass that has been colored by added metallic salts during its manufacture. For example, using the metal copper would produce green or blue glass. The molten glass is then annealed slowly in a furnace to produce sheets of colored glass. Early stained glass artists were limited to a very few primary colors, but today almost any color can be produced.
These colored glasses are available in many different textures: smooth, wavy, rippled, hammered, pebbled, or very rough. These different textures cause the glass to have light and color transmission characteristics that, even for the same color, can provide surprising results. Stained glass is sold by weight and by the square foot in sheets, usually about 3' x 4', down to 12" x 12" squares.
Making a Stained Glass Piece
There are two styles or methods of stained glass crafting: the lead came method and the copper foil method. In both of these methods, individual pieces of stained glass are joined together within a framework of lead. In the lead came method the pieces of glass are embedded into the channels of the came, and the joints between the came strips soldered together.
In the copper foil method, the edges of the glass pieces are wrapped with copper, and soldered together along the adjacent copper strips.
The first step for either method is to create a design, or obtain an existing pattern. Particular attention should be paid to the shapes of each piece (the difficulty of cutting glass to that shape), as well as to the direction in which the glass pattern or "grain" should run. This can be indicated by drawing a line on the pattern piece that runs in the same direction you wish the glass grain to run. For example, if a particular pattern piece is for the trunk of a tree, the grain should go up and down like bark, rather than side to side. Finally, each piece should be individually numbered for ease of assembly.
Next, the individual pieces of the pattern are cut out using special shears that remove a thin strip from the edge of each piece, to allow for the thickness of the copper foil or lead came that will hold them all together.
Now it's time to transfer the design to your glass. This can be done in several ways, according to preference. The first method is to glue the pattern piece to the glass before cutting the glass. The second method entails holding the pattern piece against the glass and tracing the outline on the glass; this can be done with Sharpie markers -- black for light-colored glass, and silver for dark glass. The third method is to place the pattern piece on a light box and, after laying the glass over the pattern piece, trace the pattern onto the glass. Regardless of the method, make sure to include the piece number on the glass.
Next, the outlines of each glass piece is scored using a steel or carbide wheel lubricated with cutting oil (note: each glass piece will require multiple scoring and breaking steps to "free" it from the surrounding glass). The glass is then broken at the score using breaker-grozier pliers. These pliers can also be used to "bite" small pieces of glass away from the larger piece. Glass can also be cut using a special glass saw, which is particularly useful for difficult cuts.
Next you must make the glass safer to handle and correct any cutting inaccuracies by smoothing or grinding the edges of the glass piece. This can be done by hand using a corborundum stone, or by using a special electric glass grinder with a diamond-coated grinding bit.
This is where the processes for each of the two methods split. The next section describes the steps for the lead came method. The equivalent copper foil steps are described in the copper foiling section below.
Traditionally, lead came strips are stretched for straightening and stiffening using a lead vice attached at the edge of a work bench. The need for this is controversial. On one side there is a view that stiffening of the lead is crucial to achieve maximum lateral tensile strength to limit bowing of the window in the future and that the integrity of the lead is not compromised. However, it is the opinion of some practitioners that stretching is an undesirable practice as it might weaken, rather than strengthen, the lead.
Lead came is available in 5-6 foot pieces and on dispensing rolls for smaller gauge lead. Lead came is commonly cut with lead dikes or a glazing knife. Table top chop saws are also used where repetitive sized pieces are needed or when working with a zinc based lead or zinc came. Lead came can also be cut at an angle to allow for proper mitering where the stained glass design requires it.
Each piece of glass is set in place upon a copy of the original design/pattern, with came shaped around it to make a matrix. Horseshoe nails and scraps of lead are used to hold the already-assembled pieces to the work surface. Horseshoe nails are used, because the steel is not tempered, and therefore has less chance of breaking the edge of a piece of glass. Sometimes on a delicate piece, a scrap of lead will cushion the glass from the nail. The glass and lead are assembled gradually, beginning from one corner of the work, and building-up away from it. The ends of the came are tucked under the ears of the other lead it meets.
The lead came is soldered at the joints between strips with lead/[[tin]] solder. This is in contrast to the copper foil method described below, where the whole length of the copper strip is soldered.
Copper foil technique
The edges of the glass pieces are wrapped in copper foil. This is similar to the lead came method, where the edges are inserted into the came channels. The foil is then burnished onto all three glass surfaces.
Flux is applied sparingly to all visible copper.
The copper-wrapped glass pieces are soldered together. A bead of solder is run across every spot of visible copper foil, in contrast with the lead came method, where only the came edges called "joints" are soldered together.
After thoroughly cleaning the finished project to remove all traces of flux (an oxidizer), a finishing patina is applied to emphasize details or to quickly achieve the natural black patina that all lead develops with age.
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