Durham company introduces artists to stained glass

Amid a disposable culture, Suzie Geyer’s business builds stained glass windows to last. "You have to ask -- will this still be here in 100 years?" said Geyer, who owns Carolina Stained Glass with her husband, Kim.

"I want them to be heirlooms that people will pass on to their family or the next person who buys the house."

The Durham business creates commissioned stained glass pieces, repairs stained glass, sells supplies and teaches aspiring stained glass artists.

For designers striving to create long-lasting windows, making stained glass is as much a science as it is an art.

Architectural stained glass designers must be aware of the stresses bad weather and a settling building will have on their products, said Katei Gross, executive administrator for the Stained Glass Association of America in Kansas City, Mo.

"Hanging a panel [as art] is completely different than putting it into a building where it’s stressed by weather and the building’s fluctuations from heat and cold and the movement of the Earth," she said. "You have to know exactly what the stresses on the glass are going to be."

Geyer builds in supports to stabilize her large pieces. She also installs her stained glass windows behind existing clear glass windows to protect them from the weather and the occasional baseball.

It will probably take 16 to 20 hours to complete Geyer’s current project, a 6-square-foot piece that depicts irises.

The design starts with a line drawing that’s used as a pattern. Carolina Stained Glass sells books full of patterns that show how to depict everything from dogs and tropical fish to letters of the alphabet. Geyer also draws some of her patterns herself.

The designer then must decide the color, texture and transparency of glass to use in the design. Some glasses are more opaque, while others have a greater transparency.

Each piece of glass is cut to the exact size and shape of the line drawing with a handheld glass cutter. Just as in a puzzle, if the pieces aren’t cut precisely, they won’t fit back together correctly.

There are then two methods of attaching the pieces to each other. In the lead came method, the artist slides the pieces of glass into strips of metal with grooves on either side. The strips are soldered at every junction to hold the piece together, then putty with the consistency of peanut butter is pushed up under the strips to weatherproof the window and seal the lead.

The copper foil method involves wrapping the edges of the glass with a thin copper foil, then soldering the seams with an alloy of 40 percent lead and 60 percent copper.

Carolina Stained Glass includes customers in every step, from drawing the pattern to picking out the glass. And Geyer makes sure her customers see the windows midway through the process to make sure it’s what they had intended.

"It’s not like they say ‘this is what I want,’ and then six or eight weeks later they come in to pick it up," she said. "They get to participate."

The price -- which starts at $100 per square foot -- depends mainly on the intricacy of the design.

About one-fourth of the company’s revenue comes from stained glass commissions. Classes and the sale of supplies and equipment made up about 70 percent of the studio’s $225,000 revenue last year.

Teaching classes is an important way to keep the craft alive, Gross said. There was an apprenticeship system for stained glass in Europe, but the task of recruiting in the United States has fallen mostly to retail stores and arts schools, she said.

Geyer’s first experience with stained glass was through several classes she took at a studio in 1984. After the Durham native’s children started school, she started working part time for Stained Glass Art Design in Raleigh.

She worked in Raleigh for 12 years until the owner decided in 2001 to close the business. "I thought, here’s my chance to have my dream," Geyer said. "I had lots of on-the-job training from both sides, both designing and building and retail."

She and her husband started looking for space and found a bright 3,000-square-foot location at 2005 North Pointe Drive, behind Honey’s. Her previous employer closed in May 2001 and Carolina Stained Glass opened in June of that year.

The windows that surround most of the studio are filled with stained glass pieces -- mostly by designers other than Geyer. The studio also sells examples of other kinds of glass artistry.

"Everybody’s work is different," she said. "It gives local artists a place to hang and sell their work; it gives us smaller things for our windows and it’s inspiration for our students."

The studio’s classes include introduction to stained glass and more advanced levels, beadmaking, glass applique, painting on glass and sandblasting.

Six stained glass classes cost $85 to $125, plus materials and tools. A four-day workshop in May on painting on glass will cost $450.

While some of Geyer’s students view the class as a one-time event, others get hooked on creating stained glass, Geyer said.

"There’s a love of the glass -- we joke about it and call it an addiction," she said. "Some people get it and some people don’t."

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