Silver Stain, Gadgets and the Tinned Side of Your Glass

Gadgets ... !

You know how silver stain is sensitive?

Meaning, there’s some glass it “just won’t work” on.

And – in particular – people often say: “Silver stain won’t work on the tinned side of machine-made glass”.

OK, that’s a rule of thumb.

And if someone wants to live and die by it, that’s their choice.

Myself, I’m constitutionally more cautious. And more rigorous.

So myself, I’d say: always test your stain and glass before you do it for real.

Now if I had a tracing brush for every time someone asked me, “Should I get a gadget to tell the tinned side from the side which isn’t?”, I could set up shop.

And this is where gadgets can sometimes give you the right answer but lead you in the wrong direction.

Because listen to this, and listen well. It’s just not true that tin and silver stain don’t work together. Rather, it all depends on the glass in question. Heck, it can even depend on the batch of glass. And this is not something you can know about in advance.

In other words, like I said, you always have to do a test.

And if someone gets a gadget to identify the tinned side, then maybe they won’t test the tinned side.

Which – exactly – will sometimes mean they won’t find the result they’re looking for.

Gadgets – right answer, wrong question, therefore … wrong direction

Look at this. Here are two bits of glass from the same sheet but different sides:

Same sheet, same stain, same firing - different sides

Same sheet, same stain, same firing - different sides

Same stain; same concentration etc.

Yes, the stain is darker on the right-hand side.

But I don’t care which side is the tinned side and which side isn’t.

I don’t care at all.

Nor would you.

All I care about is the effect.

And so would you.

Because maybe you want the lighter stain.

Like I know I do today … see here this broken piece which I must copy for a window I’m restoring:

This is the shade of stain I want ...

This is the shade of stain I want ...

So of my two tests, it’s the lighter shade of stain I need.

And if I’d used a gadget and only tested (what I bet you is the) side that isn’t tinned (the right-hand side), I would never have found what I was looking for: the lighter-staining – tinned – side.

Do you take my point? Gadgets are great but …

In other words, tinned vs. untinned is not important – it’s the wrong question. Forget it!

All the best,


Stephen ByrneP.S. I’d love to know what you think.

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23 thoughts on “Silver Stain, Gadgets and the Tinned Side of Your Glass

  1. Hi Stephen!

    Point entirely taken about the need to test silver stain. I have to remind students of this all the time! Ken Leap’s ‘Silver Stain’ book is a fantastic illustration of this too — though some are tempted to use it as their own sample set instead of doing their own tests…..

    The one point I would question is your assertion that the ‘tinned’ side of glass produces a lighter result. In my experience, in the vast majority of cases stain applied to the tinned side of float glass comes out darker than the non-tinned side.

    I generally only find this to be the case with float (i.e. ‘window’) glass. Does anyone have experience of different results on different sides of other glasses?

    • Hi Jeff,

      You’re right to challenge me on that point. I simply and maybe wrongly (anyway: it’s untested) inferred that the light side was the tinned side on the basis of the widespread belief that stain and tin don’t work well together.

      And of course the whole point of what I wrote is, I don’t care which side is which … I just care about results. (Same as you.)

      You ask about different results of different sides of other glasses. Yes, that happens to us with hand-made English flesh / light brown tints; also with some greens by Lamberts.

  2. I agree with you about the gadgets, Stephen. Although they are enticing – teasing us with what all they can do to make our lives easier! But you are right, usually keeping it simple is the best method. There are so many different styles of glass cutters alone that are shiny, new and enticing to buy…but I’ve had the same cutter for 25 years and it works just fine.

    Your silver stain issue reminded me of when I started using dichroic glass. Trying to figure out which side of the clear glass was the dichroic side is dicey. The best trick for that is to use one’s fingernail and drag it across the glass surface. The side that pulls or makes a scratchy noise is the metallics side of the glass. Simple, a fingernail. Nothing to buy (except maybe a manicure now and again after a lot of foiling and soldering!)

    I’m getting ready to do some silver staining this month and will especially heed your advice about ‘testing’.

    Thanks for your unending advice, experience and generosity in sharing your knowledge Stephen!


  3. Love it! Great comments and so true. Thanks again for all you do to give us all this great information. Much appreciated.

    • I think you’re absolutely right. When someone stops seeing testing as a chore (an unwanted job), then all a sudden you realize how testing makes possible new discoveries which you wouldn’t otherwise make.

  4. Hi!

    I love that fragment you display here. Like those old quilt fragments people turned into wall art, I can see displaying it as it is!

    Thank you for today’s thoughts!

  5. I agree that you don’t have to have a separate machine or the latest “innovation” to do everything. Most of the tools you need work just as well if not better and faster than a gadget. Of course, gadgets have their place to, because when they are useful they are no longer the “gadget” as much as they are the “right” tool for the job.

    As far as stain reacting differently to sides or specific glass, I have found that when I stain on a flash glass, like white on clear, I’ve had it react darker or lighter. It usually seems to be darker on the opalescent side while the clear keeps the more even medium strength I was looking for. I can’t always say I test things though – at least not beforehand. I usually get by on a hope and a prayer most times. Hehe …

    Another fine suggestion that is good to remind us about.

    • Yes, and Brian, I reckon something becomes the right tool for the job when one feels through it. As glass painters, we rarely use tools where we depend on their capacity to measure temperature – unlike ceramicists, say: I know one, he’s just round the corner, and when he’s firing, he watches and adjusts the kiln continually, all through its ten-hour sequence, changing various things like the amount of oxygen. But we glass painters don’t really use measuring devices like that or at all. So it’s a bit alien for us to learn to feel through those kinds of tools. But brushes – they’re a different case completely. They become (as you say) the right tool for the job when we become aware of hundreds of tiny bits of informational feed-back which other people would not notice.

  6. You’re so right – it’s all about what works, not what’s “correct”. As long as you’re not doing something that’s building a future catastrophic failure into your work, you can go ahead and do whatever provides the best/most pleasing/most elegant solution. The point is that (like Stephen) you have to be continually engaged with your materials, watching them, testing them, thinking about them, loving them, learning about them like a lover learning the moods and quirks of their beloved.

    “The artist’s mind and the chosen material change together in a smooth sequence of changes until the artist’s mind is at rest at the same moment the material is right” (from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance).

    • Useful point that one, Doug: “you have to be continually engaged with your materials”.

      And I also like the quote from Zen etc. – “until the artist’s mind is at rest at the same moment the material is right”. Yes, it is as precarious, as fragile – and, as open to self-deception (not to mention: innocent error) as that.

  7. Once again, you take what should be a no-brainer habit and shine a brilliant light into of our self-inflicted darkness. If at first you don’t succeed, test, test, and test again.

    • Indeed, there’s no waste here, provided one’s methodical. Right now we’re having a difficult time, matching some enamel frit that was used decoratively in a nineteenth-century piece. I don’t want to sound pious, because it’s also quite frustrating, but … we’ve learned a lot.

  8. Hi Stephen,
    You know I always click the link when I see the words Silver Stain! There are may nuances to this particular topic. In my experience with my tests, silver stain always takes darker on the tinned side. However before I did my tests I was under the notion that the reverse was true because it’s what I’d heard. So I absolutely agree that you must do your own tests in your own studio! For the record, I use a short wave UV light to detect the tin side of float glass. The tin side will show a milky opalescence. It’s best to view this in a darkened room and compare 2 pieces of the same glass so you can flip them over independently until you are certain you are comparing the tinned and non-tinned side to each other – that makes the effect really obvious to see. Having said all that I must also report that some commercially produced float glasses don’t register a strong effect at all. In this case it doesn’t matter which side you stain – the results will be the same.
    If you plan to paint on float glass it is important to identify which is the tin side because it effects enamels as well as stains. Some enamels – especially greens are adversely affected by the tin side which will cause them to turn brown or grey. Other enamels – including some gold and copper based reds seem to really like the tin side. Again, test test test!
    This summer I’m presenting a talk at the American Glass Guild annual conference (this year in Pittsburgh) I’ll be presenting an overview of working with stains based on my book, “Silver Stain: An Artist’s Guide”. I’ll also be introducing the results of some new tests using copper red stain from Debitus (France). This stain ONLY appears to react with the tin side of float and on glasses which are chemically reactive to copper – such as Bulleye’s and Spectrum’s “reactive” glasses. These are machine rolled glasses which are most often used by fusers. The texture of this glass is not so useful to traditional stained glass painters who like to use mouth blown glass.
    I have been communicating with Lamberts and asking them to develop a clear glass with similar characteristics to these reactive glasses. If developed this glass would not only take the copper red but also allow silver stain to develop more fully. Clarifying agents routinely added to batch to make clear glass more “colorless” actually inhibit the reaction of silver stain – which is one reason we find it difficult to reproduce some of the historic shades of silver stain such as that achieved on “kelp glass” of the 19th Century. I am encouraging other studios worldwide to write to Lambert’s and join me in urging them to develop a clear “staining glass”. It would be incredibly useful for our work – we need to demonstrate that there is a demand for this glass. I’ll get off my soap box now!
    Keep up the brilliant work!

    • I’m glad that helped. With a lot of glass, it doesn’t matter. But with some glass, it does matter. Since you can’t know in advance, you always have to test it. As I see you understand, it’s better to know this fact of life, because ultimately it makes it easier to get the results you want.

  9. Peli Glass have just given us a great tip to determine which side of float glass has the tin residue – no gadgets needed – just a drop of water. Clean the glass both sides. Pour a drop of water from an 1″ height onto the glass. If the drop forms a small round ball shape, that’s the tin side. If the drop spreads out, then that’s the untinned side. Turn the glass over and repeat the exercise to confirm your conclusion.

  10. Hidee, Stephen: I haven’t used my silver stain in 10 years or more. Does is “go bad”?

    It is Reusche Yellow 3 Silver Stain #1384 and contains Copper.

    I have a niche that still has the designated pallet, brush and pallet knife that was used w/it. (I was taught that you could contaminate the stain if you didn’t keep all the equipment separate.)

    This is timely info … I need to stain next week after, as I said, 10 years or more.

    • Hello Teresa,

      In our experience, stain-as-powder does not ‘go off’.

      All the same and always though, it’s essential to run tests first e.g. to be sure the glass is compatible and that you know the correct schedule for the density of colour you want.

      Quite right about keeping things separate. Another good thing about using stain with oil, however, is that the stain-as-oil-paste never really dries, which means it won’t corrode your brushes and knife.

      All the best,