This story will already be familiar to one of you. But the lesson is so valuable, I want to get it down on paper so everyone can learn.


The other day I got an email:

I’m having trouble with a residue around the edges of my silver stain. The middle is great: a beautiful yellow. But the edge has this thick opaque reddish colour. I’m using oil. Any thoughts?

Sure: many thoughts. You see, when you get our guide, we also answer questions or problems you might have. Just like that one there. It’s part of the deal, because instructions always leave a huge amount unsaid:

Nothing is a great work of art, for the production of which either rules or models can be given (John Ruskin, The Nature of the Gothic)

What is laid down, orderly, factual, is never enough to embrace the whole truth (Boris Pasternak, quoted in Bridges to Infinity : The Human Side of Mathematics by Michael Guillen)

That’s just it: however much we explain or demonstrate, questions happen.

Now you might be thinking one thing here, me another, so let me come straight out and say: it was probably the blending.

Do you see what I mean?

I just gave you an answer – the most likely answer – but now it’s just gone and raised more questions. That’s why the deal is we also answer questions.

Let’s go back a step now. And if that’s OK I’ll give you my take on that question about opaque edges around the stain.

What is really important here is not the answer but the way we find it. If you get that, you get your independence.

First test

Here’s how I wrote back:

In order to find the true cause, we must eliminate the false ones. Right now, who knows where the true cause lies? Is it the brand of stain, the oil, the mix of stain and oil, your blending technique, brush-contamination, the firing schedule, the glass, or even something on the glass (e.g. from an earlier firing)? Right now, who knows? So that’s why I suggest you do a simple test concerning the glass.

So, changing as little else as possible from before – i.e. same batch of stain, same brush, same firing schedule etc. – cut yourself two (or three) pieces of glass: same sizes as the one(s) you had the problem with, but different types/kinds of glass. Then apply the stain just like you did before, blend it (or whatever), and fire it.

The question is: does the stain react the same with all three pieces?

I know this means more work for you but I don’t see any other way to find an answer than to test things steadily until you get there. Please do involve me as much as you wish: I am very interested to know what happens.

My thinking was: lots of things will have changed but I can’t control that so instead let’s quickly focus on an obvious constant, the glass. Let’s prove if the glass is to blame or not.

And do you see all those variables which make a difference? (And there are also others you must know about.) That’s why a method is so important to you here.


As it happens, when my colleague did his first test with 3 bits of different glass as I’d suggested, he reached his own conclusion.

Yes, this next time (same batch of stain – just older; same kiln; same firing schedule), all 3 pieces came out fine.

No opaqueness around the edges:

Thanks so much, Stephen. I’m still testing. But I think I hadn’t blended well enough. With better blending all 3 different pieces of glass came out a lot better.

Now if I’m being picky and if this had been me I wouldn’t have blended any differently this second time round. Me, I’d have just changed one variable:

I’d have kept everything else the same and only changed the glass.

It’s impossible to say who’s right here since we are different people; and so are you. We each have to enjoy and endure the consequences of our own approach to life.

A case in point

Which reminds me: I once tried to show a student a good way to hold a stick when they were highlighting. Nothing surgical or austere about this: just how to get a good grip.

And do you know what they said?

They said:

Oh, I can’t do it like that because it would destroy the joy and mystery of what I make.

Well, personally I think that’s mad, but that’s their choice.


For everything from undercoating to tracing, and shading through to working with oil and silver stain, get the full guide here.