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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 resistance. However, curves can be cut, you just have to be careful doing it.”

Glass cutting, a major component of lead lighting, is just a matter of learning and experience. The glass is cut starting from the very edge of the piece of glass that you’re working on, maintaining an even pressure all the way across and a constant speed which you don’t stop until you get to the end. When done correctly you will make a zipper noise.

If you break the glass you have to start again, which can mean a time consuming process. The window Mark is currently working on will take him about two and a half hours to cut out the glass in the pattern.

Construction Time

Next step in the build process is construction meaning Mark retreats to his workbench. The pattern for the design is laid out and a frame is laid out in the form of edging strips to hold the shape in the right place on the outside edges.

Now the fun part starts by assembling the numbered and alphabetised glass pieces as per the pattern. Lead is laid between the individual pieces, starting from the outside edge. The lead is very flexible and bends easily so fingers can be used at this stage. The main thing to remember at this stage of construction is to always think about what is going to support the piece of glass that you are putting in next.

The glass slides into the channel of the lead strip which is cut when required with a nifty looking tool that resembles wire cutters but with a very sharp blade which is specifically designed for cutting lead. A lead hammer, that amazingly is soft enough that it won’t shatter the glass, is used to gently tap the glass into place and all is held together at this stage by nails until it’s ready to solder. The construction or assembly phase takes roughly 2 to 3 hours depending on the intricacy and size of the pattern.

Jigsaw Puzzle

The process of lead lighting is very much like assembling a big jigsaw puzzle.

Working with lead isn’t ideal as it can be toxic. It becomes dangerous when ingested so the key is to continually wash your hands throughout the process. Mark told us that he washes his hands every 15 or 20 minutes.

That isn’t it, however, as there are still two more steps to the process. Next, a 80 watt soldering iron is used to melt the joins of the lead together and the nails are removed. Essentially, a skeleton has been created holding the glass in place securely.

The next step is a messy job. Using a special blend of putty, a mixture of calcium carbonate (basically chalk dust), and linseed oil, the space between the glass and the leadlight is filled, like grouting between tiles. The putty dries black and is quite strong - it is the muscle that holds the window together and ensures that the window is waterproof.

Once the messy job with the putty is completed and dry, the whole window surface needs to be brushed off ensuring that there is no trace of putty left on the lead. All is then left to sit and dry for four days.

The final stage before installation is polishing. This is done the good old fashioned way using a brush, one very much like a shoe polish brush. A few hours of polishing and the window comes up a treat, bright and shiny and ready to be installed in its new home.

More than Windows, a Passion Revisited…

What else can be made using the craft of leadlight, we ask Mark. The simple answer is lots of things. Mark explained how he makes Tiffany lampshades and also jewellery boxes as a three dimensional work using a copper foil technique.

Practising the craft since he was 15, with a 20 year break where he didn’t touch it, Mark is in his element now that he is back doing what he loves.

To check out Mark’s work just Google That Leadlight Guy or have a browse of his Facebook page where you will see examples of his commissioned works and some of the installations. Every new project has its own challenges and its own intricacies.

They say you don’t work a day if you love the work you do. This is so obvious when you watch Mark in action, a smile permanently etched on his face whilst creating his masterpieces.

Leadlighting is a dying art. There are many hobbyists, but there aren’t many practising the craft at the professional level. In fact, Mark is one of only a few between Newcastle and Bellingen who is currently hand making glass Leadlight. The sad part is that the craft is not a recognised trade and the only way you can learn is from someone that is doing it. And as it’s not a trade, apprentices can’t be taken on.

Leadlighting is an age old craft that has been utilised for over a thousand years. Its origins stem from the Roman and Byzantine windows that were made of thin sheets of alabaster set in frames of wood or wrought iron. Many late 19th and early 20th century commercial buildings made extensive use of leadlighting, particularly in shopping arcades.

The late 20th century has seen a popular revival of the craft, and finer products in the 21st century continue to display a mastery of the traditional technical skills combined with an awareness of design trends and original creative artistry.

Mark is very proud that he has a particular skill that enables him to produce something unique that very few people can. He feels very fortunate that he was able to learn his craft in his younger years and has been able to pick it up again later on in life and run with it. He is available for leadlight and stained glass repairs, restorations and new commission work now on the Mid North Coast.


Ph: 0412 221 204


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