This month I’ve been making windows by hand. Yes, making windows! This might sound a bit mad – after all, who builds their own windows these days when you can buy high quality made-to-measure products, ready to install? Well, maybe I am a bit mad, but nonetheless I’m enjoying it.
Needless to say, I’m not making the windows that matter to our ultra-low-energy specification. These were indeed made offsite: triple-glazed Ecocontract windows supplied and fitted by The Green Building Store last September. But right at the front of the house is the conservatory, an unheated oak-framed room that, more than anything else, defines the Arts and Crafts character of The Orchard. It sits outside the insulated envelope of the building so any heat losses here will only be of solar energy harvested during the day through its many traditional leaded windows.
Twenty-five traditional leaded windows, to be precise, which is a lot of windows to make from scratch. I’m averaging about two a day and working weekends to get the job done. For each window, I begin by stretching and cutting the lead ‘cames’ which hold the glass in place. Then I cut the glass, which is always an anxious task as more than half of the glass I am using is expensive traditional glass, full of ripples and characterful dings. Then I carefully put all the lead and glass together using a jig to keep everything square and in place. All the lead junctions are then rubbed with a tallow candle, which acts as a flux, before being soldered together. Then I cement in all the glass, clean up and polish the lead to a dark, weathered finish.
Installing a window involves heaving it up the scaffold ladder, usually by myself, puttying the external rebate in the oak frame, pinning the window into the rebate with oak beads and screwing everything reasonably tight. As the green oak frame is going to move and twist as it dries, there needs to be plenty of tolerance to allow the windows to move too.
The result is pretty cool and gives the house an extremely unusual ‘kerb appeal’. The design of the first floor conservatory was inspired by a house by Edwin Lutyens, which was itself inspired by tall Elizabethan bay windows, so we are digging deep into English architecture to create a building that paradoxically will be exceptionally advanced in its environmental specification.
I first gained confidence to use lead and glass when I took a stained glass course at the Working Men’s College in London last year. Since then we have been making a series of stained glass panels that will rise up our double-storey staircase window. In this case, they will sit inside the triple-glazed window that is already in place, so once again we don’t have to worry about heat losses.
If you want to bring a bit of personal character to your project without spending a lot of time and money on training, I would recommend stained glass: it’s relatively easy to learn and you’ll be making your own pieces in no time at all. You can also do yourself a favour if, like us, you don’t get too ambitious with your design and stick to straight lines. Or at least don’t get too curvy: the more curves you have, the more likely you are to shout and curse when the glass fails to break along the line you have carefully scored. But of course that’s also the joy of craft: the more you practise, the more you smile and the less you swear.