Lead light luminary
In a small flint-faced barn in Colney Heath five people are spending the day learning an ancient craft pioneered in Britain and now facing a revival.
They are the latest students taking part in a one-day course at a Hertfordshire farm, learning how to make lead lights, those colourful glass displays that decorate many English churches and some homes.
All arrive with a small bag containing an apron and a packed lunch; all will leave with the basics skills needed to blend strips of lead with coloured glass to make lead light windows and decorations.
Their tutor is James Brunswick, a craftsman whose large hands turn out works of art using methods that have changed little over the centuries.
His enthusiasm is infectious. He speaks slowly and deliberately; similar in delivery to the way he works. He tells about the history of lead lights, how the lead arrives in large ingots, is heated, cast and then fed into the mill before finishing.
His five students turn up just before 10am. At first he runs through a quick health and safety demonstration and then gets down to the tricky, but according to James, quickly mastered, art of cutting glass.
"At first most think they will never be able to cut glass but by early afternoon they are snapping shapes out with complete confidence," he says.
The sessions are a clever mix between listening and doing. James aims to cram a complete course into an eight-hour session and wave goodbye to his students at 6pm having given them all the tips they need to begin making lead lights at home.
There is a large wood burning stove in the corner of the barn. The heat balances against the winter chill outside; it is difficult to cut lead, trim glass and construct lead lights with cold hands.
James, like many craftsmen, understands the character of the raw materials and rattles out the sort of tips that are unlikely to be included in any textbooks, but which are based on a lifetime working with lead and glass.
For example, it is best to wash your hands in cold water so that the pores donít open up letting in the lead, stain, colours and putty.
The first step is to sketch the design for the lead light. Most students prefer to start with a simple combination of shapes and colours. Their drawings are then laid out in a frame on a plywood workbench.
Next they cut the borders out of thick edging lead and place them in the frame. Coloured glass is cut and added, with each held in place by a thinner strip of lead, until the design is finished. The work is then soldered and left to set.
The classes are small. James is only happy working with five students at a time.
"I like to have plenty of time for one-to-one work with the students and to be able to answer any questions. I want them to end the day knowing they have learned the basic skills needed and to be confident about working on their own," he said.
The one-day course costs £75 and they run when James has five people interested in taking part. So far he has not been short of candidates.
In the past, course vouchers have proven to be popular Christmas and birthday gifts, and classes for the next few months are already looking busy.
James also offers follow up one-to-one teaching for those wanting to learn more and will hire out his facilities such as the kiln, cementing room and bench space by the hour.
According to James it costs about £100 to buy the tools for creating lead lights. A good craft knife costs £20, pliers are about £6, a fixed-wheel glass cutter costs around £10 and a decent soldering iron about £35. Add to that a strong piece of plywood for working on, some felt and polishing tools and you have all you need to get started.
When James talks about his trade there is a hint of sadness. He is concerned that, although he has no shortage of students, it has so far proved impossible to find an apprentice to carry on the trade.
"I would love to someone to continue the business when I hang up my tools, but there seems to be little interest from young people starting off in their careers," he said.
And, in a way, that is where the courses come in. James is clearly enjoying his teaching as much as actually building the lead lights himself and he would much rather spend a day showing people the tricks of the trade than go out in the van around Hertfordshire repairing broken lead light windows or working on his own at the workbench.
"It is an art and people are more and more aware of the beauty of lead lights. It has already become a rare specialist skill and that is why it is so enjoyable being able to teach others how to do it even though most people are more interested in creating domestic decorations and gifts. They are the same techniques but applied for a different reason. The principals can be adapted to make almost anything," he says, obviously glad to be able to keep the art alive.
For anyone interested in taking part in one of the courses and finding out when the next workshop is planned, James can be contacted on 01727 828313.
The Lead Light Company is easy to find. Just head for Coursers Farm, off Coursers Road, Colney Heath. Once there, follow signs to the Flint Barn.
If you want to see what it is all about before signing up for a workshop you can attend one of the evening demonstrations. Again James will advise when the next demonstration is being held.
The Lead Light Companyís shop is open 9-5 Wednesday, Thursday and Friday and from 9-2 on Sundays. Full details are on the company's website.
This feature also appears in the March 2003 edition of the Hertfordshire Life magazine.