The Copper Foil Method for Tiffany Studios Lamps
Tiffany stained glass lampshades were a marvel of their time — not only for their extraordinary colors and beauty, but also for their innovative construction process. Read on to learn about the history of the copper foil stained glass method and how it works.
What Is the Copper Foil Technique?
The “copper foil technique” is a process of soldering stained glass pieces together with fine copper rods. It was developed as a lighter, stronger and simpler way to fuse stained glass for Tiffany lampshades. The steps are as follows:
- Draw a pattern for the lamp on heavy cardboard and write a number and glass color on the pattern piece.
- Trace the pattern onto the glass, allowing the pieces to be cut and ground to their proper shape.
- Clean the glass pieces so they can apply copper foil to the edges.
- Solder the edges firmly together.
This strategy gives the lamps a more delicate look and allows more room for detailed designs. Foiled glass lampshades are significantly stronger than leaded ones, enabling larger panels, finer details and double glazing.
Tiffany lamps previously used heavy lead rods, which gave them a heftier appearance and didn’t allow for complex curves and patterns. Additionally, the copper foil method didn’t require any cement to stiffen the artwork, unlike the traditional lead method.
While effective, the copper foil process was incredibly labor-intensive for Tiffany Studios’ artisans. This is one reason genuine Tiffany lamps are so highly valued. Today, the copper foil technique has been further refined and it uses superior self-adhesive and higher-quality copper, allowing for easier application and enhanced design.
History of the Copper Foil Technique
Tiffany glass lamps are among the most stylish, elegant contributions to the world of furnishings and lighting. They started with Louis Comfort Tiffany, an American artist and designer, who was born into a family that operated a famous jewelry firm called Tiffany and Company.
Tiffany rejected the widely known Victorian Rocco style and turned to a more organic technique — Art Nouveau — instead. Inspired by the natural world and geometrics, Art Nouveau aimed to escape the previously popular electric, historical styles.
Tiffany pursued free-flowing designs of natural objects. He experimented with the artistic opportunities of reflected light, prompting him to turn to stained glass manufacture.
In 1885, he founded his own company — Tiffany Studios — where he and his staff employed this stained glass technique. Their efforts became a booming success, and Louis became a leader in stained glass production. Using colored glass at his own factory, Tiffany focused on elaborate designs in windows and lampshades.
The use of electric lamps allowed the colors to shine more vividly. However, crafting these lampshades called for a lighter and sturdier method to bond the glass elements together — thus introducing the copper foil method.
He fitted thin strips of copper to the edges of glass pieces for stronger, finer and more seamless lampshade construction. This technique freed up space for more intricate and imaginative designs.
How to Use the Copper Foil Overlay Technique
Attaching stained glass pieces with copper foil can be tedious and time-consuming, but it’s fairly simple once you’ve practiced and mastered the steps. If you’re interested in trying out the copper foil method yourself, a few tips and steps can make the process more straightforward.
First, you’ll need the following supplies:
- Liquid flux
- A soldering iron
- Solid solder wire
- A flux applicator or q-tips
- A slightly damp sponge or rag
- Gloves, especially if you’re using leaded solder
Follow these six steps once you’ve gathered everything you need.
1. Position Your Glass Pieces for Soldering
Start by cutting the glass pieces from the pattern with a glass cutter, then wrap the edges in copper foil. Assemble and stake the pieces together — this will secure them tightly during the soldering process.
2. Apply Flux to the Seams and Joints
Apply a small amount of flux to the joints and seams using a flux brush. Try not to add excessive flux — it can splatter during heating and cause bubbling in the seams.
3. Heat the Iron to a Solder-Melting Temperature
Next, turn on your soldering iron. Heat it to a high enough temperature — about 700-850 degrees Fahrenheit for leaded solder and 800-1,000 degrees for unleaded solder — to flow the molten solder into the seams. Periodically wipe the iron tip with a damp sponge or rag, re-tinning the tip with fresh solder.
4. Iron the Seam
Apply the solder along the flat side of the iron tip, then touch your iron lightly to the copper foil seam. You may hear a sizzle, then see a small solder puddle form just below the tip. Move the iron gently across the copper foil seam while applying solder along the tip. Try not to stop and start while ironing.
5. Watch Your Solder Seam
Be sure to keep an eye on your solder seam. If it appears flat, try slowing down and applying a little more solder. Conversely, you can try speeding up if the solder is pouring out too fast. Turn it over once you’ve completed one side of the piece. The other side requires only a small amount of flux at the seams. Then, you can solder as you did on the previous side.
6. Touch It Up
Use the “touch-and-lift” method for any spots or areas that may need to be touched up. Grab your iron and touch down until the tip touches the glass. You should see the solder melting on each side of the iron tip — lift the iron up when this happens. You can also do this along the seam.
Wipe and re-tin the tip before turning off the soldering iron. Unplug it and put it away. Try to remove the soldering tip periodically to prevent permanent flux corrosion.
Soldering copper for stained glass requires time, patience and practice, but it’s simple when you get the hang of it. Of course, if you’d rather forgo the foiling process and enjoy copper foil stained glass in its glory, you can always check Fontaine’s Auction Gallery to see if any authentic Tiffany Studios lamps are available for bidding.
Share the Beauty of Tiffany Glass Lamps From Fontaine’s Auction Gallery
Today, Tiffany stained glass lamps are highly beloved and collectible around the world. If you’re looking to add an authentic Tiffany Studios lamp to your antique collection — or spread the charm to another buyer by selling your current one — Fontaine’s Auction Gallery is your source for gorgeous antiques from exclusive brands.
We host various antique auctions with multiple ways to buy, including bidding in person, online or over the phone. We also offer absentee bidding, allowing an auctioneer to bid on your behalf.
Offering years of industry knowledge and numerous opportunities to secure pieces from your favorite brands, Fontaine’s is the place to turn when buying and selling Tiffany lamps. Check out our upcoming auctions or request an auction estimate for your Tiffany Studios lamp today!