Books and products mentioned in oldhouseonline stories are chosen by our editors. When you buy through links on this site, we may earn an affiliate commission.
Jim DiGiacoma, of Olde Good Things architectural salvage, had collected some 1920s factory windows fitted with chicken-wire glass. He needed a creative way to display them. The idea occurred to him: Set the steel-and-glass panels into metal perimeter frames, and hang them as screens or room-dividing walls!
Made as fire-resistant safety glass in the late 19th century, chicken-wire glass consists of wire laid between two ribbons of ¼” molten glass. By the beginning of the 20th century, building codes required its use in schools, apartment buildings, and offices, where it was used in windows, transoms, and skylights.
The vintage glass typically has wire in a hexagonal layout. DiGiacoma says he avoids using the reproduction glass with thinner wire in diamond or square layouts. During manufacture, the glass surface was embossed with various patterns, to diffuse or amplify the light or spread sunlight on the factory floor. Patterns include pebbled, hammered, ribbed, wormy (and clear). Occasionally, panes were precooled with tints: aqua green, red, or amber. Sometimes clear glass eventually turns pale purple from long exposure to ultraviolet light.
1. CLEANUP FOR REUSE
Olde Good Things staff begin by taking any damaged glass out of the frames. Old caulk is carefully removed. New panes are cut as needed, set into the metal frames, and caulked. The glass is thoroughly cleaned with a VOC-compliant cleaner. (Try Sprayway Ammonia Free Foam Glass Cleaner.)
Finally, the glass is protected with painter’s tape and newspaper, and the metal frames are lacquered with a clear metal lacquer (e.g., Rust-Oleum) to allow the steel to shine through. (Regular lacquer tends to tint the metal amber.)
2. HANGING THE SCREENS
If several sashes make up a screen, they can be secured by overlapping flanges and bolting them together (individually and to the perimeter frame) with ¼” nuts and bolts; using Nyloc (nylon insert) nuts will prevent them from vibrating loose. Depending on size, panels may be hung from the ceiling as a floating screen, or secured to a stationary wall or post. Due to the weight and the toppling risk, Jim DiGiacoma strongly cautions against using freestanding panels.
Cutting Old Factory Glass
There’s an art to cutting old glass, including wire glass. As always, start with the right tool; a good glass cutter such as a Red Devil is a must. Before you cut, polish the glass with a water-based abrasive cleanser such as Gumption Paste Multi-Purpose Cleanser to induce microfractures, which encourages the glass to crack along the track of the cutting wheel.
Take a Sharpie to mark where you want to cut, using a straightedge to make sure the line is even and straight. Lubricate the glass before you begin (WD-40 works well) to be sure the cutter wheel spins smoothly. Then score the glass by firmly rolling the glass cutter across the glass in one cut; don’t stop and start, and use steady but not too much pressure. Lift the glass and tap along the opposite side of the score line with the knob of the cutter until a crack appears. Then continue every few inches to make a series of cracks. When you have a complete line, take the glass with two hands (wearing protective gloves) and break the cut piece off with a sharp snap of your wrists. You can snip off any extraneous strands of wire along the edges, using wire cutters or aviation snips.