Stained Glass Restoration: One Big Mistake I Almost Always Make

Restoration (vs. conservation)

When I restore a broken piece of painted glass – restore it: so I mean when I “re-paint” it, not glue it, which I call “conservation” – there’s a big mistake I almost always make.

I say “almost”. Really though I should say “a mistake I always make – and then, just in time, I catch myself, start again, and do things properly”, thank goodness.

I want to tell you more. I want to – confess. But not just because my full confession may help you. (I can’t pretend I’m quite so selfless.) No, if I’m honest with myself, I’m fed up with this mistake I always make. It will be wonderful if, the next time I restore a broken piece of painted glass, I avoid this foolish error and get things right immediately.

So maybe – maybe! – by setting this down before your eyes, I’ll help myself.

A simple re-paint, that’s what I thought

Stained glass restoration

A simple job. Or not.

A simple re-paint, a broken head and torso from an ancient English church. But – by the hairs of my sainted badger! – how these fragments troubled me last week.

Stained glass restoration

All that remained

My chief silliness was: I set myself up in competition with the original glass painter.

So I examined the remaining pieces with great care, and I positively concluded the original had been painted in a single firing. (I mean one firing for the glass paint – the silver stain was a second firing.)

But I ask you now: one original firing or 8 – why does this force me, a 21st-century forger, to do the same?

When is it important to be authentic?

Sometimes, I grant you, it is important to do things in exactly the same way they were originally done.

For instance, when you want to prove how something is possible.

Thus you might attempt to cross the Pacific on a reed boat because you wish to demonstrate it was possible for our distant forebears to have accomplished such a feat.

Yes, I see this.

I see that authenticity sometimes matters.

And, in a very small way, it is probably the “Heyerdahl” instinct which, when I restore, drives me blindly to seek out the true techniques.

But I was kidding myself here, wasn’t I?

Because surely the point about authenticity is, you need to be strict about it: there are no half-measures.

Stained glass paint samples

I was kidding myself

No half-measures, and yet:

  1. I didn’t subject the glass to a costly chemical analysis so I might re-create it.
  2. Nor did I analyse the paint and media, then make my own.
  3. Goodness me, I was even happy to carry on using my electric kiln.

In short: modern glass, modern paint, modern fume-free firing methods.

All the same, like I always do, I jumped to the conclusion I just had “be authentic” and do it all in just one firing. (If you just heard a sound, that was me slapping my forehead in frustration.)

line drawing stained glass restoration

Preparatory line drawing

Yet really: no way could I get the same glass as the original, no way could I get the same paint and media as the original, now way could I fire my glass using the same kind of wood. So how can it really matter if I do 1 or 5 firings?

Surely, what matters is: the effect?

And if the effect is that the client is – to put it harshly – duped (meaning: they can’t tell the piece was ever damaged), isn’t that nearly always good enough?

tests stained glass restoration

Three versions

You know what – I’m not going to argue this point. Reason is, I’m a glass painter, not a theologian. I paint well. So I’m not going to lose sleep that I can’t add footnotes and a bibliography to my argument here. The glass I re-paint will last several life-times, and most people won’t know they’re looking at a copy.

I’m glad I caught myself in time. It meant I was quite happy with four firings in the end: two for glass paint, and two for stain.

Stained glass restoration

Back in place


Yes, yes, inauthentic: I “told a lie in church”.

And next time, thanks to you, thanks to this confession, I won’t even hesitate. I’ll do it straight away. I’ll  do whatever deceives the people who use the church for worship and helps them pray in peace. Thank you for curing me of my folly.

David Williams of Williams & Byrne, the glass painters


P.S. Two other errors are:

Too literal

It’s easy to be too slavish to the original trace-lines. Of course, some lines matter absolutely: like those lines which cross from one piece of glass to another.

But other lines matter less.

And, in attempting to copy them exactly, there is a big risk that the overall result is stilted.

Like having a dance partner who must always count “1 – 2 – 3, 1 – 2 – 3 …”.

So if the curve of the lips is different, or the angle of the eye-brow, my personal feeling is: it’s best not to worry too much. Far better to paint “to the spirit” rather than “to the letter” (unless lines meet etc.).

2. Just having the fragments, not having the whole section

But what can you do? If I quote to remove the whole section, the cost will escalate. Yet, if I don’t remove the whole section, it’s far harder to be sure your copy will blend in.

My solution when I only have the fragments is: I often paint several versions. Hence the three versions, above. Each one matches the fragments in some ways but not others. I returned to the church with all three versions. On the spot, I then chose the one which – overall – blended in the best.

But I’ll say it again: matching your repainted glass just to fragments (as opposed to the whole window or section) is a madly difficult – impossible – task.


Are there other perils and pitfalls? I’d love to hear from you.

19 thoughts on “Stained Glass Restoration: One Big Mistake I Almost Always Make

    • Glad you liked it, Michaela: it’s always great when a studio job also provides a good story to discuss with you and others. It was wonderful to meet you in June. All the best for the coming year – David

  1. Amazing, David! Was it the one on the far right you used? Also, did you have to keep popping back to the church to hold your piece up to the light? I’m glad I was able to help ‘cure you’ in some way (ha-ha!). If you ever need any more help please let me know (this is totally tongue in cheek of course .. You know that).
    Beautiful work! Another source of encouragement to ‘keep going’. Thank you!
    Merry Christmas!

    • Hi John – looking at the photograph of the versions on the light-box, I can no longer be sure. What I will tell you is this, and it’s interesting: the one I used was actually the one which in the studio (i.e. on the light-box or held up within cupped hands) looked less promising than the other two. But, in the church, against the hole and within the context of the other pieces, it emerged as the clear favourite. That’s exactly why I went with three. Whatever my views in isolation, I knew they would always be challenged by the actual situation. And they were! All the best – David P.S. The church was in fact a little too far away (remember what English roads are like …) to return until the fitting.

  2. 1. They offered you the job because they like the way you do what you do, not what someone else did through your hands. It’s very hard to be a “paint psychic”.
    2. Do you let the client see or keep the alternates? Always good to have a spare on hand.
    3. Exploring vulnerabilities always promotes growth of spirit and alerts those around you when in the future they should add support given a similar situation.
    4. May the season give you what you need, some of what you want and the grace to recognize and appreciate the difference.

    • David, I’m sure there have been times when I’ve shown a client work-in-progress on different versions. But as it happened not this time. One thing I’d say, and you’ll understand what I’m getting at here, I wouldn’t normally wish to hand them responsibility for choosing the front-runner. I mean: even I, in the studio, thought a different one would work best, and this happened despite my many years’ experience. Best wishes – David P.S. I loved your #4.

  3. First class job as usual. Out of interest how do you deal with the lead in these situations? To make a repair I always insist on removing the whole panel (albeit only domestic door or window panels) and disassembling until I can reach the broken or missing part. Then reassemble, re-solder and re-cement. Having seen so many awful ‘repairs’ made in situ by destroying the lead I refuse to do it that way, though I can see how in a large church window it might be completely impractical to remove some or all of a panel to repair.

    • Oh yes, David, the lead: you’re absolutely right to wonder: in this case, it was probably a stone which caused the damage, so you can imagine how it cast aside the pieces with no damage to the lead. And all the lead was in good enough condition it would have been wrong of me to suggest removing the window, then re-leading etc. at the studio. I could in fact fold back the lead to make a template, then, when I’d finished, re-fit the piece, fold back the lead and re-putty all around: this worked fine here. But I completely agree with your general approach: it just makes the painter’s work so much harder (indeed: impossible) to try to achieve an exact match in isolation. That’s why I wanted to discuss this story, and I’m very glad you’re shared your own approach. All the best – David

  4. Dear David,

    What a beautiful story: and it is plain to see how thoroughly you do your work – by doing three paintings, to see which one ‘fits’ [light-wise] best.

    They all have slight nuances, and you are quite right, it is impossible for me to tell which one you actually selected, as the one in situ looks different again from the other three.

    What you suggest about ‘authenticity’ – it is impossible for us in the 21st century to be the same as a painter from centuries ago: the glass is certainly different, as you point out, and the paint perhaps is chemically different, but what matters is that it looks ‘as near as possible’ to how the original might have looked, which it does.

    Nothing jars the eye or looks out of place, the wise old Scholar can once more see what he is doing, with his goose quill, and this is the whole point of replacing the broken piece.

    You are not ”duping” anyone, [in my opinion] you have made the panel harmonious again. The original painter, had he or she have lived today, may also have loved to have used an electric kiln, and an electric lightbox would be a great help to extend the daylight hours. But most importantly the painter would be more than happy to see that his/her work was interpreted and repainted anew in such a sensitive manner.

    In this, you have been authentic – you have been true to the spirit of the original painting.

    The sands of time bring changes to every craft..the hourglass in the picture is a poignant reminder of that.

    • Hello Catherine, As you can see from the date of my reply, I have been away from the studio for a few days: I hope your week has gone well! I am glad you picked up on “authenticity”. One of my concerns is: authenticity sets the bar too high. And what happens can be terrible. For instance, with my own eyes I have seen many windows where – as happens with time – individual bits of painted glass have been broken and lost. As I say: this happens with time. But, when authenticity is too highly valued, and precisely because strict authenticity is scarcely possible, what happens is almost unbelievable: some conservators then just use plain glass (or plain glass with a stippled matt on it) to fill in the holes. The reason? Because they don’t want to deceive people with a modern imitation. Yet the infill is so ugly, the whole window is disturbed. I have seen this often and it makes me very sad. So I believe we must accept we can’t be authentic but at the same time strive to fly as high as possible. All the best to you for the coming year – David

  5. Dear David and Stephen – Merry Christmas!

    Your confession was good for my soul.

    It’s very exciting to learn master glass painters don’t have to walk the dogma at all times.

    Great meeting you guys last June!

    Thanks for the wonderful Christmas present of your letter.


    • Hello John – It was great to meet you too (and I hope we get over to your wonderful country another time soon). I’m glad you liked the post. Our best wishes to you and yours – David

  6. Hello David,
    It was an interesting confession.
    Be in competition with the original painter, was a good starting point.
    Let’s assume that this ancient painter, is on our side, but he could not help us. Just observe us and express their feelings.
    Well, that’s my starting point to express my humble opinion on this question of restoration or conservation.
    I’m not a famous glass painter and I do not know if one day I will be. For me, this not matter now. The point is what I think about my work, which will one day be restored by someone.
    What I would like to see happen in the future with the things I made today?
    Certainly I would like to see them in the useful proposal for which they were created.
    Thus, I see no “sacrilege” if I re paint a fragment that has been lost or suffered great damage. Sincerely thinking, I would be sad if in the future “I see” one of my stained glass, with glued fragments or united upside down only to show that the originals glass and painting were kept.
    Sorry, but for me the History can only exist if it can be told. So, the stained glass, in their way, tell us a story. And for me, a stained glass “meaningless”, I mean, different in the presentation of the theme for which it was created, only tells another story. The story of a sad past where seems to be no hope.
    Once again, congratulations David. Your ability is enviable.

    • Hello Fábio! I very much like the points you make. They bring me also to think about how we consider old age which one day I will write about.

      For now, may I just introduce a distinction I usually make when clients ask me how much a copy will cost.

      I always want to know whether they want a “spirited copy” or a facsimile which is stroke-for-stroke identical.

      For me, especially when I’m replacing a few pieces within a larger window, a spirited copy is essential, because then, when it’s all finished, everything will look well and harmonious together.

      A stroke-by-stroke facsimile on the other hand risks being lifeless.

      Maybe it’s a bit like the difference between a violinist who performs a piece from memory as opposed to someone who stands and plays and reads their music.

      Or an actor who has memorised their lines versus one who reads them.

      I know you see the difference here. In every case, the spirited copy certainly risks being different, but, because it possesses a real life of its own, it actually might succeed in paying the greatest tribute to the original artist’s wish.


      • Hello David,
        it’s me again.
        It was exactly the idea that I was thinking and trying to say. The “spirited copy”! Perfect! That is the word missing for me.
        Using this type of copy, the stained glass, even “losing authenticity,” as someone might say, will look well and harmonious once again. And that is the point. As you said: “it possesses a real life of its own, it actually might succeed in paying the greatest tribute to the original artists with.”
        Excellent conclusion! That’s it!
        Thank you.

        • If I may join in (since I’m doing the “night shift” today): when we were in Washington D.C. in July, I took my daughter to the waxwork museum on F Street there. Had a wonderful time and took loads of photos: Nell with Johnny Depp, Nell with Larry King, Nell with George Washington etc. But in all the photos, it is only Nell who looks alive, whereas the wax replicants are so perfect they stick out eerily. And sometimes – sometimes, I think: not always – it’s the same with lines. Not when someone does symmetry or calligraphy etc. in their work because then, like top-class gymnastics, they’ve trained and trained until they’ve built it into their muscles and they no longer need to think aloud. Which reminds me: also last summer I saw a fairly early painted roundel by Ken Leap and my goodness, was the line-work perfect: if someone were charged with copying that, they’d have a monumental task before them. But, hard as the broken section most certainly was which David re-painted, it was not hard by on account of its precision but rather for the flair and character of the lines and layers of shadows. So I understand absolutely what he means by “spirited copy” – quite unlike the wax works we saw last summer.

          • Thank you very much for participating on this subject.
            How nice is hear from you everyday stories. Indeed, always they have something to add.
            For instance, your observation and comparison with the wax figures was insightful.
            It seems to me that I came to an understanding. What remained for me is the development of a skill of observation. With it, we have the “common sense” to decide when use “the perfect line-work” or the “spirited copy”.

  7. It’s surprising how often overarching issues can cross from one discipline to one that seems vastly different. I once took a course in the history of the Middle Ages where we learned how to tell where a page of handwritten (of course) text came from and how to identify the monastery where it was made, sometimes even the monk who wrote it, and the year – all based on known spellings, styles, and abbreviations that scholarly research had fitted to a standard reference timeline. I learned that any attribution had to be consistent with ALL of the known reference data; if everything pointed to one answer except for a single aberrant fact, then you had to keep pushing until you found a solution that fit everything. Of all strange things, I came to apply that to the field of aircraft accident investigation, where it fit beautifully. So with that as an example of crossovers, let me point out that the dilemma over how best to reconstruct something old that’s been damaged is a thing that’s bedeviled the old car hobby for a very long time. Unless you put in parts that were made by the original manufacturers and use the same types and colors of paints and so forth, you haven’t “restored” the car, you’ve “repaired” it. And if you install safety features like seat belts or modern brakes, or (heaven forbid) swapped the engine, you’ve drifted into what’s called “restomod.” I wonder if the same sort of sliding scale would be useful for discussing glass restoration?

    • I like your points: thanks for joining in. And this restoration is indeed a “restomod”. For sure. In a church these days, and unlike aircraft accident investigation where it will be a matter of future lives or deaths, we must generally make compromises. And, if compromise were not required by the scarcity of church funds, then this work would need other hands than mine: it would not suit my character to spend five years or however long figuring out exactly how to do it.

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