Friday, February 27, 2009

Creating Successful Period Stained Glass

When building a historical period style home, there are many important elements to consider in successfully recreating the proper aesthetic. Among these, stained glass is often one such element.

While it is certainly possible to locate and purchase antique stained glass panels to design into a new home, the availability of truly great pieces is quite limited and are often in need of repair or full restoration before being utilized safely. It is precisely these sorts of limitations in design, size and condition that cause most people to turn to stained glass artisans to create new custom pieces that better suit their individual needs. However, making the decision to do so is just the beginning. After a little research into the variety of work being produced today, it will become evident that all stained glass is not created equal.

What is it that makes some stained glass appear brand new and others to commonly be mistaken for a true antique? Whether it's a simple organic Arts & Crafts window or an elaborate jeweled Victorian, there are several factors that combine to create a successful period look. Among these are design, scale, color, texture and density. Although design would seem to be the most important factor in this list, proper glass selection is equally important. You could locate an antique stained glass panel that you like and copy it line for line but unless appropriate glass colors and textures are used to create the reproduction, all sense of authenticity will be lost.


Stained glass is a term used today to typically describe colored glass windows or other items that are made of individually cut pieces assembled within a metal matrix. Originally, stained glass was a term used interchangeably to describe two different methods of coloring glass - The first involves the addition of various metals to the glass in the molten stage to “stain” it with certain colors. Copper creates green, cobalt creates blue, gold is used to create reds, and so on. The second method involves the to application of various vitreous paints and stains onto the surface of the glass, which are then fired to produce various colors. Silver stain , a mixture of silver nitrate in a gum base, was first discovered in the 14th century and was used to “stain” glass with various shades of gold, amber and brown.

Hand-painted stained glass can range from simple decorative elements to elaborate enameled pieces more closely resembling classical oil paintings than traditional stained glass windows. These variations in painting styles are another indicator of the possible age of a piece as artisans’ techniques were a reflection of the tastes and cultural attitudes of the time.

Leaded glass is another term commonly used to describe stained glass but originally was a term used to describe clear glass that was made with a high lead content to it’s increase it’s refractive index, much like lead crystal. This “leaded” glass was then cut and polished into beveled shapes that created a spectacular prismatic effect. Beveled glass produced today is typically made from standard plate glass so it does not contain the high lead content and is therefore less brilliant than the glass formerly associated with this name. Today, the term leaded glass mostly refers to clear glass that is leaded together in the traditional manner.



Stained glass begins it’s journey as large sheets, which are then cut up, shaped and assembled by glass artisans to create finished stained glass pieces. This sheet glass is produced by a small variety of manufacturers in the US and abroad, some of which have been in existence for over a hundred years. Each manufacturer typically creates several lines of glass, some transparent, some opaque, and some possessing both of these qualities, depending on whether the light is transmitted or reflected. Manufacturing processes differ as well, ranging from machine made to glass to glass that is made completely by hand.

Because of the age of each manufacturer and the fact that their lines are quite distinct, it’s important to know a bit of their history in order to make appropriate choices when creating an authentic looking period piece. In addition, the overall history of stained glass contains several period indicators that are based on the development of certain materials and techniques, so these are important to know as well.


For instance, opalescent glass, a term used to describe opaque and semi-translucent glass, was invented in the late 19th century. Prior to that, sheet glass was largely transparent in nature, whether completely transparent or textured. This is referred to as Cathedral Glass. The earliest glass of this type used in the production of stained glass windows was first blown into cylinders, then scored and reheated to lay flat, creating rectangular sheets. Mouth-blown glass, referred to as Antique (also Full Antique and New Antique), is still being produced today in the same way it has for centuries. Because of the hand-made nature of this glass, each sheet is unique, containing striations, bubbles and/or seeds (small bubbles), which are considered highly desirable. There are a variety of machine-made simulated “antiques” out there but they lack the brilliance and unique qualities of their mouth-blown predecessors and are clearly detectible to the informed eye.

A common example of this difference in manufacturing techniques can be seen in the window glass of today, termed Float Glass, because it is manufactured by floating molten glass on a layer of tin. Prior to the early 21st century, window and cabinet glass was made by hand, which caused slight irregularities that subtly warp what is being viewed through it. And the further back in time you go, the more irregularities you will find. Looking at this glass at an angle with a light source reflected on it's surface, will reveal these surface irregularities and give you an indication of it’s possible age. A successful reproduction of this type of glass is called Restoration Glass and is available in either Full Restoration or Light Restoration, depending on the time period you are choosing to emulate.

Besides glass choice, there are other important factors as well, such as fabrication technique. The use of lead came is the most traditional method, with certain sizes and profiles used to reflect different eras. Another method of fabrication was developed in the late 19th century, involving the use of copper foil and solder. This technique is mostly commonly attributed to Louis Comfort Tiffany but there is debate as to whether he actually invented it or whether it was work of his contemporary, John LaFarge.

With so many factors to consider then in creating an authentic period stained glass piece, it’s important to select artisans with not only skill and attention to detail, but also a solid knowledge of the history of their medium. This, combined with an artist’s personal passion for antiquities, ensures that their addition to your environment will blend seamlessly and exemplify their time-honored tradition. And although the price is often higher for this type of hand-crafted excellence, most with an eye for detail and quality will agree, it’s well worth the investment.


Text and Images by:
Michael Watts
Owner of Studio Watts, Inc

1 comments:

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