Hints & Tips

Hints and tips image of daffodil and yellow-coloured stained glass art
Colour selection

The incredible array of colours available provides one of the most challenging steps in creating a stained glass artwork. Here are a few guidelines, suggestions and some elemental colour theory to help with your selection.

Before you head out to your stained glass supply store, use pencil crayons to experiment with different colour combinations on the thumb-nail drawings on each pattern.

Choose glass for the centre of interest or the dominant element in the pattern first. Then work your way out, selecting glasses that work with the first one.

Many great colour combinations exist around us. The trick is to notice them. Do you have a favourite flower? Do you like certain flowers together? Is there a piece of clothing you love to wear because of the colours? Take a look at a garden, a sunset, a bird or butterfly. Do you like autumn colours? Easter egg colours? Jewel tones like emerald, amethyst, ruby and sapphire? Or maybe no colour at all, just different textures of clear.

Another technique for building a family of colours is to start with a piece of multi-coloured glass that you really like. (I do this all the time). Then choose matching colours from the multi-coloured glass.

Don’t forget to ask the folks at your stained glass retail store for help. They have years of experience in what works and what doesn’t.


Colour theory

This is an overview of subtractive colour theory. These are the colours in an artist’s colour wheel – the colours you see when you mix pigment, like those in paint. It is very different from the colour theory of televisions, computer monitors and video, called additive theory.

colour wheel showing three primary and three secondary coloursThe colour wheel is formed of six colours – three primary and three secondary. 

The primary colours are:
• yellow, red and blue

The secondary colours are created by mixing the primary colours:
• yellow + red = orange
• red + blue = purple
• blue + yellow = green

When you add black to any colour it becomes a shade of that colour.

When you add white to any colour it becomes a tint of that colour.

Colours directly opposite each other on the colour wheel are called complimentary colours. These are:
• yellow and purple
• red and green
• blue and orange

Complimentary colour schemes can be brilliant and beautiful – especially if you use a shade of one colour and a tint of its compliment. For example:
• gold and lavender
• pale yellow and dark purple
• pink and dark green
• dark red and pale green
• light blue and dark orange (copper)
• dark blue and light orange (peach)

Analogous colours sit beside each other on the colour wheel. For example:
• yellow, orange and red
• red, purple and blue
• blue, green and yellow

For a more subtle colour scheme choose analogous colours that are even closer to each other on the colour wheel. For example:
• purple, bluish purple and blue
• blue, bluish green and green

Monochromatic colours consist of different shades and/or tints of a single colour. For example:
• light green, green and dark green
• pink, red and dark red
• light blue, blue and dark blue

Original Victorian windows seem to follow no rules at all — ruby red, cadmium yellow, lime green, purple, opalescents, clears and fantastic jewels sit next to each other and look great. Don’t be afraid to experiment.


Transferring a pattern to glass

Before you start, number the pieces on the paper pattern. As you trace and cut each piece of glass, number it to correspond with the pattern. China marker, lacquer marker and permenant marker all work well.

If the glass is clear and light in colour, place it on top of the pattern and trace. The fellows at my favourite stained glass store don’t even bother tracing – they just score the glass where it sits on top of the pattern. Of course they’ve been doing this for a long time!

direction of the glass grainIf the glass is opaque, use a sheet of carbon paper for light-coloured glass. Use light-coloured fabric tracing paper (available at fabric stores) for dark glass. Place the pattern (right side up) directly over the glass (smooth side up). Secure both the glass and the pattern with a little masking tape. Slip the carbon paper in between (carbon side down) and trace over the pattern with a ball-point pen. Press firmly.

If the project has a repeating shape, make a stencil. Transfer the pattern onto heavy paper (cereal box cardboard works well) and cut carefully with scissors or an X-acto knife.

If you are working with streaky opalescent or heavily textured glass, note what direction the grain travels. Draw arrows on the pattern to indicate what direction the grain should flow relative to specific shapes in the design. Position the glass before you trace the pattern onto it. See diagram.


Cutting glass

There are some wonderful glass cutting systems out there. Buying and trying one is definitely on my to do list. I still cut glass as I always have, on a thin rubber mat – the kind used for cutting fabric or trimming artwork. It does a good job of distributing the force of the cutter and minimizing breakage from too much pressure. Cardboard or illustration board will also do the job but not as well.

cutting glass out of a curveAlways cut on the smooth side of the glass. If both sides are bumpy choose the less bumpy side. Don’t shy away from textured glass. If one side is smooth it should cut reasonably well.

When cutting a sharp inside curve, don't do it all at once. Trim out narrow strips of glass, one at a time. See diagram. Remember, it’s the nature of glass to break in the direction of least resistance and that’s usually a straight line.

Grozing pliers are invaluable for pulling out the narrow strips of glass. When it gets too nerve-wracking to cut out more, it’s time to turn on the grinder!


Copper foil and lead

Most stained glass artists get their start with copper foil. The inclusion of leaded work into an artist’s skill set makes a nice addition for good reasons. The ones that come most readily to my mind are: lead looks great because the lines are always the same thickness; it’s faster because there is considerably less grinding and soldering; and my personal favourite – different widths of lead came allow me to experiment with different line widths in the same piece. The art windows – Bee on Sunflower, Wild Blue Indigo and Alpine Flowers – are examples of this experimentation.

There are two important construction-based differences between copper foil and lead that must be considered in the planning stage of a stained glass design.

lead came occupies more space than copper foil

1. Lead came occupies more space between pieces of glass than copper foil. See diagrams.

To adjust an entire pattern for lead work, trace over the lines with a marker (approximately 1/16" thick). As you transfer the adjusted pattern onto glass, remember that the edge of each piece of glass should line up with the edge of the marker line. The line itself is where the lead came will be.


converging lines must be separated for lead work

2. To achieve graceful flowing lines in lead work, converging lines on a pattern must be separated – again, to make space for the lead. See diagrams.

Adjusting the pattern in this manner is worth the trouble. The finished window will look thoroughly professional.

One more thing. Fine detail in a window, such as tiny pieces of glass and hairpin curves (humming birds and fairies come to mind) can only be executed with copper foil. There are some limits to the thickness and flexibility of lead.


Foiling glass

If you are working with clear glass and plan to you use black patina on the solder seams be sure to use black-back copper foil.

When foiling around the inside of a sharp curve work gently and slowly. Smooth the foil down and burnish it gradually to discourage splitting which can can cause gaps in the solder. My sister suggested using short, overlapping pieces of foil which worked extremely well. It worked so well in fact, that I was a tiny bit embarrassed I hadn't thought of it myself...

box stand is like having a second set of hands for holding the stained glass project


A helpful hand

If you need an extra pair of hands, make a stand like this one to hold suncatchers while you solder. Find a small, sturdy cardboard box. Use a hacksaw or utility knife to cut two slots opposite each other. You might need to put some weight in the bottom so the box doesn’t tip over when it’s holding a suncatcher. I made one years ago and use it all the time.



When you have finished soldering, clean the flux thoroughly from your stained glass project with a neutralizing agent (available from your stained glass retailer). A discarded toothbrush is useful for this job. Rinse off the neutralizing agent with water. Dry. Apply a patina (I favour black) or leave silver. Scrub the patina from your project with the neutralizing agent. Rinse with water again and allow to dry completely.

Use a damp cloth to rub a polishing compound into the solder seams and across the glass. Think of this step as deep cleaning. Allow the wax to dry (10 or 15 minutes) and buff. A short length of wooden dowel sharpened with a pencil sharpener makes a wonderful tool for cleaning wax from crevices. Polishing your finished project is an important step. It will clean and protect your project and make it sparkle like crazy. I’ve had good results with Turtle brand car wax. Polishing compounds are also available from your stained glass retail store.



A lot of the materials, tools and chemicals that artists use need to be respected and handled properly. Please, always read labels and take the necessary precautions to ensure your health and safety.

Whether it’s small amounts over a long period of time or a large amount in a short time, exposure to lead can be hazardous to your health. There is lead not only in lead came but also in solder. (Lead-free solder is available but it performs poorly in my opinion.) Always wash your hands thoroughly after handling lead or solder. Use hot, soapy water and scrub fingers and nails with a nail brush. Never handle food before you have washed your hands. I use a product called "Gloves in a Bottle" which I think discourages lead from penetrating completely into my pores but using such a product in no way negates proper health and safety precautions.

If you use a metal brush or steel wool to remove corrosion from an old or unfinished project, you are generating dust that contains airborne particles of lead. Wear a quality breathing mask. Make sure you have good ventilation. Keep work surfaces clean and free of dust. Young children and pregnant women are especially sensitive to the dangers of lead exposure.

Flux and patinas are highly corrosive. Protect your skin and eyes. Don’t inhale the fumes. And always make sure you have good ventilation, especially when soldering.