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What Are The Different Types And Qualities Of Stained Glass?
Many times we meet people who are interested in stained glass but haven’t learned enough about it to really be able to tell if a piece of glass is a real piece of art or just a good piece. I once overheard a woman blasting over a piece of glass that had been painted with fake glass paints sold in craft stores. “Oh look at that, I love the stained glass, it’s just gorgeous!” Her comments were nice because she could admire art glass, but they were also ridiculous because painted fake glass just doesn’t belong in the same class as other techniques and certainly should never be described as “exquisite.”
This incident prompted me to write this brief description of what the different types and qualities of stained glass are. After reading the following paragraphs, you will be more qualified and able to distinguish between good glass and great glass than most people you will meet. You will be well on your way to becoming a “stained glass expert”.
1. Brass And Glass – made of brass preformed metal (or brass encased lead) called “arrived”. Colored glass is encased in preformed metal and the joints where the metal meets are then soldered. After the panel is finished and soldered, the joints are painted with brass colored paint to look like brass.
Pros: Brass windows match the brass hardware on many homes. Brass windows are almost always mass-produced, so the price is usually lower than other styles of stained glass.
Cons: Brass windows typically don’t bond the glass and metal together, so they’re not as strong and tend to rattle more often than any other stained glass. If the panel is sandwiched between panes of toughened glass, the lack of strength isn’t much of a problem.
Quality: This is the lowest grade of stained glass available and is usually found in cheap furniture and mass-produced door frames. It has long been defunct and is often associated with the cheap waterbeds of the 1960s.
2. Leaded glass – refers to beveled glass as well as colored glass surrounded by preformed lead, called “arrived”. The colored glass is covered with lead and the joints where the metal meets are then soldered. Solder and lead look very similar, so no special joint treatment is required as with brass. After the panel is finished and soldered, the windows are sealed by pressing cement under the metal and glass. The exposed glass is then thoroughly cleaned.
Advantages: Leaded construction is the most common type of stained glass that can be found. If well sealed, the window is quite strong. The lead method is quick to construct, making it quite popular in commercial installations.
Disadvantages: If the window is not cemented, the stiffener will easily stretch over time and the glass shapes will deform quite easily. Windows that are located in insulated units cannot be caulked because the cement reacts with the desiccant in the foam tape used to create the insulated units.
Quality: This is the middle range of stained glass quality. Not bad, just not the best. There is quite a bit of detail available in this type of panel and it is quite good for many styles of glass design. If he wasn’t pretty good, he wouldn’t be in so many highly respected installations.
3. “Tiffany” style copper foil or glass. – refers to a stained glass construction where each piece of glass is individually wrapped in copper foil and the gaps between the glass are soldered with lead and tin based solder, usually a 50/50 mix or 60/40 mix. When finished, the panel is very strong and often waterproof. Chemicals are then added to color the lead lines either copper, bronze or black. The lines can also be left pewter gray or polished to a brilliant silver. It is often called the “Tiffany Style” because the studios of Louis Comfort Tiffany are credited with coming up with the method in the late 19th century.
Advantages: Copper foil windows are very strong and allow the artist the greatest detail of any construction method. It also allows for the largest range of patina methods discussed. The copper foil method allows the artist to trace the contours, so lampshades and other 3D structures are almost always built using this method.
Disadvantages: Hand soldering each solder line in a stained glass window requires a lot of work and is more labor intensive, so these panels usually cost more than the leaded type. Also, because the resulting windows are so very strong, they can develop very fine hairline cracks as the glass expands and contracts in the heat of the day and the cold of the night. These cracks usually develop in the first year after the panel is installed and are small.
Quality: This is the highest grade of stained glass, but there are different quality ranges within this style. Imports will often have very thin lead lines not as a design feature, but as a way to save money on the amount of lead used to construct the panel. The highest quality lamps made from copper foil feature a built-up lead line that will often stand at the same height as the extruded lead line. The best quality solder will have very consistent lead lines and few, if any, areas where the lead has shrunk after cooling.
4. Faceted glass glued with epoxy – refers to a technique where thick sheets of glass are broken into rough pieces and glued together using an epoxy adhesive to form a joint between the different pieces of glass. It is very unusual and is not available in any but the most unusual commercial construction.
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