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Glass Elegance

The Art of Etching Glass with Sand

What’s a story on etched glass doing in a carpentry magazine? Good question. I don’t know the exact answer. All I know is that every aspect of construction interests me, and when I met Donna Burrows and visited her studio, I knew that other readers would be interested in seeing what I saw. Maybe it’s something about craftsmanship.

Donna is an both a craftsperson and an artist. You can tell by the way she moves her hands—quick, sure, continuous strokes with a razor knife following lines I barely see; and what she does with a sandblasting nozzle…well, watch the video at the end of this article and you’ll know what I mean.

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But it’s what she sees before one grain of sand touches the glass that makes her an artist—each layer of the finished piece, the same way a roof cutter or a stair builder visualizes a finished product when they’re looking at nothing but air.

Parrots for Privacy

Donna is the type that excelled in art classes and made the rest of us feel clumsy and useless. She’s been working glass for more than twenty years. I followed her through one job, from the client meeting through conception and completion. Her customers had recently removed a tree that provided privacy from their neighbors, but which also blocked their view. They wanted a partially-etched glass panel to put both their neighbors and themselves at ease. They weren’t really sure what kind of design they wanted, but they were fond of parrots.

These folks were fond of parrots. They had a collection of life-size sculptures in the trees of their yard, and glass parrots inside their home.

Drawing and tracing

Donna begins each project with a conceptual drawing. On some projects she’ll spend days on the drawing.

Once that’s approved, she enlarges the drawing onto a sheet of tracing paper, using a wall projector, to the exact full size of the finished panel.
It’s a low-tech process—she moves the projector back and forth from the wall until the size of the projected image matches the final dimensions of the glass panel.
The full-size drawing is also submitted for approval, and then Donna goes to work. She darkens the graphite lines on the tracing paper so they’ll transfer cleanly to a sheet of pressure-resistant self-adhesive vinyl. It’s that sheet of vinyl that plays the most important role in the sandblasting process.
The pressure-resistant vinyl is applied to the glass, and then the drawing is laid on top and secured with masking tape on the edges.
To secure the tracing paper in the center of the panel—so it won’t move even a fraction of an inch—Donna cuts out small triangles in empty areas of the drawing, then places a small piece of masking tape over the cut-outs.

Transferring the drawing is a simple matter of tracing over the back of the paper with a soft-lead pencil, which won’t tear the paper but transfers the lines to the vinyl. Donna lifts the paper frequently, checking that the tracing is complete, with each line crisp and clear.

Surgical Prescision

Sandblasting is an art, especially creating a three-dimensional image from a two-dimensional drawing. Each layer must be blasted in precise order, so that each overlapping line creates the impression of three dimensions.

Donna starts by marking the drawing in layers. Parts of the drawing must overlap other parts—some leaves, limbs, and feathers must lie behind other leaves, limbs, and feathers. The lower leaves will be shot by the first blast of sand. To keep the layers straight in her mind, Donna marks each first-blast detail with an X, then follows the traced lines with an X-Acto knife.

She changes blades frequently—the vinyl dulls the blades fast. What would take most of us hours, Donna does in minutes—handling the blade with practiced skill. Rather than twisting her wrist, she twists the knife in her fingers—her hand operating like a CNC machine—and follows the tracing without straying from the lines more than 1/32 in. Before moving the glass to the spray booth, she removes the first layer of vinyl.

Delicate Sandblasting

While it seems like a contradiction, in Donna’s hands, a sandblasting “siphon” gun is a delicate tool. She uses it for shaded glass, and for etching and shading on delicate areas of carved-glass designs. There’s a big difference between shaded glass, etched glass, and carved glass.

For shading, you don’t hit the glass straight-on with the gun, and you don’t just pull on the trigger like driving a hammer drill. If you don’t handle the gun with care, you can’t control the effect of the sand. It takes a lot of practice, but eventually you learn to blend the blast using a swiping-technique, hitting the glass from an angle, with 10 lbs. of pressure for small delicate areas and up to 40 lbs. for bigger areas. Like we feather the trigger on an impact driver, Donna feathers the trigger to adjust the blasting pressure.

When Donna carves glass with the siphon gun, she increases the pressure to 60 lbs., but that tool is for delicate work. For deep carving, Donna switches to a pressure pot system, holding from 100 to 300 lbs. of sand, run at about 80 lbs. of pressure, with a straight nozzle, just like a fireman’s hose, without any trigger. Controlling that beast takes real talent.

“You have to dance with it,” Donna says, “like T’ai Chi. You have to keep the flow going without stopping, without hesitating, without hitting one area too much. I’m only allowed to cut tempered glass up to 1/8 in. deep, and a lot of my work is on tempered glass because my panels are installed in doors, sidelights, and in large windows that come within 18 in. of the floor. But with annealed glass, I can cut as deep as I want…well, almost. For a 3/4-in. table top, there’s no code. To really carve glass, including tempered glass, there’s no better tool for the job.”

Outfitted with a full jumpsuit, external air-fed respirator, and hood—through which she can barely see—Burrows sprays the glass with a fine stream of silicon carbide or aluminum oxide at 120 grit.

“The sand I use is similar to sandpaper. You could use 80 grit or 60 grit, but that’s like cutting a corner. You need to go slow and control the sand, otherwise the result is not pretty. You want a beautiful, fine finish.”

For the first blast, while hitting the edges, Donna moves the gun in to within 4 in. of the glass, but sweeps out as much as 16 in. to the point where she’s barely blasting the glass at all because of the distance between the gun and the glass.

Remember, the glass is etched in layers—with the edges of overlapping areas hit harder for more emphasis. But Donna handles the gun with care, angling the stream away from the first layer and controlling the blast so it doesn’t diminish the fine finish of each leaf.
Here you can almost see the blast of sand leaving the nozzle of the gun and etching a fog-like pattern into the glass.
For delicate and intricate details, Donna brings the nozzle right to the glass.
Once the first “layer” is blasted, Donna removes the next “overlapping” layer. The lines created by each layer quickly develop into a two-dimensional work.
Donna found this scratch in the glass while she was laying out the drawing. Sometimes the sign of a good carpenter is knowing how to fix problems. Donna has that “carpentry” approach to her work, too. There’s always a fix, if you plan ahead. She hid this scratch in the second layer of a leaf.

With parrots on the windowsill, the finished etching fits perfectly in the clients’ home, providing just enough privacy from the neighbors without blocking the view.

•••

Comments/Discussion

19 Responses to “Glass Elegance”

  1. Dave Pitman

    Gary,

    Thanks for sharing Donna and her work with us.

    While her work is very impressive to see on the screen, I can imagine that the ‘depth’ of the art is fantastic in person.

    Thanks,

    Dave Pitman

    Reply
  2. Lavrans

    Thanks, Gary.

    My stepfather, who is probably at fault as much as anyone for me being in construction was a stained glass artist, among many other talents. He taught me how to make leaded glass, but what I really loved was making etched glass- some would be included in leaded glass panels.

    Another dimension can be added by using flash glass- flash glass is a pane of glass that has a layer of color “flashed” onto one or both sides. With color on both sides you can get as much as 3 colors.

    Karl died a few months ago. He’d spent the last 15 years working with copper, making lamps and panels from copper sheet primarily.

    Anyway, good article- it’s all of these things that can be combined into a project to help make that carpentry stand out from the crowd.

    Reply
  3. Garry

    I thought this was a great article. The tedious process relates to many crafts and a commitment to quality.
    I do wood carving and the same considerations as far as depth and perception are a large part of the process.

    Thanks for stepping out of the box.

    Reply
  4. roe osborn

    Excellent article and an incredibly creative process!!! Carpenters should be open to all forms of creativity to enhance their own. Thanks for sharing!

    Reply
  5. JW

    Thanks, Gary

    Many of us are G.C.s as well as carpenters. A better understanding of the disparate trades and processes are key to successful projects. I’m all for this type of article in the future.

    J Watson

    Reply
  6. Tom Bainbridge

    there’s no argument here either, i too, am fascinated by other trades.

    as jw says, it’s another idea for the memory bank

    i now realise that more than one window i’ve seen or installed would have benefitted from donna’s skill, raising “bulk standard” to sensational

    Reply
  7. Steve Walker

    Very nice work, I can’t believe the intensity of the planning and then follow though in the correct order of shading. What results would have if one used glass with a tint, and does this require tempered glass ?

    Reply
    • Gary Katz

      Steve,
      Yes, tinted glass can be used. Tempered glass is only required for windows that must have tempered glass–proximately to the floor, doors, etc. Donna works with plate glass a lot, too–1/2 in. plate for ‘carving’, where she blasts extremely deep.
      Gary

      Reply
  8. Jim Seybert

    This is a wonderful article that made me aware of the incredible skill possessed by people like Donna. It certainly fits into the overall field in which we work.

    One small correction to the text, though. The abrasive is not “carbon silicone” but rather “silicon carbide”. Silicones are complex molecules with properties that we know well from caulking and lubricants. Silicon is the chemical element that is the major component of glass, and silicon carbide is harder than glass and found in abrasives like emery cloth.

    Reply
  9. Lisa Betts

    This is very interesting and helpful with trying to explain to somebody the intensity and focus that work like this entails. I am already fully aware what a great artist Donna is. I have seen much of her work and it’s lovely.With Donna it’s all about perfection,beauty and getting the job done correctly.

    Reply
  10. Donna

    Lavrans broke my heart. So many attorneys and accountants that I have done work for, told me how they envied me for following my passion. We all choose our walks in life. The grass may seem greener on the other side, but we’re not dead yet. The choices are still there if you still have a passion for it. If you choose to be an artisan as a wood worker,a tile man,or a lighting specialist, it all plays a part in allowing “eye candy” into a life style of someone, or more publicly, enhancing many lives if even if you’re being paid for it. It lasts a lifetime for you also, although in pride of a great accomplishment. With care and love of the project or challenge, as it may be, the rewards of accomplishments are endless. All that matters is whats in your heart, and then you will be guided for the rest to come. My contact number is 818-772-1738 for lessons an source contacts.

    Donna

    Reply
  11. Tim Raleigh

    Gary
    Thanks, great video. Donna is an artist!
    In the last part of the video Donna says that the building code required an opening in the wall, is that correct?
    What (CA?) bylaw makes the owner put an opening where there wasn’t one previously?
    Tim

    Reply
    • Gary Katz

      Tim,
      There was a window in that wall previously. To gain privacy from their neighbors, the owners had two alternatives: remove it completely or use some type of obscure glass. There is a code requirement in CA that sets a minimum square footage of window space in each home, a minimum sg. footage of operable glazing, and a maxium sg. footage, too, along with energy calc’s that have to be met to meet Title 24–or something like that. I’m not the least bit familiar with this stuff. Like most carpenters, I’ve just heard myths and tales and rumors of these codes.
      Gary

      Reply
  12. Devin Lamb

    Absolutely article Gary!!

    Though I do have a bone to pick… thanks a bunch for making my bucket list one item longer!

    Keep up the great work.

    Devin

    Reply
  13. Ed Hills

    I want to say that working with glass like she does is absolutely fantastic. She’s a wonderful artist and I have always wondered how that was accomplished. I am a computer person and am trying to get a start in woodworking. I just can’t say enough about the wonderful work Donna does. Thanks for having her here and I would like to see more of her work. Does she have a web page? Thanks again.

    Reply
  14. Sal Cretella

    I loved the article and the u tube video. Donna does beautiful work. Where I live (in Ct) I can’t find any suppliers of resist or etching supplies. Is there a good internet source?

    Reply

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