Getting Back Into Glass (At Last!)

'Fire' Candle Holder

‘Fire’ Candle Holder

It’s been a while since I did any stained glass work, apart from sketching out design ideas. I’ve missed it. The last window I made was when pregnant with M – the Oak Sunrise window, which was pictured here in December last year when it finally got fitted. As M is the sort of child who still has to experience everything in a physical way, ‘no touching’ remaining an alien concept to her, I simply haven’t felt safe getting glass out around her yet. This simple candle holder was made for a friend, in a single day whilst M was elsewhere.

It reminded me just how much I love everything about glass. The light coming through it, the colours, the feel of a large piece in my hand, the act of cutting it and listening for the sound all the time. Lifting the cutter out of holes where there are faults in the glass. The careful snap, or easing a cut, or occasionally tapping the back of a sharp curve to control the line of cracking. Glass may be man-made, yet it shares many properties with crystals and gemstones – and each colour seems to have its own cutting character influenced by the specific minerals which make the colour. Red, made with gold, tin or selenium, is always really nice to work with! The opposite of green, made from iron or chromium, which can be one of the flakiest and always the most likely to give me nicks. Amber is harder, iron plus sulphur, good bottle glass.

Copper foiling isn’t my preferred technique, but appropriate here so I dutifully wrapped each piece in the required sticky copper tape before the joy of soldering. The acid tang and spicy smell of the flux, so different from the tallow I use on lead. And the way molten solder behaves is just so fascinating. Sometimes it melts cleanly, other times it feels more solid depending on the exact temperatures. Most of the time it flows beautifully into a joint, making a raised silver bead, but occasionally it reminds me of my lack of practice recently when it hisses and spits gently where there is an air pocket, or even runs straight through when it gets too hot. And when it runs out it makes a beautiful silver puddle, ready to be gathered up again with the iron tip and reused. And the final stage is so simple – a bath in warm soapy water. No mess.

Oak Sunrise Window

Oak Sunrise Window

Oak Sunrise Window
(Click for full size picture)

Here is the (almost!) final result of a project that has been several years in the making. It is in fact the last stained glass project I completed when pregnant with M… but for various reasons has taken until now to actually be fitted into place.

The window space used to be external, but is now internal and the bottom half of the window will lift up as a serving hatch. (Once the sash cords and weights have also been fitted!) Hence it is designed so that it will still work as a picture when not fully closed. The original window was a little larger than this, we have made it a brick smaller at the sides and top, reversing the side of the sash opening in the process. (Those familiar with sash windows will know that they are set into the wall behind the front skin of bricks, a practice introduced in the 1700s to reduce the fire risks. It is partly what gives genuine sash windows their character, and while not providing the recesses or windowsills so useful for putting things on that a casement window has, they are actually very energy efficient. Even more so when double glazed…)

Besides the obvious picture, there is some personal symbolism in the design:

Oak tree – for protection and strength, for thanks, for journeying from.
Stag – represents partnership, balance, majesty, confidence, vitality. A friend in this world and in other worlds. Grounding. Trust.
Sunrise – beginnings, hope. There is always light on the horizon.
Stars – great bear (family animal), ploughing a furrow, pointing the way, some say the source of the seven rays. Also a saucepan with a bent handle… well it is the kitchen on one side!

It was tempting to use a version of this design for a Winter Solstice card, but of course here the oak tree is in the full leaf colours of midsummer. From a point of view of living with it as a picture, it feels relevant for at least two seasons each year, compared to flowers which only have one season.

For the technically minded, the glass used is mostly Kokomo, some Spectrum and some Dynasty. The stars are bevels. The antlers were done by cutting the heart out of the lead came where it overlaps the glass; they were soldered in place and cemented as if they were attached as normal.

Hello 2015

I would say Happy New Year, as so many people have said to me in the last few days, but I celebrated the year turning at Samhain, and again at the winter solstice. So instead I will say welcome to 2015, in the belief that this year promises even more good things than the last one.

I prefer to look forward rather than back, and I spend more time making future plans than reminiscing or worrying about what has gone. If it is true that we get what we focus on, then this seems a good way to be to me! However this is not because I am trying to cut out or ignore the negatives in my life, but part of how I overcame illness. My road back to health that started five years ago included setting myself a target for each day, however small, that I could achieve and feel like I had done something. Some targets were physical, such as going for a walk every day and slowly increasing from half a mile to managing three miles in under an hour. Some were creative, where at the end of it I had something in front of me I could see I had managed to do. It made me feel more worthwhile – and still does, for if I have nothing I am trying to achieve I feel lost.

After various thoughts about new projects to tackle, I made some promises to myself at the solstice. I share them here in the continued expectation that what is written down is more likely to happen than what is kept to myself!

Sewing – I have started making a quilt of the map where Winnie the Pooh lives, to hang on the wall where the poster of the same picture keeps falling off. (The radiator underneath melts the white-tack sticking it to the wall.) M is being her most helpful ever and loves seeing all the green background pieces being cut out and laid out in position, which is just as well since lack of space means I have to put them on the floor!

Stained Glass – I have drawn out one stained glass design for some door panels for an internal door, and have a front door and window panels to draw in the coming weeks. It would be great to get them all made this year…

Bodhran playing – when I wanted a drum for journeying, I bought a bodhran because I loved the sound and it felt right at the time. Now (nearly three years on) I want to learn to play it properly, so that I can use it for both and be more relaxed when I play it.

Working with elementals in the garden – I have no idea how to proceed with this one yet; drumming might be involved at least in the first instance. It feels important to me to try, however long it takes.

Climbing the ‘Wainwrights’ – the Munros always intrigued me in Scotland, and I have climbed about ten, but mostly they are too big, too demanding, and too far away. Also the list changes from time to time. I was in the Lake District for Yule, an area which I love and have walked and canoed there over many years, both solo and with family. This was the first time I had come across the concept of completing all the ‘Wainwrights’, which are all the fells AR Wainwright detailed in his books in the 1950s. They have the advantages of being a fixed list of 214 fells, some are small, and given it was his personal choice to include them, they all have some feature of interest. I would love to start from scratch and see if I can do them all in, say, thirty years. However I plan to start with the hundred and sixty-odd I haven’t yet climbed and see how I go. If nothing else, it is the best excuse I’ve come up with so far to ensure I get to Cumbria at some point each year!

Section of the Soca gorge, taken from footbridge. (German paddler.)

Section of the Soca gorge, taken from footbridge. (German paddler.)

Swimming in Dunnerdale – because it looks amazing. Paddling the Soca gorge took me eight years from seeing a photo to being there – and was every bit as wonderful as I hoped it would be (see the photo!) Swimming under Birks Bridge might take me as long before M is ready and the weather is right, but I’m hoping that is an outside time limit!

Given that dreams posted here have a habit of coming true, feel free to add yours in a comment below!


Rudbeckia glass door

Rudbeckia glass door

I am feeling excited this week because my glass work bench has come out of storage and been re-erected for the first time since M was born. Even before I get a chance to use it, the very fact of its being there again gives me hope.

I love working with glass. Designing it, cutting the glass, fitting the lead around each piece, soldering, even cementing the panel to make it waterproof is a process I have come to enjoy doing and take my time over. Little has changed in the manufacture of a stained glass panel since Mediaeval times, as most of the tools are fairly basic. The richness of the colours in the glass still come from natural metal oxides, and even when not made by hand, it still sings when light comes through it.

My first task will be to draw out full size cartoons for our front door, as first mentioned back in April. I also have another door design and a window to draw out; these I should be able to do with M having her own pencil and paper set up next to me. Then early next year I will source supplies, put my order in and start cutting glass – for an hour a day when supervision is available!

Meanwhile here is a previous project I wanted to share. It was created for my neighbour, who after she had her Edwardian 4-panel doors stripped down, discovered that one of them had hardboard in the upper panels instead of wood. Apologies for the slightly flat image – I have some learning to do to get good pictures of glass!

I was also thinking about Rudbeckia flowers, known as Black Eyed Susan, because there are some still in flower in a garden where we walk regularly. They look stunning, the deep yellow feeling autumnal and yet at the same time happy. A last hurrah before brown, dead seedheads take over. Colour therapy at its best. Rudbeckia has the same healing properties as the distantly related purple coneflower, the Echinacea, yet is apparently more effective. It certainly grows stronger and healthier – Echinacea is to me one of the great gardening disappointments since it looks stunning in photos but experience has taught me that it doesn’t grow well around here. Even the books describe it as a short-lived perennial. But the Rudbeckia just grows and smiles.

Summer Solstice

Sketch for stained glass Green Man

Sketch for stained glass Green Man

Last weekend was the Summer Solstice, when the Earth reaches its maximum tilt of the North pole towards the sun and we get our longest day. Some people have said to me ‘I didn’t really do anything for Litha…’ as if they should be doing something special. The well-known ceremonies at Stonehenge and other places may foster the feeling that we should all be partying every time a Sabbat comes along, but it is only one way.

Midsummer is not a time of the year that has many traditions around it, like Mayday does stretching back centuries, or even Yule, although there are some good creation myths that have been written and a few old stories adapted. But from a nature perspective it is a very important time of the year – because day length is as important as temperature to the plants around us. In the garden the solstice marks the transition between planting vegetables to crop in summer, which should be in the ground and growing strongly by now, and those to sow or transplant late to avoid them bolting before the autumn. Jobs are marked as being either before or after the solstice. Trees, too, will open all their leaves on the old shoots by now and get all their blossom pollinated to set fruit. After the longest day they will reject what fruit they cannot sustain, and set about growing. New shoots, new leaves, and swelling the fruits that remain. We, too, can use this energy for positive action in our lives.

Two years ago at the Summer Solstice I had the shock of seeing a 50 year old oak tree on my road cut down and turned into woodchips, for no apparent reason except that someone didn’t want it there any more. The nature of my walk changed that day. I gathered up as many naturally fallen oak leaves as I could find along my route (a challenge at this time of year) and took them back home to make a ‘green man’ image, glueing them to a wooden Camembert lid. I then created a ritual and meditation based around the Oak, completely rewriting the planned ritual I had. It felt exactly right.

This year, by contrast, I did not do a ritual, but had a premonition that I would be awake for the sunrise. Sure enough, M woke me and I enjoyed the pinks and oranges reflected into the room in the small hours of the morning – probably the first Summer solstice sunrise I have seen, certainly the first I have seen consciously, welcoming the sun as it reaches its zenith. Later we had a walk in the sunshine and then ate lots of summer fruits from the garden. It was enough.

The Green Man is at his peak, and I am reminded of an experimental stained glass design I did at this time a few years ago, pictured above. I might even make it one day. Meanwhile, enjoy his energy.

What counts as expensive?

Every time I ask for quotes for windows or doors, whoever I ask makes strenuous efforts to dissuade me from whatever I have said I want and tells me it is too expensive.

Fifteen years ago it was for an extension, where the windows I drew into our plans turned out to be slightly non-standard to what all the local joinery companies offered. They were 1990s style modern and had clean lines; I had simply copied what I had seen in housebuilding magazines. Two places refused to quote for what I wanted, or even for the nearest they could offer. I kept looking, and eventually found a company who enjoyed the opportunity to add something new to their range.

So now we are starting to look at replacing the plastic windows and door at the front of the house with a modern, double-glazed equivalent of the original sashes. While it will be an upheaval and major work, especially as the two stone mullions need replacing as well, the current windows are reaching the end of their lives (several are steamed up, two have cracked and one has a several inches of water inside it that go up and down with the weather) and there is no point in redecorating more than the room we have done before replacing the windows.

After no thought at all, except for a continuing desire to sort out our hallway, I asked the first company I came across to give us a quote. My aim was to see what it would cost and whether it would be ‘this year, next year, some time, never…’ I should have known I was in trouble when after asking them not to phone and confirm the appointment for four days time, I received three phonecalls on the day before, two from the same person. I almost cancelled on the last call. A cheerful salesman arrived in the morning, who then did everything he could to avoid selling me their windows. My husband wasn’t there, we should reschedule. (No, it’s me you need to sell to.) It was too expensive to put weight boxes in, sliders were great. (They look fake.) It was too expensive to put the windows in their proper place, this would look right. (It wouldn’t.) It was too expensive to do hardwood. (Only a slight increase in timber costs, the work is the same surely.) He would have to check about mullions. He wouldn’t even give me a price for what I wanted, although I could get a really good deal on engineered softwood with sliders if I ordered by the end of the month. Since he left me no paperwork or pictures, I couldn’t even tell you what their doors looked like.

I asked some more people to come and quote. The second was local and honest. Phew. They were very happy to tell me about all the different window options they had available, going to the trouble of bringing in samples of a sash window and encapsulated glass panels. I was very impressed. But goodness me, you don’t want a non-standard door! They were persuaded to quote for a three panel archtop door as displayed proudly on their website, not quite what I was after but somewhere near, but clearly they didn’t want that part of the job.

The third person came and saw. Windows no problem, I could see them all in their showroom, and they would be happy to arrange an appointment at a time that would suit us, and they had plenty of toys M could play with while we talked. (Toys?!!) But non-standard doors, no chance. And theirs were not inspiring. I found myself in the surreal situation of trying to pick out paint colours and door furniture for a door I knew I was never going to order. A week later I had an email apologising for not quoting me yet, and then after another wait a phonecall I didn’t take giving a brief overview of prices, but to please be aware that although it seemed a lot there were cheaper options available, and the full quote was in the post. I’m still waiting for it to arrive.

The fourth person came, from an independent joiners. I was getting good at asking for what I wanted by this time so no problem over the windows or the stone mullions. I explained about the door and how if the internal doors were all going to be four-panel doors with me making the stained glass for them, I didn’t want the same thing for the front door. It needed to have a bit more character. By this time I had found some pictures, scanned them and printed them out so at this point I produced it. He nearly fainted with shock, said it would be way too expensive. Talked me out of half the detailing, which is part of the character of the door. Once he realised I was actually serious, and did have some idea of costs (he was the fourth person after all) he then started to get interested in the project, and a few days later emailed me a pretty favourable quote, almost the same price as company two but for a much more complicated door.

And finally the fifth person, a craftsman recently moved to the area, I emailed a photo of the door and said this was what I wanted. I still had to confirm that yes I did want all the detailing, but perseverance paid off and brought success at last – provided that I can draw all my own plans! Great, because I will be doing the stained glass for the door and I can do it exactly as I want it. It may take a little longer, and the windows are on hold for six months, but with an hour a day at best working time I’m quite happy to pace things.

The thought I have been left with when walking around our local area is: how sad that 95% of homeowners don’t have the courage to have their own vision, and insist that they get what they want and will look nice. Our house is very typical of the area, and also in the way it has been abused. But we will be the fourth along our road of ~150 similar houses to try and correct this trend, and those that have been done look wonderful. Given that I spend most of my time here at present, then it makes sense to me to respect the spirit of place and work with it to create an environment I love being in.

And to answer my initial question, what counts as expensive? Well the windows will cost about what we paid for a five year old Skoda car, and the door the extra costs of getting the car on the road. How much more joy my dream door and windows will bring me, and for a lifetime. (I’ll be posting pictures of the glass designs over the next few months as I create them.)