Creating art from cut glass is nirvana for one Middleton woman.
Photographs by Sarah Maughan
From the pages of In Business magazine.
Working in the basement of her 115-year-old Middleton home, Barb Regan, owner of Barb’s Fine Glass LLC (www.barbsfineglass.com), carefully assembles a stained glass art piece while her two curious cats, brothers Merlin and Barron, hunker down under the work table.
Glass art is an extension of Regan’s creative past. Be it needlepoint or interior design, she’s always needed a creative outlet. For as long as she can remember, Regan was always fascinated with glass, but it wasn’t until she took a stained-glass class at Madison College 10 years ago that she truly became enamored.
“I bought everything I needed immediately after,” she says. “I just loved it.”
After successfully selling some of her early pieces at a local art show, Regan decided to pursue the medium more fully. She launched Barb’s Fine Glass about three-and-a-half years ago and now creates glass art on a part-time basis. Regan describes it as “a jobby … more of a hobby but not quite my job,” she says. A part-time job in health care keeps her busy the rest of the time.
“Art is very therapeutic,” she notes. “I can lose myself in it. It’s my nirvana.”
Regan recently completed a commissioned piece for Studio Glassworks LLC, and she’d like to do more commissioned work in the future, but the piece she’s creating in her basement likely will be offered for sale at a local art show.
In addition to abstracts, Regan has created smaller window designs and ornaments ranging from specific flowers or animals to sports and business logos. She’s even created glass art from tattoo patterns. “Not all artwork will translate well to glass,” she cautions, adding that her favorite pieces tend to be prairie-style designs. She also creates wall hangings from opaque glass.
Design inspirations might be hers, be suggested by a customer, or found online. Once the pattern is settled, glass colors and texture must be decided, and the options are endless.
“I like to look at glass in different light,” Regan says. “I’ll start in the basement and then bring it up into my sunroom and leave it there for a day or two to see it from different perspectives.”
On a rack in a corner of the basement, 1/8-inch thick sheets of glass in various sizes are arranged from warm colors (reds, yellows, and oranges) to clear to cool (blues and teals). Each unique piece has its own texture from transparent to opaque, smooth to rough, with bumps, swirls, ripples, lines, or other patterns.
Smaller pieces of glass can usually be purchased locally, Regan explains, while sheets as large as eight square feet are purchased wholesale. Since every glass is different, prices run the gamut, as well. A one-foot-square piece could cost $5 or $40 or more depending on color, quality, and texture.
On this day, Regan assembles a rectangular window hanging at her worktable. “This is an abstract panel,” she explains. “I’ve done it before in warm colors, but I tend to like cool colors better.” This piece, about 10 inches by 16 inches in size, includes a selection of textured clear glass accented with deep blues and greens. If all goes well, it will take her about six hours to complete.
She lays a piece of glass over a sketched design and traces the missing piece’s shape onto the glass with a pen. Then she scores it with a glass cutter, etching the outline onto the surface. With a metal tool, she lightly taps the glass from underneath until it breaks apart — hopefully into the desired shape. Smaller pieces often “snap like a graham cracker,” Regan says, but cutting and snapping curved pieces can be more challenging. When the glass piece is cut, she sets it on an electric grinder and smooths the edges all around. Grinding also makes pieces fit more perfectly into the design.
Regan then adds lead came around each individual piece of glass before positioning them into the design. “Lead is a really soft metal,” she explains, as she rolls the came around a circular piece of glass and snips it to fit. It takes a few adjustments with the grinder before Regan is satisfied. “This process with the lead came is pretty much how stained glass has been done for 150 years,” she states. “Little has changed.
The round piece is placed tightly into the working design and Regan anchors it in place with pins. The individual glass pieces will be soldered together at each joint or intersection. To prepare for the weld, Regan dabs the areas to be soldered with a product called Flux to prepare the surface for bonding.
Using a solder mix of lead and tin, she gently welds the molten solder onto the lead came. When one entire side is completed, she will flip the panel over and repeat all the solders on the opposite side.
Finally, she’ll apply putty to both sides. With a consistency of a cake batter or peanut butter, the putty is created from a mixture of boiled linseed oil, calcium carbonate, pigment, and other chemicals. Regan will spread it onto one side of the art piece much like grout is smeared over tile — working it deep into grooves and crevices with small tools before it is all buffed off. Puttying is a time-consuming, laborious, and messy process, but it makes the artwork much more rigid, sets the glass pieces so they don’t rattle, and provides some weatherproofing.
With a shop vac, she’ll suck up fine residues resulting from scraping and buffing the putty off the glass, a step that cleans and shines the glass. It could take a couple of days for putty to dry completely, she notes, and as long as two weeks for it to fully cure.
Regan’s portfolio includes smaller sun catchers that may sell for as little as $15 to entire stained-glass windows that might run $1,200 or more. While she’s toyed with the idea of making glasswork her full-time job, “I’m afraid I wouldn’t enjoy it as much,” she reasons.
In general, she claims more and more people are enjoying and appreciating art these days. “As a whole, the art glass business didn’t immediately bounce back from the recession, but now I think we’re at a good point. The economy is pretty good and people are spending money again in their art and their homes.”
Meanwhile, there’s always a risk when working with broken glass and hot soldering irons. Both must be treated with great respect. “I cut myself all the time,” Regan admits. Most cuts are superficial and heal within a couple of days. Some, she says, she hardly even notices anymore.
“Actually, I think the risk is probably what I like most about this. I’m not an adrenaline junkie, but sitting in a chair and quilting is not my thing. I’ve just learned not to reach into the jar of pickles afterwards,” she laughs.
“You don’t have pretty fingernails in this business.”