Holiday fun: Designing a stained glass Christmas tree with GlassEye 2000

One of my hobbies is constructing stained glass, which is something I got into out of necessity while restoring an old house in Brooklyn.  The cost for replacing or, worse, restoring old stained glass panels was frightening enough that I took some classes to learn how to do it myself.  Fortunately, I learned that working with stained glass is somewhat the same as woodwork joinery so the transition wasn't too difficult once I learned the tools and their tricky techniques.

However, Rembrandt I ain't. I can visualize things pretty well but there's a bridge out somewhere between my left and right brain. With woodworking, I usually wind up head jamming the fabrication. It works 90% of the time. The other 10% is handled by my hard-won skills in making dumb mistakes look like I meant to do that. But this ad hoc process doesn't work for stained glass construction, where you need to have a completed design and pieces cut before you start soldering things together.

My stained glass work to date has been pretty simple, angular and, yes, left brained. But for the new projects here I wanted something a bit more artistic. So I began the hunt for stained glass design software and settled on Glass Eye 2000 from Dragonfly. It ain't cheap but it's not like stained glass people are a huge market. Nevertheless, it's a high quality product and the best design software I could find.

This is a window panel I designed in GE2k in about three hours.

GE2k is primarily a vector paint program. "Knots" determine ends of lines and also the arc points within lines. Making an arc is just a matter of grabbing a midline knot and dragging it where you want it. If you need a more complex arc, add more knots to the line. This might sound kind of crude but it's surprisingly flexible and, moreover, it makes resizing a design extremely accurate.

There are several ways to begin a design in GE2k. The easiest is to just Browse Designs and steal one. GE2k comes with over four hundred completed designs and bevels which you can use as-is or modify to suit. Dragonfly also sells packages of optional patterns ranging from Edwardian designs to cute li'l animals.

A very powerful feature in GE2k is AutoTrace. What you do is import a GIF or JPEG as a "background" and the software will create the outlines for you. This works pretty well for simple graphics, like a basic pencil sketch or a drawing from a coloring book. The tracing usually requires a little manual cleanup but the output looks surprisingly like a stained glass design.

You can also manually trace a drawing or a photo, like the artist did here. It's tedious but it lets you capture an incredible amount of detail, producing an almost photo-realistic stained glass piece. Basically, what you do is overlay lots and lots of knots on the photo and pull lines to match the contours of the picture.

A tool I've found indispensable for setting glass colors is ColorPic, built and marketed by a brilliant developer I worked with at Trafficmac, Nico Westerdale of Iconico. I can't imagine building anything relying on color without it. Nico has lots of free or inexpensive, super-valuable tools for web design on his site. It's a web developer's, or in this case stained glass designer's, toy box.

Anyway, this is a panel I designed to fit into the window frames I built a couple of years ago. There's an article about that construction here. I'll be building two of these panels for the window from the master bedroom to the hallway. They're intended to bring light from the south-facing bedroom windows into an otherwise dark section of hallway while also providing privacy.

Incidentally, this design won Dragonfly's Design of the Month in May 2009.

Here's an example of AutoTrace in action. I did this as an exercise to learn this aspect of the software. It took me about 45 minutes to complete the drawing, which I don't intend to actually build.

This is a sketch I found on the web; just a simple cartoonish Christmas tree. I imported it into GE2k using the Add Background command. It contains several lines which don't actually produce workable stained glass pieces. GE2k knows this and will tell you as much when you run the Suggest command (Ctrl-Q).

AutoTrace generated this template. Yup, it's got a lot of disconnected lines. Since the lines articulate borders for the glass pieces, they either need to be extended to meet the knots in other lines, or removed altogether. The tiny little bead-looking things you see on the lines are the knots. You can add/remove them or drag them to new locations to create curves and arcs.

Fifteen minutes of modification produced this. The Suggest command was really useful, telling me about disconnected knots on the pattern, pieces which were too small to fabricate, etc.

I quickly chose some colors and presto: a nearly complete stained glass design.

Clicking on another command automatically numbered all the pieces for me. When you print out the drawing you'll actually print two copies. One is the base template over which you fabricate the glass and the lead came (or copper foil). The other provides templates for actually cutting the glass. You cut out the paper pieces, fasten them to the glass with rubber cement, run a Sharpie around the profile and then cut the glass. Having those numbered pieces makes it easy to do all your cuts in one production run.

If I was going to actually construct this drawing I would have designed it to fit a frame, with background pieces.  And although I have a glass cutting bandsaw that could deal with them, I would break up some of the long pieces and simplify the complex wavy lines to make glass cutting easier. Fortunately, that's easy to do.

There's much more to Glass Eye 2000 than this. One cool feature is Costing. The software comes with a large and extensible inventory of glass types, manufacturers and model numbers. You can assign square-foot prices to them, as well as to the lead stock. When you complete the design, Glass Eye will tell you how much the materials will cost to build it. You can even estimate your hours and use it to generate a formal bid for a customer, which given the street price for custom stained glass these days isn't a shabby part-time profit center.