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Fitting the pieces

by: Vern Uyetake, Susan Nachtrab places stained glass, jewels and beveled glass upon a piece of paper outlining her design. She will next border the design with zinc and then pass it off for her husband, Jim, to solder the pieces together.

What is a stained glass window, really?

A decorative picture?

Something you see at church?

A family heirloom?

A screen for privacy?

The perfect gift?

A movable memory?

To Jim and Susan Nachtrab of Lake Oswego, stained glass works are expressions of color, shape and design - built from a love for the craft.

'They create themselves,' Susan Nachtrab said.

The Nachtrab's 1938 home off Country Club Road is not only a place where they raised their two children, but also a place where they fostered their stained glass business.

The duo started creating stained glass works in 1980, but it was when they moved into their current house in 1987 that Susan Nachtrab really got to organize herself and lifestyle around the craft.

'I'm organized because I don't have much room,' Nachtrab said, walking downstairs into the basement studio.

The space opens to reveal an office, wall of fish tanks and sitting area. The majority of the space, however, resembles an art classroom. The room has bright overhead lights, an oversized table, shelves with neatly labeled glass-making materials, cubbies for projects Susan is working on and pieces ready for Jim to solder together.

'Art has always been around me. I've always been 'arty,'' Nachtrab said. 'I couldn't decide if I was going to do art, music or sports.'

One basement wall is dedicated to Nachtrab's 'former life,' as she said, as a horseback rider. A neatly organized desk serves as Jim's 'current life' as a corporate banker.

'When we met he was 'zippo' on the 'art-o,'' Nachtrab said. 'We didn't do crafts or any art.'

Stained glass projects evolved over the years and the couple now sells their work at Saturday markets in the northwest, through word of mouth and referrals and their Web site. It truly is a team effort. Susan designs, cuts and builds each panel.

'And Jim just gravitated toward the soldering - taking the solder and melting it on the lead, forming smooth, clean lines,' Nachtrab said. 'I can't think of anybody that can solder better than my husband, honestly.'

Forming a creation

Nachtrab begins her designs on butcher paper - either tracing an existing window to show her the spaces she has to design within or by designing with a clean slate. She then cuts the glass to fit within the shape. For a piece she's currently working on, Nachtrab took zinc strips and then enclosed her design, forming the border.

'It'll give it the strength of a wood frame without the cost of a wood frame,' Nachtrab said.

Nachtrab uses lead came to fit between her glass pieces and then it's Jim's turn to take over and permanently fit the puzzle together.

'He solders, finishes and cleans each piece,' she said.

Solder is a metal alloy that is melted to create a fused joint between metal pieces. All intersections of the glass project must be soldered together to keep the work together. Their lead came construction differs from that used for copper foil.

Nachtrab said she prefers to work with lead came because it is easier to cut, reducing the time to make each piece. Other metals have to be cut with a table saw but lead came can be cut using lead nippers, like wire cutters but with a flat edge. Lead came is soft in its pure form and melts at relatively low temperatures.

'And it gives it a cleaner, more traditional look,' she said. 'Jim takes his time with soldering to make sure each joint has a smooth, clean and slightly domed surface.'

The Nachtrabs also work with brass and copper for some pieces, but she said they are harder to work with.

On the Nachtrab's Web site, most stained glass pieces run a couple hundred dollars, with the price varying according to materials and intricacy. Pieces that hang freely within a window are usually priced less than a piece that needs to fit exactly into the opening in someone's front door, for example.

Over the past few years, Nachtrab said the price of metals has skyrocketed.

'I used to spend $45 for a 50 pound box of lead six or seven years ago,' Nachtrab said. 'Now it's $175.'

But one thing that hasn't faltered, is her love of impressionistic art. Nachtrab's grandfather was William Griffith, a noted California oil and pastel impressionist painter in the 1920s. Many of his paintings are hung within the home.

'That's a Nachtrab'

How does Nachtrab describe her style?

'Making due with things I have. I came across this frame for $20, spent six hours cleaning it up and getting it ready to use. (Then), I see shapes,' she said. 'We've got a three-quarter horse shoe frame here, and I don't know what happens, but things start to click in my brain. I see ivy twining it's way toward the top and I see buds coming up.'

Stained glass works can take anywhere from 20 minutes to three years to design, Nachtrab said. Some things she can arrange in three hours and her husband can solder in 45 minutes.

'Now, that depends on how much laundry I have to do, who forgot their lunch at school, if I'm making dinner tonight, how much the phone rang - and the dog,' she said. 'Life gets in the way sometimes.'

This time of year - after the Saturday market season and holiday rush - Nachtrab said she enjoys wearing her 'jammies' and working at home.

'But, if I don't get the job done, it doesn't get done,' she said. 'I can't call in sick - but I can sleep in.'

Nachtrab has a degree in secondary art education and said she enjoys when people at markets ask her about her work.

'Craftsman (designs) are really popular right now,' she said.

And so are stained glass pieces that can be removed easily and taken with families if they move into a new house.

'When you move you don't leave your art on the walls, you take it with you,' she said. 'I want this to be more of a fine art.'

Books neatly arranged within an upper shelf cause Nachtrab to roll her eyes.

She said that many stained glass pieces she sees at art shows are patterned from something in a stained glass book.

'Choose a page,' she said. 'I've seen it.'

Nachtrab prides herself on one-of-a-kind pieces that are visually interesting and original.

'I try not to do landscapes. If someone wants a waterfall or a 'Mount Hood,' I'll pass. It's kitschy, but it's been done to death,' Nachtrab said. 'I'm trying to come up with my own style. I want to be known a zillion years down the road as, 'oh, that's a Nachtrab, that's different.''

For more information about Susan and Jim Nachtrab and their company, Nachtrab Glass Studio, please visit their Web site at www.nachtrabglass.com/.