Shining a Leadlight on a Dying Art

Updated: Aug 10, 2021

“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work – and the only way to do great work is to love what you do.” - Steve Jobs.

This much borrowed quote from Mr Jobs certainly applies to local resident Mark Wilson, who has adapted his man cave into a workshop for his passion: handcrafting stunning Leadlight creations and restorations.

Some readers may recognise Mark, otherwise known as That Leadlight Guy, as his business has been established in Port Macquarie for about 12 years since he moved here from Canberra. Mark previously worked in the motor trade and now, being fortunate enough to retire, works part-time for the Port Macquarie Chamber of Commerce and part-time for himself, which has allowed him to return to his true passion of designing, manufacturing and installing lead light windows.

Mark started his trade working part time for a small family business before he left school after completing his HSC. Upon leaving school he went full time into the retail shop and also taught adults stained glass and lead lighting hobby courses.

He learned his trade from the ground up, as a 15-year-old sweeping the floors and stocking the shelves in the retail shop. He learnt the craft from the owners and his love for lead lighting stemmed from there.

Having a natural knack for the art, he enjoys the creative side, coupled with the technical aspects of the construction and the craftsmanship involved.

Understanding Glass

“There are a few things you’ve got to be capable of doing,” Mark told us. “One is handling the glass and understanding what glass is. The other is being good with your hands and having excellent eye hand coordination. You need to have very good, very sensitive fingers and very good feeling in your hands as to what’s going on with the glass. The movements in your hands need to be less than millimeters whilst applying pressure so that something moves only a miniscule amount at any one time.”

Mark added that a special type of glass is used that is sold by various outfits around the country and used by craftsmen – it is not a material that you could go down to your local hardware store and buy. The lead itself is also especially made for lead lighting. It’s not like the lead in a pencil, it’s like the lead used to make sinkers for fishing.

Mark is currently working on a very interesting project for a customer who has bought an old church in rural New South Wales that he is restoring to live in as his residence. Mark has been commissioned to design and install lead light in the windows. From the initial client consultation, Mark drew up some ideas which have resulted in the design that is being created. Colour selection was done by the customer, a crucial point as it is they who will be living with the windows day after day, Mark told us.

Straight Break

“Designs for lead light are a little bit particular - you can’t, unfortunately, just draw anything you want, because glass will only break in a certain manner,” he said. “Contrary to what you see in the movies, it is physically impossible to use a big circle cutter and pop a piece of glass out. You have to have access to the backside of the glass for the process to work. Glass breaks straight.
“The trick is to design necessary lines for the lead light into the drawing so that when people look at the window, they really don’t see them,” Mark added.

Consequently, he works out the design to scale, has the clients brief and colour choices, and the black lines in the drawing are a couple of millimeters thick to represent the lead space. Once the design is approved by the client, off he goes to work his magic and bring the concept to life.

The first step in the build process is to cut the pieces of glass to fit in between the lines of the pattern. All the individual pieces are numbered from left to right. The window Mark is currently working on has 70 pieces of glass in one panel alone. The focal point of the glass is a dove and the feathers are to be all different colours, so this is a fairly tricky process, hence the numbering of the pieces. Different colours are also designated a letter of the alphabet - in this piece alone there are 4 different blues.

Tools of the trade are custom made for lead lighting. The glass cutter has a tiny wheel in one end and is made of extremely hard steel, is very sharp and is lubricated with oil.

‘Glass Is like a Bar of Chocolate’

“Glass is a strange object, essentially still a liquid in form so the trick is you don’t actually cut it. It’s like water, but not like ice, you don’t physically cut your way through the glass,” Mark advises.

A tiny little nick is made on the surface of the glass, which provides a line of weakness, and then it’s suggested that the glass breaks down that line of weakness.

“It’s kind of like a bar of chocolate,” says Mark. “You’ve got your ‘V’ notches cut in the chocolate, and you snap the chocolate on those V lines. That’s pretty much what is done with the glass, except the V that we’re cutting is much, much, much, much smaller in scale than a chocolate bar.

“That’s why you can’t get the glass cutter to go around really sharp inside corners,” Mark adds. “If you’ve ever seen a broken window or broken windscreen, you’ll notice the lines on the break stay straight - glass breaks in a straight line because that’s the path of least resistanc