Stained Glass Painting with Silver Stain

Why the Consensus (as so often) is Plain Wrong

A golden stained glass starting point

In which you can discover an invaluable technique for using silver stain for a most dramatic effect!

A kind soul commented here the other day that our work was “stunning”.

We salute this generosity of spirit.

And also we wish to add a “but” …

It’s this.

This website is certainly about Williams & Byrne … but only as a starting point.

After that, it’s about ideas which you can use, adapting them to your own specific ends.

In that spirit, with us as the starting point, here’s a hallway door that we recently completed:

Stained glass hallway door

Stained glass hallway door

At the other end of the hallway there stands a large oak-framed conservatory which serves as the family’s dining room.

Therefore, down the darkness of the corridor, this stained glass door is what catches the eye while family and friends do gather in each other’s company – an illuminated scene, indeed:

Stained glass illumination

Stained glass illumination

Stages within the process of stained glass design

Now you may remember this very design from an earlier post. (The design itself involves a violent theft from Mondrian, who, most inexplicably, loathed stained glass!) There in that post we commented upon a process we often use to make sure there exists between us and our clients a clear understanding and an unshakable trust.

Here’s the process again:

  • One or several small sketches which reveal the broad geometry of the window
  • A full-sized design in black-and-white (graphite) that articulates the precise geometry and also specifies all the tonal details (vital for the glass painting and silver-staining that we do)
  • A full-sized water-colour design which the client sees and – within the limits of the medium (light-reflective paper) – understands to give a good impression of how their stained glass will eventually look

Question:

“Which full-sized design comes first – the black-and-white design or the water-coloured one?”

Answer:

“Either – the main thing is that both of them are completed to a similar level of professional detail so that both of them can properly do their respective work.”

“Painting with light”

Ourselves, we have little time for this kind of talk about the stained glass artist being someone who “paints with light”.

In the right hands, it’s just about acceptable. (And Albinus Elskus certainly possessed such hands. He knew what he meant.)

It’s just that there are many wrong hands which grasp hold of this phrase, find themselves bewitched by it, then rest content with work that is not as substantial as it could be – as if the majesty of the concept of “painting with light” somehow distracted them from pursuing their craft with proper diligence.

Yet, notwithstanding the danger of the phrase, isn’t silver stain the most magnificent way of “painting with light”?

Or so you might think …

For, you see, when you consider the matter carefully, you will find there is a substantial difficulty right here.

It is this.

The legibility of a design is strongly correlated with the existence of bold contrast within the design.

And silver stain merely modifies transmitted light – unlike tracing paint which possesses the means to block it.

Therefore, through its unassuming modesty, silver stain seems destined always to play no more than a supporting, secondary role.

Do you see the problem?

How to make silver stain – and thus “painting with light” – assume the leading role within a stained glass window when it is not by nature a strongly contrasting medium?

To continue the histrionic metaphor:

How to make silver stain move to centre stage, speak up, project its voice and dominate the whole performance?

Sorry! It’s a trade secret!

Honestly! Who could say such a thing? The technique exists for everybody who owns the skill to use.

Being in itself a relatively straight-forward technique (it’s the design which determines how much skill is required), the stained glass artist can therefore spend more time than ever before on establishing a marvellous design.

And isn’t that exactly how it always should be? The design takes as long as it takes – and may take a very long time indeed. Actually interpreting the design onto glass should then be a relatively quick and straight-forward process.

Loads more information on insider techniques for using silver stain right here.

Technique for using silver stain in a leading role

Here’s the core procedure:

  1. Apply a light- to medium-density water-based tone (by preference with a haik brush) and allow it to dry
  2. Pick out shapes within the tone
  3. Fire
  4. Apply silver stain and allow it to dry
  5. Pick out
  6. Fire

Here you see the result of step 2:

undercoat1

Tonal undercoat for eventual silver staining

And here you see step 4:

Silver staining over a tonal undercoat

Silver staining (unfired) over a tonal undercoat (fired)

So the essence of the technique is, of course, that you use a semi-transparent half-tone undercoat to “beef up” the subsequently-applied golden silver stain overcoat.

Depending on the requirements of your design (which will themselves be driven by the specifics of the architectural setting), the core procedure can be elaborated in various ways.

  • For instance, before the first firing, you can also chose to apply tone to the reverse of the glass.You can also apply and shade an oil-based tone as explained in Glass Painting Techniques & Secrets Part 2 – Oil
  • And, after the first firing, you can also apply more tone and fire again before moving on to silver stain
  • And, with silver stain, you can do a second application to build up strength of colour within specific regions

Here you see some silver stain we’ve “doubled up”:

Two firings of silver stain

Two firings of silver stain

Postscript on the design itself

Techniques are servants, not masters.

Here, this technique with silver stain was made to serve a design whose brief included these items (amongst others):

  • The Fibonacci sequence 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13 …
  • The Malvern hills in Gloucestershire
  • Local fruits and berries, and their leaves
  • Furrowed earth
  • Swallows
  • Falling rain seen through bands of sunlight

It’s only the long, exhausting, questioning process of design which integrates these separate items within a single and particular design – a design which then says to anyone who really listens:

To call me into existence, I, the design, command you, the glass painter, to use these specific techniques …”

Truly, everything is determined by the design – or, to be precise, by the designs, for it is they who determine the servants that you and we must call upon in our work:

Full-sized water-colour design for the "Fibonacci" stained glass window

David’s full-sized water-colour design for the “Fibonacci” stained glass window

And what do you think of using silver stain in this way? – That’s the really important question!

Also, isn’t it interesting that so many books say to use water, not oil. Can it be that the authors’ have just accepted what they’ve been told? Shame!

Our advice is:

  • Always push the boat out, always explore, always find the waters in which you alone can sail.

Important:

How much time and money are you wasting by using the wrong techniques with silver stain?

Get your own copy of “Silver Stain – How to Trace, Blend, Shade and Flood from a Reliable Batch that Lasts for Months” right here.

Also comes with many video demonstrations for you to watch and copy. Right here now.

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25 thoughts on “Stained Glass Painting with Silver Stain

  1. Another great article full of useful information which will enable us to further our art. Thank you again for all of your continuing assistance.

    • Hi Steven,

      Thank you. It’s always a pleasure.

      It is in fact a wonderful rite of passage for us to be able to talk with you about the in’s and out’s of work.

      It so draws things together.

      Yes, one hopes and trusts that a particular stained glass window will endure.

      Yet imagine also that ideas are sparked in people’s minds.

      Nothing particularly to do with us at all, since the visitor must have the means to get excited and be inspired. (No mean feat!)

      Always all the best from us,
      David

  2. Your work is indeed stunning, otherwise, so many of us would not give attention to your site. And I think that your design is also stunning. Just as you credit Albinus with the right hands to paint with light, so I credit you with the right eyes to design with light. You must also have the right hands to paint what you design and that is what makes your work stunning. While the design certainly “commands certain techniques”, I believe that the design commands you to use elements as well. The design urges you to use the right piece of glass (whether it is clear or gently colored), it dictates the amount of shading in a particular spot, and yes, it causes the very use of silver stain. Isn’t this exactly why we do both a black-and-white and a color version of the design? The design begs us to finish the thought. This is the thought of bringing into being that which now merely sits at the tips of our fingers.

    This is to say that your design chose the silver stain, and it is the design that commands it to the forefront. I can learn all of the techniques that you are willing to share (and I plan to), but insightful and meaningful design must be felt. We must coax it from our being and from our range of experiences. It is then literally in our hands to put this vision onto the page. Why you chose to put the lead line where you did is based on your vision of the reality that is made up of the final location of the piece and the personality of those who will care for it. Is it the location of those cut lines that dictates if the piece of glass they surround will be royal blue or Mondrian red or delicately (maybe boldly) shaded with precious silver stain? Is this why we watch the palette and not the brush stroke?

    I can learn brush strokes – but it is the loading and mixing that must be accomplished with purpose and with the final result in mind. This is something that results from experience and from many, many lines being stroked on glass. For example … How thick is the paint? How much light does it block or filter? Where am I in the process? How much further do I need to go?

    Can you tell that I like your philosophical ramblings and the questions like “How to make silver stain – and thus ‘painting with light’ – assume the leading role within a stained glass window when it is not by nature a strongly contrasting medium?”

    Keep up the good work. Cheers!

    • Hello, Bill,

      One day this year we will get going a wonderful post to discuss the idea of “hesitancy” with respect to the whole process of design. Whether they live in a God-filled age, a despot-ruled age, or a post-modernist age – then any kind of people (be they glass painters, chemists, novelists or spies etcetera), who sense the emergence of a strong idea within them must, as you say, be able to endure uncertainty in order to coax the final design into being.

      We’ll never get to the bottom of it – but it’ll be a discussion that’ll be so worth having.

      All the best,
      Stephen

  3. I am having a few problems when firing my silver stain. I am using a HOAF gas kiln and Reusche Yellow Silver Stain. I am mixing it the normal way, then applying it onto the back of a traced piece. But, when fired at 570 Celsius/1060 Fahrenheit, it will not take onto clear glass. When removed from kiln, the stain has only taken around the edges of where it was applied – almost leaving a light haze of stain. Can anybody please offer any advice?

    • Hello Patricia,

      I am sorry to hear about the frustrating results. It is no comfort, but it is true, that silver stain errs on the side of unpredictability. That is one reason why we use oil as our preferred medium (because, in our experience, oil increases stain’s predictability). But then our kilns are electric. To be clear: I have no experience of using oil within a gas-fired kiln.

      Now, when mixing silver stain with water (which I assume you are using), we have had similar results to yours.

      There are various variables here, and you can either stumble on the solution by chance, or you will need to analyse the variables and carefully run through the permutations.

      It is possible the stain requires more preliminary mixing within its medium.

      It is possible the stain requires more mixing before loading the brush.

      It is possible the top temperature is too high or too low. (The reading is necessarily relative to the gizmo which interprets results within your kiln.)

      It is possible that the temperature is being reached too quickly with the consequence that the stain is burnt off before it has an opportunity to react with the glass.

      It is possible that previous firings (e.g. to fix the traced lines etc.) have altered the structure of the glass so that it now resists stain.

      It is possible that this glass itself will always resist stain.

      I myself would always begin with glass that hasn’t been fired before and test it with silver stain prepared in the “usual way”.

      If that doesn’t work, I would work with the top temperature, first lowering the top temperature to 560 centigrade / 1040 Fahrenheit, and then (if that doesn’t work), increasing it to 580 centigrade / 1080 Fahrenheit. I would also consider the time to reach this temperature. (Gas kilns, I know, can probably fire stain in 9 minutes, whereas electric kilns take several hours. There will be differences!)

      Once again, I understand this is very frustrating. So keep your spirits high. Please explain more about the precise circumstances if you wish. Know that you are not alone in having this problem.

      And, if I can risk a small joke, take gentle and perverse comfort from imagining the pain and anxiety that a ceramicist feels each time they fire a glaze.

  4. Thank you for quick response. I have read through the suggestions of possible problems and decided that silver staining is a minefield!

    I am going to start with taking temperature up slower to see if this works.

    If not then I will work my way down the rest of the list.

    Watch this space!

    • I reckon “minefield” is maybe a bit strong, and I make this point because I don’t want people to be deterred.

      Nor should they be deterred.

      With silver stain, it’s essential to test the glass before one moves forward to etching, fusing, tracing, shading and enamelling (or whatever).

      Some glasses are constitutionally resistant to the molecular change which silver stain attempts to make: that’s the essential point for all of us to remember.

      Other kinds of glass are fussy about silver stain and will only “take it” if you prepare them in certain ways.

      Yet other glass will take silver stain as easily as you could ever wish.

      So I reckon silver stain is a mine (not a minefield) from which one can extract the most fabulous treasure. But, for such an adventure to succeed, then preparation and observation and analysis are essential.

      We’ll all be interested to know the answer you find in your particular case!

  5. I also use a HOAF Speedburner II gas kiln.

    565 C to 582 C (1050 F to 1080F) is the guidance given in the Reusche catalogue.

    However I have (until now that is) been unaware of the Reusche recommendations and have used the figures given in the Pearsons catalogue – 600 C to 650 C.

    It always seems to have “taken”, at least on Tatra P01 clear glass (which is Polish).

    That said, I have also experienced the ‘rim only’ problem, which I took to have been caused by using too thin a mix. A thicker mix seemed to resolve the problem.

    I hope this is helpful or at least food for thought.

  6. I have read advice from a few fellow stained glass artists and have finally had a good result with silver stain.

    I sampled different types of glass with stain and fired at 640 centigrade. This gave a much better result and an even stain. Some books tell you to fire at a lower temperature, but as I am using a gas kiln, higher is better.

    Thank you for all your advice .

  7. Hi, Stephen and David!

    I have recently just started using silver stain. I am trying avoid oil at this time (mainly from the KISS principle regards cleanup – Keep it simple, etc.) since I’m so new at this.

    But I did try mixing Reusche Yellow #3 with vinegar (also easy to clean up) and it is so streaky when blending that I am sure I’m doing something wrong. Oddly, it fires pretty well, but before that it looks awful. Is this normal?

    Lastly (almost) … am I to understand that you are firing the silver stain on top of the regular stain rather than on the reverse side? I thought regular stain would interfere with silver stain.

    Further, I have read that silver stain can’t work well on the “tin side” of glass so I’ve been doing tracing and matting on the tin side with the idea of using the silver stain on the reverse. Is this not necessary?

    Thanks!
    July

    • Hi July,

      Thanks for your questions.

      If something works for you, that’s great. So if stain and vinegar work fine, then, even if it looks streaky when blending, what really matters is the finished glass. It’s just always important – especially with stain – to have a notion of why it’s working, that is, to note down the exact circumstances under which it works.

      As we always say, stain is perplexing and full of surprises.

      You ask whether we fire stain on top of the “regular stain” by which we think (for the sake of clarity for everyone else) you mean tracing and shading paint, for example. The answer is that typically we would not do this; that is, typically we would fire stain on the other side to the side on which we had traced and shaded. The reason, exactly as you suppose, is that trace and shading prevent the stain from making contact with the glass.

      But here’s the strange thing. When we mix stain with oil, we have sometimes been able successfully to fire stain on top of tracing and shading. This is almost too weird to be true. We wouldn’t recommend it except as an experiment. But we do believe the evidence of our own eyes.

      You ask about the tinned side of glass. I will side-step this question. The rule for all glass and all stain is to test it first.

      All the best to you from the both of us here,
      Stephen & David

      P.S. At some point, do run some tests with stain and oil. We’re working on next month’s download and video that’ll show you how it’s mixed and applied. The results are truly wonderful.

  8. Hi there David and Stephen!

    I’ve just a little query about silver stain. I’m restoring an old panel with some small broken pieces of glass which have some silver stain on them. I’ve matched the glass but I’m having some trouble getting a deep enough shade of stain. It’s a very dark amber. I’m using Reusche “amber stain” and I’ve tried more than one coat but it’s still not a deep enough shade. Is there a brand that replicates that antique amber shade?

    Thanks for your help and your continuing brilliant web information.

    All the best,
    Shane

    • Hi Shane,

      Tricky! In part, this may be a natural consequence of the glass, since the glass you’re using may react differently to stain.

      However, temperature can also make a difference. Maybe you can run a few quick tests with a higher temperature and see what this does to the colour.

      It’s also possible to mix different stains together. They may have a joint effect which takes you in the right direction.

      Other than Reusche, you can also get stains made by C.E. Oster in the U.S. such as Ancient Walpole and Ancient Winchester. I can’t find a website for them but their telephone number is (603) 835-6235.

      I hope this helps. Be of good cheer: stain is so often a difficult thing to copy. You’ll learn a lot in the course of solving this problem.

      All the best,
      Stephen

      P.S. Are you using oil? If not, do give that a try, since you can flood oil and stain far more thikly than you can water and stain.

  9. Hi Stephen,

    Many thanks for your numerous suggestions. I’m working my way through them. It’s certainly a “learning experience”! I will let you know how I get on. Right now it’s all tight deadlines.

    Thanks!
    Shane

  10. Hi Shane,

    Keep good notes as you go along.

    Also, David and I are just working on a detailed guide to silver staining. I’m sure it’ll be helpful for future projects that you do.

    All the best,
    Stephen

  11. Hi Stephen and David!

    Just a postcript to my travails with silver stain … I’m not sure how much I’ve “kept to the rules”, but what I ended up doing was firing the stain on both sides of the glass which gave me near enough the right shade.

    You are absolutely right about the learning end of things. After all my efforts, I am now a lot more confident about getting an even, smooth shade.

    Keep up the good work!
    Shane

  12. Hi Shane,

    Thanks for your update. That’s interesting you applied stain to both sides of the glass. I wonder if you also tried “doubling up” on one side (i.e. two separate applications and two separate firings).

    As you say, something learnt properly is invaluable.

    All the best,
    Stephen

  13. Hi Stephen and David,

    I hope everything is good for you.

    I did indeed try “doubling up”, also trebling up, but it didn’t make an appreciable difference.

    I don’t know if the type of glass made a difference. The glass was kokomo k669. I also tried firing at a higher temperature as it seemed from some of the comments that that might make a difference … but I just ended up with an nice opaque white piece of glass!

    I didn’t try the oil as I hadn’t enough knowledge about using it – and one would think you would end up with the same depth of colour.

    But maybe I should have tried.

    I will go about getting some of the C. E. Oster stains you mentioned – they sound interesting.

    Thanks again for your help.

    Cheers,
    Shane

    • Hi Shane,

      The type of glass definitely does make a difference. It’s a key variable. In fact some glass is nearly impossible to stain. This is because stain works a chemical reaction in the glass. So if the composition of the glass is resistant to this reaction, stain just won’t “take” (as one says).

      And this is why restoration work is often really difficult when it comes to silver stain.

      Which is something that’s worth knowing when anyone needs to price a restoration project.

      All the best,
      Stephen

  14. Hi guys!

    Your timing, as always, is so perfect … So you two are designing a detailed guide to the Magical Mystery of Silver Stain. Yes! That is EXACTLY what I need.

    I’m just now lining up some practice pieces for my very first time at firing with silver stain. Since I don’t know what I’m doing, I will rigorously follow Stephen’s advice to test, test, test.

    After re-reading all these commentaries, I’ll vary the mixes with oil, vinegar, and some of this propylene glycol stuff I just got.

    I’ll also check on the tin side/clear side of the float glass I’m using, and try firing twice or thrice at different temperatures. Lots of work ahead! I can happily make a giant mess and not be disappointed with any of the results – since everything is a valid experiment.

    So, Stephen, any hint as to when this guide might be available?

    Hal

  15. Hi Hal,

    That’s exciting! Can I just say, it may all be very straight-forward. You see, what gets particularly difficult with silver stain is when you’re doing restoration work, because then there’s a particular effect (both seen from the front and and from the back) which you must mimic.

    When you’re not doing restoration, you’ve often got a bit more freedom, since one fraction lighter here or there sometimes doesn’t matter.

    Now admittedly I don’t know what you’re staining here, but I wanted to make that point also for the sake of other visitors here.

    Another thing I’d say is to keep it simple until you’re forced by circumstances to introduce a complication.

    As for the guide: we’re currently working on the first draft. So we’re aiming to publish this month (May 2010).

    Please ask whatever questions occur to you, Hal, and, published or not, we will always do our best to answer them.

    Stephen