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Designing Stained Glass Panels

Where do you get your ideas or inspiration to do a design?

I cannot sit down to a blank screen, take a breath, and design a masterpiece. It doesn't work like that. Sources of inspiration are everywhere, except in that 
blank screen in front of you. You see something in life, or a photo, or a client has some idea of what he wants (frogs on lily pads for a bathroom window), and you begin to formulate an idea in your mind. 

Then you explore the idea in your mind. You think of different settings, backgrounds, lighting (time of day or night), season, action, serenity, etc., etc. When you begin to see a picture in your mind, do a quick pencil sketch to capture the essence of the idea. No details, just a few quick lines to help you recall the picture when you get back to that blank screen. 

Then you may have to do some research. Just what are the shape of a morning glory flower, and the shape of the leaves on the vine that you will be using in this scene you have envisioned? And just what kind of butterfly do I want to depict? This is where you hit the pattern books, photo files, and other sources of information to add detail to the idea. 

Now you are ready to face the blank screen and start drawing. As you develop a pattern, still other ideas may emerge that you may want to capture and incorporate. For example, you saw your cat leaping to catch a fly buzzing around in front of the door, and decide to make this design more whimsical by adding a cat leaping in an attempt to capture the butterfly. 

And so is a masterpiece born. It just happens. You cannot force it. Some claim you have to get out of alpha mode into beta mode to envision things. (Alpha mode is the normal wakeful state of logical thinking and decision making, while beta mode is a peaceful, calm, more dreamlike state of consciousness.) I don't know about that. I have had ideas and envisioned things in both states of consciousness. 

Then there is the left-brain vs. right brain thinking. The left-brain is logical, deductive. The right brain is inductive, and good at pattern recognition. I think ideas come from the left, but it is the right that develops the idea and will draw it. It is the left-brain that will try to force an idea, and fail. It is in the right brain where it just happens, and will succeed. 

There is no timescale for all of this. Some ideas and patterns have developed in a matter of minutes. Others have taken several months to come to fruition. 

Should I choose lead came or copper foil for my design?

The lead vs. foil question is one of the most often asked questions. Poll any number of people and you will tally a 50-50 response. Ask beginning students, and foil will be the answer, because that is all they have learned. (Why are beginning classes always foil? Lead came was used exclusively for 5 centuries. Copper foil didn’t arrive on the scene until a century ago.) And you always get the “old wife’s tale answers: "Lead is more forgiving", and "With foil you are going to spend a lot of time at the grinder." I don't agree with either of those old tales. 

Lets take a more thoughtful approach to this question. Lead came has a constant face width. It is very uniform in appearance. This uniformity compliments strong geometric designs. It is a good marriage. Foiling pieces that fit together irregularly causes variation in line width. But nature has a lot of variation. A variation in line width compliments floral designs. It is a good marriage. 

Neither type of design or technique requires precision glass cutting. We only need to get reasonably close to succeed. What is reasonable? Your eye is the judge of that, not my ruler. If you could precision cut all your glass that would work also. But I might suggest that machine precision would detract from the appearance of a Tiffany style floral design. The eye expects to see variation, not because there is variation in original Louis Tiffany panels, but because there is variation in nature. 

My answer to the question is to choose what compliments the design: lead for uniformity, foil for irregularity.

What are “hinges” in a design? And what is “weaving”?

If you have a window 3 feet wide with a horizontal or angled lead line that spans the width, with 2 or three feet of glass on top of it, you have a hinge that will fail over time. The effects of gravity and wind will cause the panel to bow at this point. Lead is soft, and the heart is only 1/16" thick. It will bend like a hinge. That is where the term comes from. It is a slow gradual process, not a sudden event. 

I wouldn't worry about it at all in an 18"x24" or smaller panel. But when I get to 24" wide by 36" high, then I start to think about it and consider it in the design. A gently curving line across a panel can also be a hinge. You will often see a border with the border pieces offset from a line across the center of a panel. This is a commonly used technique to break up a hinge line. However, some designs, such as a diamond window, do not lend themselves to any design technique to break up hinge lines. In those cases we resort to a technique called weaving (as well as a wider face width lead came like you see in centuries old diamond windows.)

Cutting long lengths of lead line into shorter lengths intersecting with crossing pieces, is a technique called "weaving", because it loosely has that appearance. It is predominately used in "diamond" windows. It does add some structure. It is marginally stronger than long continuous lengths of lead. 

The general guideline is that one length of lead should span no more than two pieces of glass before it intersects a crossing piece of lead. Yes, you can span 3 or 4 pieces of glass if your design calls for a strong lead line. But if not, you are better off with shorter lengths. 

If your design is symmetrical, any "weaving" should be mirrored across the line of symmetry. The eye will see an "unbalanced" design if you violate this rule. 

Now that I and everyone else has told you how bad it is to have a hinge in your design, I am going to suggest that there may be a case where you want one. Large panels require reinforcement, but many artists do not want the horizontal shadow line that traditional rebar imparts. They want to use reinforced came, which has a copper coated steel band imbedded in the came heart. This is called hidden reinforcement, and is relatively new to the stained glass industry. But to be effective, reinforcement must be continuous across the panel, from border to border. So, yes, design in a hinge. 

I'll bet that got your attention! Yes, this suggestion runs counter to everything you've been taught. Have a smoke, or a doughnut, a pint of cherry delight, or whatever works. Calm down, and think about it. Yes, you are designing in a structural weakness. But, and this is the key, its purpose is to hide the structural reinforcement that is buried within this feature. To "hinge", the panel has to bow. But the steel band in the lead heart will take a LOT of pressure before it bows. So not only does it prevent the hinge problem, but also it keeps the central portion of the panel from bowing, which is the purpose of structural reinforcement. I'll bet you never thought a hinge could be a useful design feature. This is the one case where I would purposely use a weak design feature and good material for a construction advantage. Aren't rules made to be broken? Have you ever colored outside the lines? 

What face width should I design with in copper foil designs?

As is usually the case in this art, there is no one answer, or one "right" way to do it. The solder heart between foiled pieces is the framework, or structure, that gives the panel rigidity and supports the weight of the glass. The bead on the surface is the "lip" that holds the edge of the glass. The foil itself has little to nothing to do with structure. Its sole purpose is to provide a surface that solder will adhere to, since solder will not adhere to glass. Copper foil is flimsy and in itself, provides virtually no strength or structure to the panel. It is the solder, the combination of heart and surface bead that provides the structure to the panel.

A wider bead (wider foil) will provide more "lip" over the edge of the glass and will create a stronger joint. In a large panel, but smaller than would require additional reinforcement, a wider foil might be considered. But then again, if that panel were constructed with a gazillion small pieces, it would inherently have more structure, because there would be a lot more solder heart framework.

So what does all this boil down to? The simple answer is to use a line width that fits the composition and don't worry it to death. Small pieces use thin lines. Large pieces use thicker lines. And don't be afraid to mix line widths as appropriate to the composition. Those are aesthetic generalizations. Use your judgment. If you were doing a large panel with larger pieces of glass and thin lines, you might consider some additional reinforcement to prevent bowing over time.

As to glass thickness, the nominal thickness is 1/8". That is normally what you design with and use for initial foil selection. Unless you are specifically designing with a glass made to a thinner or thicker dimension, such as those made primarily for fusing. You may also design for integrating fused pieces or mosaic sections in your panel, in which case you may have a different thickness.

When you go to construct your panel you will find a great deal of variation in the nominal glass thickness, because it is predominately hand made, unless you are using float (window) glass, which is machine made and quite uniform. Usually, a single foil width will suffice, but again, it is a judgment call. If the piece is thin, and was cut undersized, so the resulting line width would appear wider than you like, then use a narrower foil for that piece. Likewise, if the piece were thick, and cut oversized, you may want to grind it down, or use a wider foil for that piece, to make the final line width give you the appearance you want. In either case, the occasional piece that gets a wider or narrower foil will not affect the structure of the panel to any great degree.

I have seen variation from the nominal 1/8" thickness as much as +/- 1/16". That is, a sheet of glass that varies from 1/16" thick in one area to 3/16" in others. Larger manufacturers of stained glass sheet will not let those types of variations leave the shop. Those sheets are rejected and go into the scrap bin. Wide variation can be expected in some types of hand blown glass, or glass from small specialty studios. If you encounter that type of glass you may well decide to use a wider or narrower foil to keep your finished line widths somewhat uniform. Again these occasional pieces should not have any large effect on structure. But use your judgment on when additional reinforcement may be called for.


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