Your hobby should be a relaxing time for you to escape your day to day stress. When you're working on your stained glass project, you should love what you're doing and not be frustrated by having to re-cut pieces or be worried about wasting glass because something broke the wrong way. Building your glass cutting skills will help a lot to ease the stress.
All too often, there is a hesitance to cutting glass and I can understand why. From the time we're little, we're taught to fear it. "Oh, don't touch that! You might break it." And now all of a sudden as stained glass hobbyists you're expected to just get over that fear? Put on a brave face and march proudly forward? It's really not that easy! I know. I started out that way too. But just as you were taught to fear breaking glass, you can also learn to get comfortable with it and actually enjoy it.
Any glass crafter knows that cutting glass is nothing like cutting paper. Paper cutting allows you to start wherever you want and finish wherever you want. To cut a circle, you simply pick a place to start and you can cut it out all in one shot. Glass, on the other hand can be fickle even if you understand the principles of why glass breaks the way it does.
Glass cutters are made and used more like a wedge than a knife. By running the carbide cutting wheel across the smooth surface of the glass, with the right amount of pressure, a “score” is formed.
The score is meant to be more or less, a path that we use to direct the glass where we want it to break. But being the stubborn character that glass can be, it likes to set the rules and will only “behave” nicely, when we do things the way it wants us to. Knowing these rules can make cutting glass so much easier.
Build consistency in your glass cutting
I’ll start by outlining these strategies from the beginning of the process. You may think that some items on this list aren’t directly related to using the cutter, so they aren’t really all that important when it comes to cutting glass. That may in part be true to the fundamentals of glass cutting. But if you’re looking to improve your consistency, these seemingly basic things can make a world of difference.
1. Start with clean glass
Now I’m just as guilty as the next person for having pulled a sheet of glass out of the rack and not worried about cleaning it. But if you’ve had glass around for quite a number of years, you’ll notice that it actually develops a greasy, grimy film on it despite being stored away from your kitchen.
If you want to ensure the best chance of consistent contact of the cutter wheel on the glass, you’re better off to clean it with soap and water or a glass cleaner. It really does make a difference. Plus, you wont kill your Sharpies as quickly from the greasy build up you’re tracing onto.
2. Use good lighting
Such a simple strategy but you might not realize how poor your lighting is until you add more light to the area.
The way I used to have my workbenches set up, the primary source of light was behind me but there were many other lights about the studio. I didn’t realize that I was casting small shadows until I brought a desk lamp over to us on that bench while painting glass.
Sometimes we get so comfortable with our setup, we overlook the simple things.
3. Use a cutter that's comfortable
There are many different styles and manufacturers of glass cutters. If you have carpal tunnel, arthritis, weakness or some other sort of condition that affects your hands, you’ll want to be extra aware of your hand and arms positions while using the cutter.
If there is a glass studio nearby, ask if they have any cutters you can try before you buy one. There is no way to know which type will work best for every person.
I’m a firm believe that if you’re hand and wrist are comfortable, you have a higher chance of making solid and accurate scores.
4. Always cut on the smoothest side of the glass
So you found a beautiful glass that you absolutely love. That’s great! There are so many stunning colours out there, but if you’re new to cutting glass, you’ll also want to take into account how much texture it has.
Heavily textured glass can be more tricky to work with but it doesn’t mean that all of them will be more difficult to cut.
In order to run the cutter smoothly across the glass, you need to make consistent contact with it. If your cutter is bouncing up and down as though you are skiing through moguls, chances are that you probably aren’t able to keep an even pressure as your hand and cutter go up and down over the hills and valleys.
If you happen to have a heavily textured glass, you’ll always want to cut on the smoother. This means that if you want the texture to be facing the good side of your finished stained glass piece, then you simply have to turn the pattern piece and the glass over and trace the flipped pattern piece onto the back side of the glass (the smoother side.)
5. Cut your template pattern accurately
Having all the glass cutting skills in the world won’t help you if you have poorly cut pattern pieces to trace from. If you’re of the method of cutting your pattern out on paper or card stock and using that as a template to trace onto your glass, take your time cutting the paper pattern. You have little chance of cutting the glass to a perfect fit if the pattern piece you’re tracing isn’t the right size to begin with.
6. Take your time to trace the pattern
This might seem super simple, but it might surprise you just how many people rush through this step. If you aren’t careful, the template could slip and you could inadvertently change the shape of your tracing. If you have trouble holding the template while tracing it, you could try using a piece of rolled up tape underneath to help steady the pattern piece.
7. Tracing close to the edge of the glass
If you’re conscious of placing your pattern template very close to the edge of the glass, this tip’s for you.
Removing a narrow sliver of glass is extremely difficult. I know you might be tracing your pattern close to the edge of the sheet of glass to save on waste glass. It’s a very good practice be conscious of not wasting glass but keep in mind that you might be making things harder on yourself than necessary.
If you want to use the very edge of the glass because it’s straight and your pattern piece has a straight edge, go for it! But if you have a sliver that you need to remove, make sure to give yourself no less than 1/4 inch of space to the edge. This will leave enough bulk in the piece you want to remove, that you should be able to break it off clean.
8. Use cutting oil
There are so many schools of thought for using cutting oil, I’ll let you decide for yourself which one works best for you.
Have you ever noticed on the back end of your cutter, there’s a little cover that unscrews to reveal a hollow center the length of your cutter? That is there to hold oil. But before you go and fill it up, let me explain a little more.
When I first heard that you could fill the cutter, I mistakenly thought that meant that I should fill it. I was told that tightening the cap or loosening it slightly would allow for faster or slower flow of the oil as I was scoring glass. I’ve always used good quality cutters but anytime I filled one, I regretted it deeply.
Don’t misunderstand me, there were no issues with the glass cutting itself but once I startrf handling it and using breaking pliers, I had a smeared mess of oil all over the glass, the tools and my hands. And guess what? If you miss cleaning any of it up, your copper foil wont stick! Yes, I learned that one the hard way too.
Now please don’t think that oil is a bad thing. A lubricant is actually quite necessary to keep your tool working efficiently.
- It helps keep the carbide wheel turning freely.
- It helps to remove and prevent build-up of any little glass particles around the wheel.
So here’s what I do. I took a small mason jar and cut a piece of soft rag to stuff in the bottom. Then I poured some oil into the rag. You don’t want to float the rag in the oil. You just need enough to dampen it. Then you can stand your cutter in the jar with the wheel end on the oil soaked rag. Your cutter has a soft, cushy place to stay until the next time you need it and the oil helps keep it conditioned. You’ll find this especially helpful if you work in a shed or garage. I’ve had students mention that their cutters have gotten a tad rusty until they started using this storage technique.
Then, each time I pull it out to use it, I drip a little oil onto the wheel, roll it around on the palm of my hand so that it is ready for use but doesn’t leave smears of oil all over my project.
9. Should you push or pull the cutter?
You’ll find that this is another area where people vary. When I’m teaching, I encourage students to try it both ways and see which is more comfortable. That being said, I do believe that pushing the cutter away from you has many more benefits than pulling it.
When I’m glass cutting, I like to “lock” my elbow against my side before starting the score. I can judge the pressure better when I work close to my body. As I push the cutter away from me, I can extend my arm at the elbow to finish the score. I get a more even pressure this way.
Also, when you’re pushing the cutter, you can see the notch in the tip where the wheel sits. Use this notch as a guide and follow it directly in line with your traced pattern. Your score will be exactly where it’s supposed to be!
Try following the line when you pull the cutter. It’s near impossible as your hand is blocking the view of the trace line. You end up contorting yourself to be able to see what you’re doing. Glass cutting is not part of a circus act, although many people who have never seen it done before become just as enthusiastic a spectator!
10. Angles make a difference
Hold your cutter perpendicular to the glass. When the handle of your cutter leans left or right while you’re cutting, once you break the score, the glass will tend to have that same angle along its edge. This mean that the front and back sides of the glass are different in size and this will affect the way the pieces fit together.
11. Stand while scoring
You need solid, fluid movements that glide your cutter smoothly from one edge of the glass to the other. When standing, you're able to move your whole upper body freely. This allows more movement of your arm and shoulder resulting in more even pressure and an easier time getting around curves. These more fluid scores will definitely improve your glass cutting.
12. The right amount of pressure
Remember, the objective is to score the glass, not mash it. Learning the right amount of pressure to use for glass cutting is tough and it takes time. Listen for clicking and popping sounds or something that sounds similar to a zipper.
A good score should look like there is a piece of hair sitting on the glass. When you have a whitish score line or it appears chipped, you’re pressing too hard. When you lighten your score, it will break more consistently.
But... be sure to use enough pressure. Sometimes when new hobbyists arrive for their first lesson, they are too light and timid with their cutters. This means that they aren’t able to get a complete score from one edge to another. If you cannot see your score at all, you need to practice using a heavier hand with your cutter.
13. Glass generally wants to break in a straight line
Use this knowledge to your benefit. Trying to force a very sharp curve in one score is not going to give you the break you want.
Sometimes, we just need to make a few more breaks with less curve in each. This way, we can create the shape we want without accidentally causing a break to happen in the wrong place.
14. Practice makes a more confident maker
As with anything, it takes time to learn new skills. If you’re new or still struggle with glass cutting, practice short cuts of just a few inches. Ones that are straight or slightly curvy are perfect for getting the feel for what you’re doing.
Once you’ve got the hang of that, then you can add longer scores to your practice.
I spend on average 40 minutes with beginner student letting them practice basic glass cutting skills on window glass. Give yourself the opportunity to make mistakes, this is how you’ll learn.
Window glass is the best thing to practice on as there’s less stress over the cost of materials. You might even be able to get it free from old windows or even window retailers. Many of them have so much scrap window glass, you might even be able to score some for free!
If you’re more experienced at glass cutting, try to push yourself (at times.) You need to push outside your comfort zone so that in time, you’ll be able to do even more. Being “safe” and not pushing yourself can stifle your ability to learn and master this essential skill.
I have been unable to access any of the links on your website.
Thank you for letting me know that you experienced difficulties Kenda. I’m sorry things weren’t working on your first attempt to use the site. I recently moved the site over to WordPress which is completely new to me, and I must have overlooked a couple of settings. I’ve since double checked the links and reconnected the video for download. Everything should be working now. Please let me know if I can be of further assistance.
Great info on cutting and the reasons why. Things are done certain ways.
Now a video? Again a great blog.
Thank you Hank. I’m glad you’re finding these posts helpful. There are many more articles and videos to come!
Thank you- great information
Thank you I found you’r tips on cutting to be pretty much what I have practiced and found to work best for me including pushing the cutter away from me. I did not know to gauge the force of my cut buy looking at the chips along the scored line. Thank you for the tips. Bill
Thank you much for these tips.
I am a novice so appreciate the great advice of others.
It’s my pleasure Jane. I’m glad you found this helpful.
I am working on my fourth project and enjoy reading all your articles. I have tried to download your soldering video 3 or more times now and get nothing. I would love to learn to solder better. Thank you and God Bless.
Hi Sharron. I’m so glad you’re finding the articles helpful! Your fourth project probably means that you caught the glass bug 😉 I’ve sent you a private email with the link to the video. Let me know if you need anything else.
Thank you! I have just started making mosaics with glass. My first project I cut small random shapes. This project I’ve been trying to make more precise shapes and fit them together. It has been difficult and frustrating! Your article addresses so many of the challenges I’ve experienced….like oil everywhere! I love your suggestion of taking a bunch of time and a piece of junk glass to practice, make mistakes, and learn on. I am going to do that. Making mosaics is fun and I don’t want it to be frustrating. Thank you for sharing your glass wisdom!
Thanks for sharing a bit about where you are with your hobby. It’s always great to know that we all share similar experiences, challenging ones and joyful ones (like the ones we get when a piece is finished and we can stand back and appreciate our work!) Glass cutting can be challenging and that why I will be launching my first online course next week called “Glass Cutting Essentials”. Feel free to hop on the mailing list or check back for updates. Happy crafting!
Thank you for the useful tips! I’m an aggressive glass cutter so your advise has come in handy.
Thanks so much, Andrea
I’m glad the information is helpful to you.
I’m in interested in your next publication and all that are posted or in the making. Your making is each so easy to understand
Thank you! I’m glad you’re enjoying the articles and the explanations, Evelyn.
Samantha, ești un excelent pedagog. Putini oameni pot sa explice atât de frumos, pe înțelesul tuturor!
That’s very kind of you to say, Geanina. Thank you!
These are great tips, however I have been cutting quite a bit of streaky and it wants to go it’s own way. I feel like I’ve made a good score the length of the glass—about 12inches—and it won’t break along the full line. Any tips?
Hello Linda. A couple of years ago I was working with clear baroque glass to make 10 kitchen cabinet doors and four full size French doors, and the stuff just wouldn’t cut for me. What a pain! I swear it was the batch because I’ve cut other pieces before and since without a problem. I still have one sheet from that batch and there it sits…not sure if I want to go there again! Lol. Anyway, sometimes it’s the glass but the thing to be certain of is that you are scoring on the smooth side in a smooth and fluid motion and that your cutting wheel is making a good score the whole length of it. If you’re trying to snap a very narrow piece (maybe 1/4″) off of a full sheet, that can also make a difference. Try cutting wider strips and then cutting them smaller.
I did stain glass about 25 years ago, but stopped when we started having a family and having to move for different jobs. I’m now wanting to start up again, but I’ve forgotten a lot of what I use to know and there is no local places to go and take lessons like in the past. Any suggestions on how to get back up to speed again? Thanks!!!
Hello John. It’s wonderful to hear that you’re getting back into your glass hobby! I have an online membership club for glass crafters which might be a good fit for you. There are member exclusive trainings, Q&A sessions and depending on the level you choose, courses and such too. Visit MakeStainedGlass.com to see what it’s about and feel free to contact me with any questions you might have about the club.
I am new to glass cutting for mosaics. I am practicing, but sometimes while trying to cut a long narrow piece, it snaps in the center. My thought is: maybe my surface that I cut on isn’t correct. I use a table, covered with a towel and then newspaper. Could the towel make it too flexible?
Thank you for your response,
Thanks for your question, Janice. There are two possibilities of what could be happening. 1) Yes, your cutting surface may be too flexible. I always cut on a solid surface. Make sure that there are no glass crumbs on the table surface by wiping with a dust broom and then lay the glass right onto the table when scoring. 2) Thin pieces tend to want to break part way down. The way to help reduce this risk is to not try and break a super skinny piece from a large sheet. Make an additional break to cut a piece off of the sheet that is twice the size as the skinny piece. Once you have that piece separate from the rest, you’ll find that you can split it in half much easier than trying to break it off the whole sheet.
thank you for the clear and concise explanations
Thank you for sharing your knowledge
I also was frustrated when my glass would not follow my scores. I learned that cold glass can be fickle while warm glass seems to be more ‘obedient.’ During the winter (working in my basement studio), I use an inexpensive space heater and warm up my glass before scoring it. What a difference! And I had fewer scrap pieces (to be used in another project, sometime).
Thanks for the great advice.
Wow, great article Samantha! I bet you are an awesome teacher. You explained glass cutting perfectly. Not everyone is so gifted. Thank you for taking the time to present this information. It is extremely helpful to me as a beginner.
What state are you in? Just curious, maybe someday I will live near a wonderful teacher. I live in Washington State, North of Seattle.
Thanks again, Therese
Thank you for your kind words, Therese! I actually live in Ontario, Canada.