Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Slow Work of Leaded Windows

Mark Walton is not the person to call if a wayward baseball comes through your living room window. Unless the window was leaded-glass with a custom Art Deco design—or bore your family's coat of arms—or was made of imported French glass. Then, call Mr. Walton.

A Cut Above

For more than 40 years, Mr. Walton, 62, has been making everything from paperweights to Christmas ornaments. But he is best known for his lead glass window—those that are designed by cutting glass into patterns and then putting the pieces together with metal strips called cames. Mr. Walton's clients live in Los Angeles, Paris and Kuwait. He restored the windows in a Silicon Valley house designed by architect Julia Morgan and made custom windows for members of the Saudi royal family. One client who wanted a Porsche immortalized in a window brought the car to the studio to be sure that Mr. Walton got the right shade of blue. Most of the homes Mr. Walton works on are in the 30,000-square-foot range; it's not unusual for Mr. Walton to spend two years on a project.

"There's no one better," says Los Angeles-based interior designer Tom Allardyce, of Hendrix Allardyce Design. Over the past 15 years, Mr. Allardyce, who says he appreciates Mr. Walton's use of materials like handblown glass sheets, and Mr. Walton have collaborated on more than 10 projects. They include a Venetian-style manor and a home in the style of the British Raj, where the front doors have leaded-glass panels set into a black-stained mahogany frame.

"He is able to work anything we divine and some of the designs are quite intricate," says Mr. Allardyce, who says he doesn't use any other glass artist. "There's never a problem."

The cost of Mr. Walton's work depends on the designs and can range from $285 a square foot to more than $600 a square foot. While he does have competition, the number of art-glass studios is shrinking as much of the work has moved to China because of its lower labor costs.

Mr. Walton works mostly out of a modest cottage he built in the backyard of his home in Campbell, Calif., an hour south of San Francisco. "I just wanted a place that was quiet and out of the way," he says. There is a drill press, a cutting table (where he cuts the glass) and a lead table (where he stretches the strips of lead to make them stronger and straighter), a deer head that his son bought at a flea market and two surfboards (he made one of them). His wife and three of his seven children work with him.

The process starts with the design and color boards. Mr. Walton draws the pattern in heavy black ink on white paper. While he uses rulers and straight edges, he draws every design by hand. "This is what separates us from other people," he says. A single window might involve a thousand pieces and curves of different shapes and sizes, all of which he cuts freehand using a glass cutter dipped in oil to lubricate it.

Next he "leads" the window, meaning he assembles the pieces together with the cames, the thin metal strips used to hold the pieces together, and solders the joints. Mr. Walton cements each window with a compound to waterproof it, then buffs it. Bevel work—cutting the edges of a piece of glass to create an angled surface—is done in a separate space on the side of the house, under the watchful eye of a taxidermy wildebeest.

Custom lead glass are for the patient: A single one can take two to three months. Mr. Walton has been working with clients in Silicon Valley for two months on an arched living-room window to reflect the design of their antique fireplace from Belgium. "The owner wanted the window to give the house character," says Mr. Walton, who looked at other houses in the area to be sure this one would stand out. The result is a clear, leaded window with beveled and textured glass that gives it an old-world look. The textured glass lets the light through while providing privacy. "Every panel was made to fit a curve in the opening," he says, making it a more challenging fit.

For a castle in Las Vegas, construction took four years and involved 250 windows and 15 doors, as well as skylights and cabinets. It's common to spend two years on a single home, as there might be 80 to 100 windows. One house had more than 40 cabinet doors, each with a different geometric design.

Mr. Walton was born and raised in Campbell. His father hoped he would take over the family contracting business. But Mr. Walton went to art school at nearby West Valley College and hoped to become a sculptor, until he traveled to West Virginia and was intrigued by what he saw at a glass factory. He came home and started working in glass. Soon he left college to work as a glass artist full time. In 1972, he started Walton Art Glass Studios.

He started out doing mostly bevel work and then branched out into lamps and windows. In 1990 he began working in hot glass, making paperweights and the handblown glass pumpkins that he is known for locally as he has a show every October. But he focuses on windows.

"You can't water yourself down," says Mr. Walton. "If you want to be really good at something you have to just focus on that."