Copper Foiling - a very detailed explanation!

Copper foil technique is sometimes called "Tiffany" after the designer who developed and perfected stained glass copper foiling.


I prefer to work with copper foil when making stained glass pieces, although I do use lead to border large panels.  I use art glass with elements like beads, dichro cabs, crystals, fossils and agates. 




Step 1: Determine your design criteria

Will you be making something with a pattern, requiring that each piece fit like a puzzle within the next, or will you be piecing together various objects?  Does it need to match something that exists, fit into a specific shape and size, have a specific color scheme, or fill a client's request? How will the item be displayed or used?  Think now to save time and glass later.

Tip #1:  I prepare bags of useful items like glass nuggets, ammonites & agates in advance, wrapping them in copper foil and either storing them as is or tinning them before storage; This ensures I'll have material ready when I need it, and keeps me busy in front of the TV, on long drives (assuming I'm not the driver!) and on sad days when creative inspiration has deserted me.

Tip #2:  Make sure you keep safety in mind - keep a good first aid kit and behave with common sense.  You might think you'll never be cut, but even so, keep a bandage or two in your work area. Tie your hair back before you start work, wear an apron to protect your clothes. Slip on disposable latex gloves before working with chemicals.  Wear eye protection when grinding, keep food out of your studio (you're soldering with lead - it's toxic!) and wear solid shoes, not sandals, to avoid cuts from falling glass or burns from solder drips or chemical spills.  Ensure good ventilation and/or use masks and fume hoods.  If you don't think these tips are relevant to you, you must be new at this - "been there, done that!" so learn from my mistakes.




Step 2: Cut your glass 

Select & cut your glass with the  glass cutter of your choice or with a tile cutter (for uneven edges.)  I know people who break glass with a hammer.  Íf you're using a glass cutter without an oil chamber, be sure to add oil to the glass before cutting; wipe over the expected cutting line with an oily brush or drip oil off the cutter onto the glass and then run it down the glass with your finger.

Tip #3:  Simple tools are often best.  Raid your favorite hardware store for glass cutters, sewing machine oil, small paintbrushes and extras like rolls of metal wire (uncoated) of different diameters.  Whatever you find there will probably be cheaper than the same item at a specialty glass shop.

Tip #4:  Creating patterns is an art in itself, and I won't cover it in detail here. You'll need bristol paper, permanent ink pens (they wash off glass) and special sissors that can usually be bought only at stained glass supply stores.  If you do cut glass to a pattern, be sure to cut inside the line you've made, not on the line!




Step 3: Grind and wrap your glass

You can grind with a mechanical grinder and sponge or with a grinding stone under the faucet.  The important element is water - without it, your glass can heat and crack and you can inhale glass dust (normally caught and washed away by the water).  After grinding away slivers and giving your glass edges a rough finish, wrap it with copper foil.   Many foil widths are available - 1/4 inch is a good starting point.  Run the foil down the edge of the glass piece, tamping it down with your finger as you go, to hold it in place.  Overlap the end of the foil onto the point where you started by at least a fingernail length, to ensure good coverage.  The glass should sit in the middle of the foil; gently roll the edges of the foil up and over the edges of the glass, as if you are binding a book.   Burnish the foil into place - gently, so it doesn't tear - with a popsicle stick, pencil, plastic burnisher, etc.

Tip #5:  If you have tight inside curves, your foil might tear when you roll it over the edges.  You can avoid the appearance of a tear (and ensure that you can tin your glass as you must) by creating a foil saddle before you apply the copper foil. Do this by sticking on little pieces of foil across the top of the glass on the curves (from side to side, rather than down the edge); when you cover them with the strip of foil, if the foil tears the saddle underneath will still cover those glass bits.  Use a sharp craft knife to cut away excess foil from the saddle area after burnishing.





Step 4: Solder ("tin") your seams

Turn on/plug in your soldering iron and put a damp piece of cotton knit (for instance, a rag from an old t-shirt) in the corner of your work table. You'll use this damp rag to wipe off your iron tip from time to time.  After ensuring that every glass piece is foiled and placed exactly where you want it, dab a little flux onto strategeic points in your seams.  Using your fingers, carefully hold the two pieces you want to join and dab a bit of hot solder on them at the point you already wiped with flux.  Once all seams have at least 2 solder points, you can flux up all the seams and generously solder them all.  Let your work in progress cool a little, before carefully turning it over.  This time,skip the solder-point stage and go straight to tinning the seams.  Don't forget the outside edges.  If you have open spaces inside the work, you'll need to peer inside and solder up the inside edges, too.

Tip #6:  Soldering iron safety -  these things get HOT!  Before you turn it on, look (don't assume) to be sure that the tip is not resting/touching/near anything, including its own cord.  Never reach for your iron unless you are looking at it.  Have salve in your first aid kit just in case.  Ensure proper ventilation - the heated flux and lead fumes are toxic.  Never rest the iron on the table work surface, even for a minute - use the metal stand that came with the tool.   Turn off the tool when you're not using it.  There are probably more safety rules I've forgotten...

Tip #7:  Don't hold the tip of the iron on the seams too long.  The first problem might be tin leaking through to the other side, the second might be glass cracked from overheating. 

Tip #8:  When you think you've soldered everything, turn the piece in your hands and look at all of it from every angle possible.  Any place you missed tinning will be weak and will corrode eventually, if it doesn't tear immediately.  If you decide to use patina (see step 5) it will not change the color of untinned copper foil, so your error will be obvious.  If you do find a spot during patina stage, you can always wash and dry the piece and resolder, then repatina that spot.




Step 5:  Wash, patina & oil your piece

When you've completed soldering, gently wash the piece in soapy water.  Dishwashing soap works just fine.  Snap on rubber gloves before opening the patina bottle.  You can wipe the patina onto the seams with a paper towel or a cotton ball, etc.  After a suitable amount of time, wash it off with water and soap. Use an old toothbrush to wash the seams, rather than a scrubbing pad.  Dry your piece completely and then apply a finishing compound such as an oil or wax to prevent corrosion.

Tip #9:  Every book I read quoted a different fixing time for patina. They agreed, though, that it's not great to leave it on the glass too long.  My recommendation for curing time - 20 minutes or 1 relaxed cup of coffee in another room.

Tip #10:  When you're handling patina, remember it's an acid and pay attention to your sleeves and arms - I've recieved chemical burns from brushing against my work as I turn it to patina first one side, then the other.  If you do get patina on your skin, wash it off immediately.



Step 6:  All the rest

Now is the time to add beads, bangles, price tags, etc.  You should photograph all your work - or at least some of it.  You can either carefully pack the piece for your next sale, give it to someone who loves you and won't throw it away, or hang it in your house, office, studio, etc.  But the important thing is that you should do something with it; don't let it gather dust unnoticed and uncared for.


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