Raising Glass

Raising Glass

The cool light of a winter afternoon electrifies the colors in each stained glass piece Sara Bennett holds up to her window. There are candy canes and holly sprigs, rainbow hearts, honeycombs, daisies, Poké balls (from Pokémon), a shamrock and a scene of New Haven’s three churches on the Green. Finished pieces are arrayed across Bennett’s dining room table, along with the bubble wrap needed to ship them.

Starting a stained glass business wasn’t the farthest thing from Bennett’s mind when she signed up for an adult education class in her town of North Haven in January 2020. But it was close. The class was meant to be a treat for herself after getting through some personal challenges in 2019. “Day one of the class, I was like, ‘This is what I need to be doing,’” Bennett recalls. “I just fell in love with it immediately.” Two classes ran before the pandemic canceled the rest, and she was left with a “barely started” project.

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The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven

“I had kind of eventually had hopes of setting up a home studio,” Bennett says, looking back. So, she decided, “I’m just gonna do that.” Over the course of 2020, she acquired some equipment, cleared a corner of her basement for a work bench and taught herself how to finish that first project with help from instructional videos, tip boards and “a little bit of trial and error.”

Stained glass can be expensive to make, “so you almost have to start selling it… if you want to fund doing it,” Bennett says. “That’s kind of how it snowballed.” She started by making pieces for family and friends. When those were well-received, she took the plunge and opened an Etsy shop. By the time delayed pandemic layoffs hit her middle-management corporate job last summer, Bennett had options. Today, her cutting and foiling and soldering skills are sharp and professional, and her Etsy shop, Strange Charm Glassworks, has received more than 100 orders. She now devotes about two-thirds of her time to Strange Charm and the rest to a new part-time gig. She also peddles her wares in person at craft markets and fairs and takes custom and commissioned orders. “I’m just kind of riding it where it takes me,” she says.

On her work bench one recent afternoon, dozens of diamond-shaped glass components had been cut and foiled and were laid in place, waiting to be soldered together into five snowflake ornaments. Beside the work space is Bennett’s “library of glass”: shelves of transparent cathedral glass in different textures and colors, opaque glass with milky streaks, mirror glass with a dark backing. A stack of drawers holds smaller scraps, and in a bin on the floor are the tiniest discards. At $10 to $20 per square foot, nothing goes to waste. Bennett has sold her discards to mosaicists, but she has plans to tumble these, smoothing them into “sea glass” for other projects she’s dreamed up.

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The first step for any design is a simple line drawing on paper, taking care not to make the pieces too narrow and avoiding “hinge points,” where a straight line running all the way across a piece could bend or break. Clear glass can be laid directly over the pattern to be cut along the lines; more opaque glass requires the use of a light pad to make the pattern visible. Bennett scores the glass with a hand cutter, then breaks it into pieces.

A small grinder is used to smooth the sharp edges of cut pieces. Then Bennett chooses from several rolls of copper foil tape and lines every edge of every piece before soldering. The lead and tin solder sticks to the foil and holds the pieces together. The silver-colored solder can be burnished copper or black, depending on the desired effect, though the “copper foil” method should only be used on pieces displayed indoors. Someday, Bennett says, she would also like to learn how to make leaded glass—the kind used in stained glass windows. It takes about two hours to make each small stained glass piece, assuming it’s already been designed, though Bennett works on them in batches for the sake of efficiency. Larger, more complex pieces can take much longer. Prices range from $10 for small ornaments to $25-70 for larger pieces, with a few more expensive possibilities including a Yale tribute.

At least one piece of stained glass in Bennett’s dining room was made by someone else. She opens a sideboard drawer and pulls out a rectangle in shades of brown that spells out her name: Sara. It was made for her by her godmother when she was very young. “That’s probably where it first got in the back of my brain,” she says, “that it was a thing that you could do”—the perfect pursuit for someone, as she describes herself, with “an artistic streak” but limited ability in painting or detailed drawing.

Bennett’s first project, a 10- by 16-inch panel depicting a dark purple flower surrounded by a frame of blue and green rectangles, has been relegated to a corner of her basement workshop now, superseded by later, more skilled work. Like glass itself, Bennett has polished her skills and built from them something new and bright.

Strange Charm Glassworks

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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