A creative journey in stained glass

 1 January 2015

Daniel and Deborah Burke run Lightworks Stained Glass from a compact studio in the historic market town of Clitheroe. They shared their experiences of running and developing a creative industry business.

"Clients include churches, schools, architects, conservation contractors, and both listed property and private domestic residence owners."

The craft of stained glass can be traced back over a thousand years, principally used as a means to decorate but also to educate. As a twenty-first century creative vocation, it challenges its practitioners in many ways: visually, artistically, architecturally, historically, socially and structurally.

Our company Lightworks Stained Glass specialises in the design, production and installation of bespoke new commissions. It also deals with the restoration and conservation of existing stained, leaded and historic glazing. Clients include churches, schools, architects, conservation contractors, and both listed property and private domestic residence owners.

Pathways into stained glass

Though our routes into the craft follow different paths, for both of us it stems from an early love of drawing and painting, with school, further and higher education encompassing art, design, photography and graphics.

Our own training in stained glass was vocational. Deborah was offered a position with a leading studio on completing her studies and I followed just over a year later.

There's no substitute for hands-on experience within a professional environment. 

The training and experience we received over the following three years - Deborah in her position as a principle studio producer and I as a site fitter - provided us with a solid grounding in the wide range of skills and knowledge of the craft.

I believe there is no substitute for hands-on experience within a professional working environment. Of our own formative years, we consider ourselves extremely fortunate to have been provided such an opportunity. We would recommend anyone seriously considering a career in stained glass to approach a reputable studio willing to provide training and experience.

Setting up a stained glass business

Our decision to go into business was driven by a desire for greater creative expression. The seeds for running our own company had been sown fairly early on during our years in training. We found that the more knowledge and experience we gained, the greater our desire to be able to express ourselves creatively and control that expression.

We wanted to be in a position of responsibility for every aspect of a commission with key importance being placed on developing our own design style.

I can vividly remember the day when, aged 24, I left work as an employee for the last time. I was excited, determined, worried and somewhat overwhelmed at the prospect that the next job my sister and I would undertake would be entirely our own responsibility.

Of the production of stained glass, we knew a good deal, but of business we knew practically nothing, so it was vital to seek help, guidance and support. We found this in the now (sadly) defunct government-funded Business Link service.

This proved to be invaluable to us in terms of solid, free, start-up guidance, including sourcing of funding and, most importantly, the formulation of a good business plan. While the basic information we were provided is still accessible online, to be able to sit down with a dedicated advisor and take part in weekly business start-up classes on topics such as advertising, market research and book-keeping was invaluable.

Reaching a market

From the outset, our intention was to specialise in designing and producing new commissions and the repair and restoration of existing glass. Our challenge on starting up, in pre-internet 1998, was how to reach a market for these services. 

Of the production of stained glass, we knew a good deal, but of business we knew practically nothing.

At that time we were reliant on print advertising, which invariably was geographically localised, such as Yellow Pages, local press articles, direct mail marketing and, when we could afford to cast our net further afield, specialist trade publications.

If only we had had access to a platform whereby we could beam information about our services and expertise directly into people’s homes and businesses!

Building a portfolio

The early years were spent securing small-to-medium-size projects and commissions, gradually building working relationships with clients and industry contacts and generating word of mouth recommendations within both the ecclesiastic and private markets.

Our work would generally be small private residence commissions, door and window panels and small scale repair works for local churches and public buildings. Eventually the smaller jobs would lead to larger ones. 

For example, having chatted to the warden and grounds man of a church where we were carrying out remedial repairs, he and his wife placed an order for the design and production of our first new church window commission. Featuring Christ baptizing the children, it retains pride of place within the churches crèche area. 

In this manner we have been able to steadily build a comprehensive portfolio which has seen us turning up on radio (BBC Radio Lancashire’s Local Heroes), TV (BBC Northwest Tonight News while carrying out work at Manchester’s Victoria Baths) and at the London-based UK residence of a famous Kiwi film director.

Working during a recession

The recession began to bite at around the end of 2010, forcing us to adapt our working practices and look at new ways of generating business. One of these was to begin running courses. Our “One Day Stained Glass Course for Beginners” has proved to be hugely popular, bringing in hundreds of attendees over the last three years.

As much of my day is spent updating and optimising our website as designing and producing stained glass.

Aside from the additional revenue, of equal if not greater benefit is the excellent opportunity it gives us to show people first-hand the work we carry out. We also became much less reliant on sub-contracting.  

As the financial down-turn really began to hit the construction industry, the value in ecclesiastic sub-contracts became fewer and fewer, to the point where many firms were working at or below cost.

Clearly unsustainable, our solution to this problem was to work towards a much better visibility on the internet, allowing our services to be made available to a much wider market.

Bringing our stained glass online

Our website has taken various guises since its inception around 12 years ago. From a poor one-pager with no facility to update, to our current multi-page, fully updateable and optimised site, its importance is hard to overstate.

Our website, built by myself on a Wordpress Premium Theme, is our primary marketing and advertising tool. Partnered with social media it is responsible for bringing in around 95 per cent of our business. It’s safe to say as much, if not more, of my working day is spent updating and optimising our website as designing and producing stained glass.

This in itself has been a fairly steep learning curve but one that presents many creative challenges that, on the whole, I’ve found to be most rewarding. For anyone thinking about going into any type of creative industry business, I cannot stress enough the importance of a good website and the effective ongoing management of it.

Future stained glass projects

Deborah, myself and our small team are at work on a wide range of varied projects and commissions. These include several bespoke commissions for private residences nationally, a bespoke commission for the chapel of a Leyland school, restoration and conservation of a Victorian stained glass window from a Darwen church, and the design and production of new stained glass windows for churches in Haslingden and Blackpool.

All of these not only serve to challenge us, but also contribute to the refinement of our skills, artistry and knowledge.

Find out more about Lightworks Stained Glass.

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