Indoor: Through a glass brightly

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The Independent Online
Making it: using a mix of modern and medieval traditions, Sally Staples learns how to create stained-glass windows

Just as children like to take a painting home from school, most adults who decide to learn a new craft want to be able to produce a piece of handiwork after a minimal amount of instruction. And one of the pleasures of learning to make stained-glass windows is that you can do just that. After only a day and a half of basic tuition at Earnley Concourse, a residential adult education college in West Sussex, John Reed, a biology teacher, had completed a 10-in-square stained-glass window with a colourful abstract design. The cost of materials was just pounds 8.

"I'm totally impractical - the sort of man who gets someone in to paint the walls - and I have no background in anything artistic," says John. "I'm buying a cottage that has a workshop so I decided to find a hobby, and wanted to give stained glass a try.

"I've never cut glass before; it really is remarkably easy. The most important thing seems to me to start off your design with an accurate drawing."

The tutor is Annie Goodman, who has worked on large-scale church window commissions, and also teaches oil painting. She whizzes round her class of 12 students - men and women of all ages - allowing them to work at their own pace.

"The course is four days, and I start by giving them an idea about the history of glass, and then I tell them to go away and doodle on a pad until they come up with a design they like. Some people naturally prefer an abstract picture; others want a design that looks like the object it is meant to be. Both approaches are fine by me.

"If a student wants to do a recognisable flower in a pot, I will show them how you can stylise the design and get the right colours to form a suitable background. If you use too many reds and blues and heraldic colours it can detract from the main picture, so I talk to the students about the textures and shades of colours when they are shaping their designs."

Once the design has been finalised, it is enlarged to a 10-in square, then drawn again, the second drawing being the "cartoon". It is on this that the glass shapes will be cut. Then the fun starts. Annie provides several bucketfuls of glass pieces of all sizes, shapes, textures and colours. Each student is supplied with the basic tools: a simple glass- cutter, pair of pliers, an old kitchen knife, a sharp lead-cutting knife, a brush, a lump of tallow candle, strips of lead in two thicknesses, and solder.

Angela Morris, who has come all the way from Alderney to spend a holiday where she could also learn a craft, has sensibly chosen a simple design of sun rays. "I thought it would take weeks to produce a window, but once you are taught the technique of cutting glass you can make good progress," she says. "The nice thing about a residential course like this is that you can make friends, learn something new and have a holiday all at the same time."

Each piece of glass is placed over the relevant section of the design and held in place with horseshoe nails, then a glass-cutter is run round the outline, just as in tracing. Different thicknesses of glass and varying textures require different pressure when cutting.

Once all the glass pieces have been cut, the lead strip is cut to frame the design and to secure each piece of glass. The lead is malleable, and surprisingly easy to cut. When all the lead and glass pieces are in place, the joining-points are brushed and scraped with tallow: "a medieval tradition which helps the melted solder to spread over the joint," says Annie.

Then the solder iron is heated and used to melt small amounts of solder over the lead joints. Once the soldering on both sides of the window is complete, Annie demonstrates the final touch to ensure that windows are rattle proof.

Rolling up her sleeves, she dips her hand into a pot of black grouting cement made up of linseed oil, white spirit, black paint and whiting. This is the messy bit, but a request to use rubber gloves from a faintheart at the back of the class is firmly refused.

The liquid cement is rubbed with a finger under each piece of lead to eliminate any cracks. This is done on both sides of the window, which should then be wiped thoroughly with newspaper. It will take a few days for the cement to set hard.

Dr Sydney Aynsworth, from Gosport, had been stuck on ideas for a design but was inspired by a picture on TV of a road winding away into the distance and a flashing Balisha beacon in the foreground - and has managed to reproduce the image in glass. He and his wife Gisela, also on the course, are hoping to insert their windows into fanlights at home.

Other students were working on stained-glass panels with house numbers, and Pamela Wilks, from Emsworth in Hampshire, had designed a brightly coloured clown which she planned to hang against a large picture window in her house to deter birds from trying to fly through the glass.

A four-day residential course at Earnley Concourse, Earnley, Chichester, West Sussex P020 7JL (01243 670392) costs pounds 218 for full board and all the college's facilities including swimming pool. Non-residents pay pounds 144. Annie Goodman teaches similar courses at The Old Rectory, Fittleworth, near Pulborough in Sussex (01798 865306). Further information on stained glass classes can be obtained from local education authorities.