Stained Glass Workshop

I write about stained glass all the time, but I have never tried my hand at classic leaded glass. Having enormously enjoyed my sortie into fused glass with the wonderful Angela Brady, I’ve been looking for an opportunity to have a similar experience with leaded glass. Luckily, we have in West Cork the equally wonderful Deirdre Buckley Cairns, an award-winning multi-talented artist who lives in Schull and who teaches stained glass. I signed up for a full day workshop.

Deirdre is an experienced and excellent teacher. I’m in a good position to judge this as I ran a teacher education program for several years, so I know good technique when I see it. Deirdre was ultra-prepared, guided us through the day in well-calibrated steps, and was unfailingly positive and encouraging. We got there at 9 – Adrienne, Sarah, Susan, Louise and I – and she had everything laid out on each bench – all the tools and supplies we needed – and her own demo bench all set up. 

We each chose one of Deirdre’s designs that she has carefully worked out to be doable in a day and I must admit I went straight for the ten-piece design, which looked the least intimidating. Our class started with how to lay the glass properly over the design and how to cut the shapes. 

This is where I ran into the first of many humbling fumblings – that nifty little glass cutter thingy is a lot harder to control than it seemed when Deirdre expertly guided it exactly over the felt marker line under the glass. It stops unexpectedly, it shoots off in the wrong direction, it leaves gaps – it’s a fiendish little instrument of the devil. It was the first of my many realisations throughout the day of how much time and practice it takes to develop into a skilful glass cutter. 

By lunchtime – that’s three hours for ten pieces – I had my glass cut out. They looked a little rough around the edges, but at that point I hadn’t realised how much that lack of finesse would come back to bite me, so I was basking in a warm glow of accomplishment and ready to enjoy a break.

Susan seemed to have grasped the concept better – her pieces looked remarkably accomplished!

After lunch we had the demo on how to lead the glass together. Starting with two outside leads, Deirdre showed us how to measure, cut and shape the soft lead cames so that all the pieces of glass come together within the lead borders. Seemed straightforward enough – hah!

The first few pieces went fairly well, but then the lack of precision in my glass cutting started to become a problem, as I tried to jimmy and tuck pieces together. Deirdre showed me how to use the grozers (a kind of pliers) to nibble away incorrect edges. Well, nibble is the ideal – in my awkward hands the ‘nibbling’ seemed to create ever more jagged edges. Sometimes we had to use the grinder to try to sort out the final shape – as you can see below, my final piece was far too big for the space it had to fit.

Even though I got the glass more or less leaded in the end, nobody could pretend that it looks anything other than a very amateurish piece of work, with holes where there shouldn’t be holes and a crooked frame. Nevertheless, I was ecstatic to have managed to push and shove it, with lots of help from Deirdre, into a final square shape. 

The next step was to secure all the joins with solder and I hate to say it but this was the most fun part. Or maybe I mean the least stressful. There’s something deeply satisfying about melting metal and watching it magically knit two pieces of lead together. 

The final process was to cement the glass so that it was properly bedded to the lead cames, and not just rattling around inside them. This was a sloppy business, bringing out those inner children who love to play with mud. 

Then came a dusting of plaster to dry the mud and a pushing of the mud/plaster mix into the corners and well under the cames. A final polish with stove blacking and we were done!

And I was wrecked! My back hurt and my wrists and shoulders ached. I had a little sun window to take home with me (don’t look closely!) – and I had learned SO much.

Mostly, that learning had to do with a whole new appreciation for the skill of making stained glass – how physical it was, how exacting, how long it must take to get truly proficient at it, how many steps were involved. 

And of course, this is only the most basic part of making a stained glass window – we did no painting, etching, decorating of any kind. As I type this I have my Finola window to my right – each pane (and there are over a hundred in the window) is worked – painted, scratched, cut away. Some of the glass is flashed with the design cut or etched into it to reveal the colour underneath the coloured flash (thin top layer). Some is covered with thick black paint, through which the design has been etched. Glass has been carefully chosen for different properties – streakiness or bubbles or colour variation. 

At the end of the day, I had accomplished my goal, which was just to gain a tiny insight into the most basic of the processes involved in the making of a stained glass window. The workshop was great fun – not least was finding all of us, a wonderfully compatible group, shouting along to some of Deirdre’s musical accompaniments.

It takes years, and true talent, to become a stained glass artist. I remain in awe of those who have mastered this difficult and remarkably beautiful art.

If you would like to give it a go yourself, keep an eye on Deirdre’s Instagram page, or contact her directly through her website.