Many times we meet people who are interested in stained glass, but they haven't learned enough about it to really be able to tell whether a piece of glass is a true work of art or just a good piece. I once overheard a woman gushing over a piece of glass that had been painted with fake glass paints, the kind that craft stores sell. “Oh, Look at that, I love stained glass, that is just exquisite!” Her comments were nice since she had an appreciation for art glass, but they were also ridiculous because painted fake glass just isn't in the same class as other techniques and certainly should never be described as “exquisite”.
So that 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 more able to distinguish between good glass and great glass than the majority of people you meet. You will be well on your way towards becoming a “Stained Glass Expert.”
1. Brass And Glass – made of Brass pre-shaped metal (or brass encased lead), called “came”. The stained glass is encased in the pre-formed metal and the joints where the metal meets are then soldered. After the panel is completed and soldered, the joints are colored with a brass colored paint so that they look brass.
Advantages: Brass windows match the brass plated hardware on many homes. Brass windows are almost always mass produced, so cost is usually lower than other styles of stained glass.
Disadvantages: Brass windows usually don't get the glass and metal cemented to each other, so they are not as strong and have a tendency to rattle more often than any other stained glass window. If the panel is sandwiched between tempered glass sheets, the lack of strength is not a big deal.
Quality: This is the lowest quality of stained glass available and is usually found in cheap furniture and mass produced door frames. It hasn't been around for a long time and is often associated with the cheap waterbeds of the 1960's.
2. Leaded Glass – refers to both beveled glass and colored glass surrounded by pre-shaped lead, called “came”. The stained glass is encased in lead and the joints where the metal meets are then soldered. The solder and the lead look very similar, so no special treatments are needed in the joints as with brass came. After the panel is completed and soldered, the windows are cemented by forcing cement in under the metal and the glass. Then the exposed glass is cleaned thoroughly.
Advantages: Lead construction is the most common type of stained glass to be found. If cemented well the window is fairly strong. The leaded method is fast to construct, so is quite popular in commercial installations.
Disadvantages: If the window isn't cemented, the lead will easily stretch over time and the glass shapes will deform quite easily. Windows that are placed in insulated units can't be cemented because the cement reacts with the desiccant in the foam tape used to create insulated units.
Quality: This is the mid-range of stained glass quality. It's not bad, just not the best. There is pretty good detail available in this type of panel and it is quite good for many styles of glass design. If it wasn't fairly good it wouldn't be found in so many highly respected installations.
3. Copper Foiled or “Tiffany Style” Glass – refers to stained glass construction where each piece of glass is individually wrapped in a copper foil tape and the gaps between the glass are soldered with lead and tin based solder, usually 50/50 mix or 60/40 mix. After the panel is completed it is very strong and pretty often water tight. Chemicals are then added to color the lead lines, either copper, bronze or black. The lines can also be left pewter-like gray or they can be polished to bright shiny silver. It's often called “Tiffany Style” because the studios of Louis Comfort Tiffany are credited with coming up with the method in the late 1800's.
Advantages: Copper foiled windows are very strong and allow the artist the most detail of any of the construction methods. It also allows for the most ranges of patinas of the methods discussed. The copper foil method allows an artist to follow contours and so lamp shades and other 3d construction is almost always built using this method.
Disadvantages: It takes a lot of work and is more labor intensive to hand solder each and every solder line in a stained glass window, so these panels usually cost more than the leaded type. Also, because the resulting windows are so very strong, they can develop very slight hairline cracks as the glass expands and contracts in the heat of the day and the cool of the night. These cracks usually develop in the first year after a panel is installed and are minor.
Quality: This is the highest quality of stained glass, but there are different ranges of quality in this style. Imports will often have very thin lead lines not as a design element, but as a way to save money on the amount of lead used to construct the panel. The highest quality of copper foil constructed lamps will feature a built up lead line which will often stand up the same height as an extruded lead line. Best quality soldering will feature very consistent lead lines and few if any areas where the lead has shrunk after cooling.
4. Epoxy Glued Faceted Glass – refers to a technique where thick slabs of glass are broken in rough pieces and glued together using epoxy glue to form the joint between the various pieces of glass. It's very uncommon and not available in any but the most unusual commercial construction.