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Stained Glass Windows

Stained Glass Windows

Reflections on design, installation, maintenance and repairs

Stained glass window making is a very unique craft with an ancient history of origin, dating perhaps back to the Egyptians and before the time of Christ. Illuminated by natural and artificial light, these ornately-crafted works of art evolved over centuries in both form and substance and are still seen in thousands of houses of worship all over the world. Once created and erected, many pieces stand the test of time by surviving decades of war, vandalism, and weathering by Mother Nature's wrath. Many windows even outlive its benefactors or its inhabitants inside. For those blessed with the opportunity to commission a stained glass artist for a future project or have somehow been bestowed with the "pane-staking" maintenance of a current window, there are a number of guidelines worth noting.

Adding Stained Glass
If you are considering adding stained glass to your church or building, there are a number of considerations to take note of before commissioning a designer. The first thing to remember is that stained glass is not created in a factory; it is a custom art and craft. Stained glass is created laboriously by hand by talented artists and craftsmen who custom-design a window to suit both your church's architectural surroundings and other aesthetic needs and desires. It often takes more time to plan and design a window than it does actual time and skill to create it.

Another consideration is to know the role of what you want the glass to do for you. According to Richard Gross at the Stained Glass Association of America (SGAA), a 100-year old trade organization, "Stained glass has been used in churches to illustrate religious concepts, but it can do much more while still accomplishing that primary mission. It can allow in light, block out light, hide an undesirable exterior view, accent a desirable exterior view, inspire, educate, memorialize, instruct and so much more."

Planning a Design
Once you've made a decision to add stained glass, what do you ask the artist or supplier? At this stage, it is important to assemble a team from your church and decide exactly what you envision the design to represent for your church. Ideas behind designs vary from traditional or modern, to scripture-based representations of Biblical passages, to plain and simple geometric patterns, to some sort of narrative.

Is this a new window or will it replace an existing window? Take some measurements of the window opening and then invite the artist to your church to survey your project and give you an estimate.

Gross says, "An artist can be of great assistance in the early stages of planning by helping the client come to understand the many strengths of stained glass and by explaining what, in addition to beautifying, can be accomplished with a given stained glass installation."

The next stage is getting basic sketches or line drawings of your design completed, creating a template, and choosing colors and other details you desire. At this point, it might be best to also reach an agreement on terms, payment, delivery, approximate date of completion, installation and any applicable warranty of workmanship.

The SGAA recommends contacting one of their accredited members before commissioning an artist for your project. Their accreditation process includes a rigorous review of a studio's business practices and craftsmanship. "When a person hires an accredited member of the Stained Glass Association of America, that person knows the studio's qualifications have been reviewed by professionals who know the craft and are dedicated to excellence in stained glass."

Once you have completed your window, it is recommended that you record, photograph and document your creation for future reference and insurance purposes.

Standards and Guidelines for Stained Glass/Structural Integrity
Stained glass windows are created by taking a template design and matching it with cut pieces of colored glass. The pieces are then set into place with a mesh of either lead or copper cames and supported with metal bars (called "bracing") to provide stability. More intricate details, such as highlights, facial features, etc, can then be painted on the surface of the glass. Stained glass is extremely durable and, if designed, assembled and maintained correctly, they will last for many years to come.

The structural integrity of a stained glass installation is determined by the dynamic interaction of a large number of variables. There are rules of thumb that, though not universal, certainly hold generally true in designing and fabricating an installation. For example, no single panel in a window should, generally speaking, exceed twelve square feet or fourteen linear perimeter feet. Rebar and other structural supports also play a vital role in the integrity of an installation. Certainly, each installation presents unique challenges that a studio meets based on experience, study, and innovation; the ability to meet these challenges successfully time after time is the hallmark of a Stained Glass Association of America accredited member.

Maintenance, Repairs, and Problems
Proper routine inspection and maintenance of your stained glass windows helps to assure their lasting beauty and functionality but, more importantly, it will preserve your investment. Have the windows inspected regularly for broken, cracked, or loose pieces; bulging; air leaks; drafts; and water leaks. Also look for signs of deterioration, water stains, sagging frames, and rotting or mold-laden areas. A professional can insert a special hygrometer probe into the frame to measure the level of moisture content and give you an analysis of any water leaks.

According to Alan Dodd of Studio 2 A in Cadiz, Kentucky, the most common problem found with stained glass is bulging. "There are a number of reasons why this happens," says Dodd. "The window should have been built originally with metal support bars, but wind, heat, moisture and improper protective glazing or sealants that are sometimes used can break down the lead and supports, which weakens the stability." As a result, Dodd says the window begins to sag due to the weight load and the bulges do not usually disappear.

Using silicone-based sealants that contain acetic acid will corrode both lead and metal. Using plastic or glass protective glazing on the windows is also a no-no. While they may be effective in warding off vandals, thieves, weathering, and conserve energy, the long term effect can be more harmful. Often times, moisture is trapped between the stained glass window and the protective glazing and then it expands and contracts with temperature variants creating damaging bacteria, thus weakening the frames and over time begins to rot away.

Most of the time, broken or faded glass can be matched and replaced depending on the age and original source or supplier. Re-setting or re-grouting a window with cement is sometimes needed to fill in lead tracks and around the framing. Re-leading is simply dismantling and rebuilding the entire window and new lead is used to frame in and around each piece of glass.

It is not good to tackle complex repairs yourself; it is better to just have the stained glass repaired properly and restored by a professional. This will remedy any leaks, drafts, and can be re-built with support bars if needed, re-grouted and re-leaded, and back to new again.

Finally, simple cleaning of your stained glass window is nothing more than exercising extreme caution. Never use water, window cleaners or solvents on it. Most of the time a dry cotton, terry-cloth is all that is needed to gently wipe off any dirt or dust. Leave any major cleaning to a professional stained glass company.

Like a child gazing through a kaleidoscope, stained glass brings smiles and joy to the world. Stained glass windows are a reflection of your church or building; it complements and enhances its own uniqueness and personality. Certainly, stained glass is art in its truest sense driven by imagination and passion for the craft. Our role is to simply embrace it, appreciate it, identify with it, and treat it as such.

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