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by Bob Brooke
Any stained glass window that’s been exposed to the weather or has been improperly installed may need to be restored, according to Bill Reinart, of Reinarts Stained Glass Studios of Winona, Minnesota. The lead “came,” the metal between the glass pieces, oxidizes, becomes brittle, cracks, buckles, and stretches. The putty or grout, pushed under the lead giving the window its rigidity, has usually fallen out by this time, making the window rattle, as well as showing obvious signs of buckling and cracking of the glass.

However, before a window can be restored, it must be inspected by a professional such as Reinart to determine the exact cause of its deterioration. Once that’s determined, work can proceed.

The Restoration Process
The restoration process begins by first removing the window panel from the frame. After the restorer takes a rubbing of the design, he can then remove the individual pieces of glass from the old lead. But before he can work on restoring the lead, each piece of glass must be cleaned, removing the old putty, paint and dirt that has accumulated over the years. He’ll also have to replace any broken pieces using the same or a similar type of glass. The window's original fabric, especially the original glass, should be re-used whenever possible. The work should also be thoroughly documented for future reference. And, unless imminent loss will result, all repair and restoration methods used should be reversible.

After he putties the window, it’s ready to be re-installed. By the time the process is finished, the collector has, in every respect, a new window, with the historic glass intact. While it’s possible to match color and paint, it’s often not as easy to restore a certain texture. In this case, the restorer will have to replace the textured glass with something similar. The finished window will be more brilliant after the glass is cleaned and restored and shouldn’t require re-leading for about 200 years or more.

If the window is painted, it may require even more intensive restoration. “Often windows are painted with a combination of kiln-fired and cold (regular) paint which can come off,” Reinart says. “Faded painting on windows often is the result of improper firing. A correctly fired paint design should last for the life of the window. Today, we use electric computerized kilns to fuse the paint onto the glass. It makes a difference how long the paint is fired, how long it stays at the optimum temperature and how it cools. If glass cools too fast, it becomes brittle.”

Complete restoration offers the best long-term benefits, but this approach is often not financially practical. “Total re-leading is often not necessary,” says Reinart. “But Tiffany windows and those with layers of glass and intricate leading are the most difficult to restore and, therefore, the most costly.”

While in-place repairs are appropriate in certain instances, they rarely serve as long-term solutions to the problems of a window. So, most frequently, a compromise between complete, museum-quality restoration and simply patching the window is the solution.

What is the Purpose of the Restoration?
Before considering the specific needs of a window, such as which technique to employ where, the craftsman must consider general issues of the overall purpose and scope of the intended restoration. Is this window a fine and valuable example of the highest level of stained glass art? Was it created by a recognized master artist or studio? If so, it’s essential to employ the most meticulous and demanding museum-quality restoration techniques to preserve the work.

Is the window a remarkable example of its genre? Again, if so, it must be approached in the most sensitive and delicate way. Unlike easel painting, sculpture and other fine arts, many of whose best examples are protected in museums and art galleries around the world, most of the finest examples of stained glass art reside in churches, public buildings and residences, where they’re exposed to more potentially damaging elements and circumstances. Then, too, as a general rule, stained glass windows, even museum-quality ones in their original settings, are under considerably less preservation scrutiny than their painting and sculptural counterparts.

The proper restoration of these windows involves extraordinarily time-consuming, delicate, frequently costly, restoration methods. And the restoration of a valuable window should be attempted only by the most knowledgeable and experienced craftspeople.

Even windows which might be described as “commercial” onesthat is, they may have originally been part of a catalogue offering, like those sold through Sears & Roebuck, or common designs of the timeshould be looked upon as examples of the art of that period. Although complete, museum-quality restoration of these windows may not yield the same financial return as the more recognized artistically unique windows, their restoration is nonetheless important.

If no documentation exists for the window in question, the collector should gather as much information about it as possible. The window should also be photographed on 35mm slide film. The window’s owner should also prepare, a provenance, as with fine furniture, including the window’s maker and history. This should be filed with the Census of Stained Glass Windows in America, which is currently cataloging all of the windows in the United States for scholarly purposes.

What Sort of Restoration Can a Collector Do?
Collectors should avoid cleaning their own windows if they’re painted or adorned with other surface decoration, as modern cleaning agents might damage the painted surface. The least intrusive cleaning method is to dust the window with a feather duster or soft cloth. Accumulated cobwebs and insect debris can be gently vacuumed away or dusted.

If a heavy build-up of dirt exists on unpainted windows, the collector can perform a wet cleaning with a lukewarm solution of water and a non-ionic detergent, such as Triton X-100 or OrvusTm. It’s important that no residue of these cleaning products be left on the glass. If possible, the windows should be rinsed with lots of clear water afterwards. Cleaners containing either ammonia or alcohol should not be used, as these chemicals may react with the lead or the cement compounds. Stubborn accretions of oil-based paint that may have been accidentally deposited during a window’s lifetime can be removed with methylene chloride thickened with cellulose.

If a window is in rather good shape but has one or two pieces of broken or cracked glass, a craftsperson can perform a stopgap repair. Though these repairs are temporary measures taken to prevent further deterioration and possible damage, they’re not restoration.

Before executing a stopgap repair, however, the collector should ascertain whether numerous repairs needed within one panel will severely weaken the window. Also, will the material of the supporting matrix support an in-place repair? Zinc came and round lead are more difficult to work on than flat leads, while copper-foil is virtually irreparable in a vertical plane, due to the physical impossibility of drawing an adequate solder bead. If the repair is appropriate, the glass should match the texture, color and density of the original, whenever possible.

Stabilization vs. Restoration
In some cases, it may be too costly to restore a window at the present time. If a collector cannot afford a complete restoration, then stabilization of the window is the next best step. For instance, the edges of cracks can be damaged further if they are not stabilized. As the glass flexes, the pieces abrade one another and result in shelling of the glass edges.

Questionable restoration techniques can diminish the artistic value of a window, and in some cases, actually accelerate the deterioration of the stained glass.

Certain repairs cannot be done while the window is in place in a building. Re-cementing a window must be done while it’s lying flat on a bench. All of the old putty must be carefully removed with hardwood picks, and after the cementing process, the panels should remain in a supported, flat plane for a minimum of two weeks to let the putty set up.

It’s also impossible to flatten bulges in-place without breaking the glass. To properly flatten a panel, the support bars must be removed, the putty must be scraped out from under the lead flange, and the window must be gently coaxed into its original design plane.

Restoration is a term used broadly and, quite often, inappropriately. A restoration brings a work back to its former undamaged condition and doesn’t affect the value of the window, as is often the case with furniture. “There’s a ton of misinformation out there on restoring stained glass,” says Reinart. “It’s important to go to someone who knows the right procedures.”

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