Originally created to decorate magnificent churches, stained glass windows have been around for at least 1,000 years. In modern times the materials and techniques for making stained glass have become much more accessible, making it a perfect hobby for those who enjoy designing and building.

Stained glass windows are perfect for adding a bit of privacy while still allowing some light to shine through. But much more than that, stained glass can transform a plain room into a place of stunning patterns and color.

With a simple design, even a beginner can create a stained glass window over just a weekend, and the results can provide pleasure for years to come.

Project Steps

Create or choose a design.

Either create or find a simple design that will work for your window. I like to do geometric designs that emphasize the play of various glass contrasts with minimal color. Remember, with your first project the old saying “less is more” could be a good guiding principle.

Draw your design.

I decided to use a 3/8″ zinc border, which is a nice standard size and supports a medium-sized window well. A larger window would need a wider border to accommodate it.

With a pencil, draw the 3/8″ border to scale on paper. With a black Sharpie, draw the inside lines of the design.

Number the pieces of the design, then make 2 copies — 1 to cut out your pattern pieces and 1 for your layout.

Add a cut line in red.

Your outside pieces that get fit into the zinc border will require a cut line. To determine your cut line, lay the zinc on your layout. The cut line will be determined by the inside metal strip. The 3/8″ zinc border shown has a 1″ cut line. That means that 1″ of the glass border pieces will slide into the zinc. We drew our cut line in red, 1/8″ from the inside of our pencil border.

Cut out the pattern pieces.

Use your scissors to cut along the red cut line on one of your design copies.

Use your glass pattern shears to cut out the inside lines. Glass pattern shears have 3 blades, and they automatically remove the right amount of space that will be taken up by the leading between the glass pieces. Line up the middle of your Sharpie line with the middle of the scissors. Always cut in the same direction: if you begin cutting left to right, always cut left to right. If you start cut- ting out a circle clockwise, keep cutting in a clockwise direction. This ensures that your lines won’t take little jogs to the right or left.

Trace the pattern pieces onto glass.

Like putting a puzzle together, assemble your pattern pieces, using your layout copy as a guide.

Put your pattern pieces on the glass you’ve chosen and trace them with a Sharpie or other glass-tracing permanent marker.

Cut out the glass pieces.

Dab the glass cutter in a little oil (kerosene is standard, but WD-40 works well). Start at 1 edge of the piece you’re cutting. Apply a constant medium pressure while pushing the glass cutter’s wheel along the inside of your Sharpie line until you get to the next edge. This is called scoring the glass. Always score from edge to edge. Perhaps practice on some scrap glass. After a few tries you’ll get the feel for the right amount of pressure.

Always wear safety glasses and make sure your glass cutter is sharp. Always clean the glass before cutting, and if the glass is textured, cut it on the smooth side. Also, you might feel more comfortable wearing gloves when breaking glass.

Cut out the glass pieces, continued.

Once your score is made, hold the glass with one thumb and forefinger on each side of the score, wrists away from the glass. Pull away and up with a snapping motion. If the score is good, the glass will snap right along your score line.

When cutting a straight line, you can slide the cutter along a straightedge.

To break glass on a straight score line, use grozing pliers. With one hand, hold the pliers on one side of the score, flat jaw on top of the glass, curved jaw underneath. With the other hand, hold the glass on the opposite side of the score. Snap to break the glass along the score. It should snap off easily.

If you’re having trouble, use running pliers, which are made specifically for breaking glass along score lines.

Create a right angle.

Using a carpenter’s square, align a few strips of wood to create a right angle to secure 1 corner of your window while you work. Nail the strips to your work surface so they come right up against the outside edge of where you have drawn your zinc border.

Mark and cut 2 zinc borders.

Lay a strip of zinc along the inside of the right angle where you’ve drawn the border. Mark its opposite edge. Cut the zinc to size with a hacksaw. Repeat to cut the second side of the zinc border, then fit it tightly into the right angle to meet the first.

Tack down the outside corners of the 2 zinc strips with nails, so they won’t move around when you start leading.

Stretch the lead H came.

Lead strips for framing stained glass are called came. They come in H-section or U-section shapes. U came has 1 channel to hold glass and is used for border pieces. H came has 2 channels to hold glass, 1 on each side, and is used for the interior leading of a window.

The came is soft and should be stretched before use — if you don’t stretch it, it may have kinks or undesirable bends in it. To stretch the H came, secure one end in the lead vise, then pull on the other end with grozing pliers.

Although metallic lead can’t be absorbed through the skin, it can be absorbed through a cut, so I recommend wearing disposable gloves for protection.

Lead the window.

Place the corner piece of glass into the zinc border until it fits along your design lines. Measure and cut your first piece of lead came by holding it against the next exposed glass edge. Mark the lead about 1″ in from the corners of the glass.

Use the lead snips to cut the lead where marked. Hold the lead with the channel facing up, and the pliers at a right angle across the channel, and snip. Snipping the lead the wrong way will pinch the channel closed and you won’t be able to slide the glass in. Once your measured strip of lead is cut, slide it onto the glass edge. Then fit the second piece of glass into the other channel of that H came.

Lead the window, continued.

Hold the second piece of glass in place with a nail while you measure for the next piece of lead. Continue to cut and fit lead came and glass pieces until the window is completed to the outside edges.

Measure, cut, and fit the 2 remaining outside pieces of zinc border and tack them down with nails.

Dab flux onto the lead and zinc joints.

Flux allows the solder to stick to the lead and zinc. Wherever the ends of the lead came or zinc come together, use a brush to dab the joint with a liberal amount of flux. Flux generously; you can clean off the excess later.

Solder the window.

Plug in your soldering iron. It should be hot enough to melt the solder, but not the lead came. You can test this with some lead scraps. Hold the solder above the area you want to join. Gently lay the flat end of the soldering iron tip on top of the solder and move in a slight circular motion.

As the solder melts, pull the iron away and the solder should bead nicely above the joint. The key is to work it as little and as gently as possible, and to flux it well anywhere you want solder to be. You can always use the iron to smooth out a larger blob of solder and use the corners of the iron to tap it into a corner. Be careful, however, to avoid hitting the glass with the iron and breaking it.

Continue to solder all the joints where lead and/or zinc meet. Don’t remove the nails that hold the window together until you’ve soldered all the joints between the lead and the zinc frame. Once one whole side is soldered, remove the remaining flux with a cloth, flip the panel over, then flux and solder the other side.

Clean the window and burnish the lead.

Remove the remaining marker, flux, and residue with glass cleaner and a cotton cloth. You can also buy a cement mixture at stained glass supply stores that can be used to fill in any spaces between the glass and lead. If you choose to cement your window, this mixture will also clean the glass and burnish the lead.

To give the lead an aged look, burnish it with a bench brush. Light, rapid brushing of the lead and solder joints will make them fade to a darker gray and look less shiny. Enjoy your beautiful stained glass window!


This project first appeared in CRAFT Volume, pages 80-87.