Handcrafted America: Season 2
Season 2 Premieres Oct. 21st at 9:30p ET

Stained Glass

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Phil & Jane Watkins Watkins Stained Glass Studio

Denver, CO  |  Stained Glass  |  Website

Since 1761, stained glass has been a Watkins family tradition. The history begins in England where family members made stained glass windows in London and Liverpool. Eight generations of Watkins men have spent their lives as stained glass master craftsmen. Four generations of Watkins men have devoted their lives to stained glass and beautifying the Rocky Mountain area since the arrival of Clarence Watkins in 1868.

Today, Phil Jr. carries on the Watkins Stained Glass tradition. He has been helping out at the studio since he was 8. By the age of 12, he had created six gothic top rectangular windows for a Boulder church and they are still in good condition today. He completed an official five-year stained glass apprenticeship, learning every aspect of the business from the very basic to the most intricate painting, and he has been accepted into the British Master Glass Painter’s Guild.

Phil is one of the few artists in the country who can do every aspect of stained glass. During the past 57 years he has fabricated many thousands of stained glass windows, as well as restoring hundreds of churches and the Colorado State Capitol.


Phillip R. Watkins, Jr.

What drew you to your chosen craft?

My family has been doing stained glass for over 250 years, with each generation passing down the skills and techniques to the next in the Old English tradition.

I began working for my father when I was about 8 and sweeping the floor. He’d let me begin to learn to cut glass; he gave me scraps of window glass and showed me the concepts of how.  By age 10 I was cutting glass in straight lines in diamonds and rectangles by the thousands for dad’s windows. He would glaze them with lead. I would watch and soak up what he was doing. He would then show me the extreme importance of accuracy in the drawing first, then the patterning and the cutting of the glass from the patterns. The last phase of the glazing also requires that the leads must be cut to the right length and the right angle if to be soldered well and professionally done.

Through this knowledge of how windows are made: the design, the cartoon, the patterns, the cutting, the glazing, the soldering and the cementing. Each of these elements of a stained glass window must be attained to a high level before the next and higher level can be attempted. Missing out on one or more elements can lead to problems with the window.

The preservation was something my father did in the 40’s and 50’s. He was giving me the knowledge to do restorations and repairs. One must know the nuances of the craft very well to be able to put windows back together. My father did about 90% new windows as the old windows hadn’t yet begun to deteriorate – the oldest were maybe 60 years old.

As time has passed, more and more windows showed signs of wear and tear. More windows needed to be brought to their former glory. Most windows in the 40’s, 50’s, 60’s and the early 70’s were caught in the throw away philosophy along with the magnificent old buildings and mansions. I saw this happening as a kid of 13 till Ann Love, Kathleen Brooker, Dana Crawford and others said “enough”, and the tide began to turn to try to save Denver’s treasures. I have embraced this way of saving and preserving since the 60s. I remember my Dad saying to me, “Remember this building. It will be torn down soon”. Fortunately, Historic Denver was created in the 1970s and does so much good to help save buildings from the past that we can still enjoy today.

What do you enjoy most about your craft?

I always enjoyed fine arts as I was growing up and went to the University of Colorado at Boulder as an Art Major and a Literature Minor. I very much enjoyed studying the studio arts and learned more about design and painting and my emphasis was in Sculpture. Under the tutelage of many fine CU studio art professors, higher levels of proficiency were achieved, much of it under my sculpture and painting professor, Lynn Wolf. College was a pivotal time in my life, as I hadn’t made plans for my life’s work, but truly enjoyed art. Actually I had not necessarily planned on a career in stained glass, but I guess those were the plans that were meant for me to do. An interesting fact about stained glass master craftsmanship is that even after working in the field for over 50 years, I still learn new things about the craft all the time, and it is rather intriguing to come up with new methods and techniques.

Stained glass is a difficult medium to master. There are preliminary drawings, cartoons, work drawings, structure, color selection, glass cutting, glazing, soldering and installation. All of these skills must be mastered to have a pleasing outcome. It is the glass that creates the artistic fabric of the window. Light is what brings stained glass to life.

At the studio, I have made many windows from the simplest rectangles, such as the church I did at age 12, to the most complex painted figure windows, such as The Last Supper that is 10 feet by 20 feet that took a year to complete. Each and every window is different and original. The joy that I receive is to have the client be pleased and to know that my windows will be around for 100 to 200 years and enjoyed by many generations in the future.

I do not, as a general rule, seek out public adoration. I like to be tucked away at some church on scaffolding or to be creating a design and glazing for new windows back at my studio. Through the years, we have created many new windows that run the gamut. I have enjoyed the challenge of taking windows in critical condition and restoring them to their former beauty to be enjoyed by others for another 100 years.

Our family tradition goes back to the 1860’s in Denver and the 1760’s in England, our family was a cantankerous bunch. Stained Glass was their avocation and love. The pat on the back to them and me were the people who wished for the Watkins to make windows for them, and they liked what we’d done and came back. They liked our perfectionist ways and fairness and honesty. This has been our reward.

As far as tradition, it is also rewarding to restore and preserve stained glass windows made by my grandfather and great grandfather, and know that I am returning their windows back to look as they did when they were originally made. Interestingly enough, Jane and I met at CU in a Colorado History Class and now we are saving Colorado’s History.

Why is it important for people to make things with their own hands?

Stained glass pieces that are handcrafted fall into 2 or 3 broad categories. There are crafts that they bought and come in a kit, which they assemble. The hand crafter-made element is there, such as the stained glass pattern books which tell the crafter how and what to do. There are also crafters that see other’s ideas and copy those ideas and concepts. However, the true artist can combine the craft with original design and artwork to create an original handmade object. Such is the case with original stained glass design and fabrication. The handmade stained glass also can include the customer to bring elements into what they want in the design to be made specifically for them.

Today’s paradigm is the importance of the bottom line. We are in a throw-away mentality rather than knowing that there is an option for a handmade piece which can be a treasure for hundreds of years.

In what ways are handmade goods better than those that are mass-produced?

Handmade goods run the gamut from items that look good or seem quality to those that are good and are quality. The goods that are quality will withstand close scrutiny of the materials and how they are put together. Quality in shoes, clothing, cars, computers, watches, cookware, houses, roads, and many more varies from poor to excellent. Stained glass can run the gamut from the cheap windows sold at Home Depot or Wal-Mart. The low end is made to look like it is expensive and to the unsophisticated eye it may seem like quality, but it is not. The fine materials (glass, lead, solder and cement) can be handmade into a piece by a skilled stained glass artisan to be a pleasing long-lasting piece.

Stained glass is an interesting craft and if done properly, there is very little change from how it was done hundreds of years ago. This is a medieval craft where the techniques are passed down through the generations. All work is still done by hand and neither the principles nor the tools have changed much. Many of my tools are handmade, some of the tools I use were also my grandfather‘s and there are even a few tools that were brought over from England. Recently I was asked what is different from stained glass 200 years ago, and my answer was: “electricity”. Each window is a work of art, rather than a mass-produced product. However, the market IS being flooded with mass-produced panels from China and it is sad for people who don’t know the difference or that the traditional Old English craftsmanship still remains…at Watkins Stained Glass Studio.

What does the future hold for your type of work?

There are two facets of stained glass: New Windows and Restorations.

New windows are most often requested for churches and homes.

There will always be a need for symbolism and designs to be depicted in houses of worship. The pool from top quality window manufacturing is decreasing, but the market is still strong. The house window market, that used to be upper-end houses, has gone the cheap route with mass-produced door company or Big Box stores, however, there are still many who want original designs and custom-made windows; this market is medium. Other uses for stained glass are commercial buildings, government buildings, bars, restaurants and cemeteries, although this is more sporadic and less frequently requested.

Restoration of old and deteriorating windows are found in old buildings such as churches, historic structures, houses and antique windows. The restoration future is much better than that of the new windows, because windows made 60 years ago to 125 years ago in Denver need to be carefully maintained due to the ravages of wind, rain, hail and gravity. Some have been abused by their locations within their buildings. Some have been poorly repaired by unskilled neophytes and are in worse condition than they would’ve been had nothing been done. The future in this area is bright for well-trained stained glass craftsmen.

Jane Watkins

What drew you to your chosen craft?

Phil and I met at CU in Colorado History class in 1970. His major was studio arts and sculpture and mine was Art History. We became good friends and on one of first outings, he drove me over to St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral, where he and his father had been doing a multi-year stained glass restoration. I knew very little about stained glass and was in awe of the entire building wrapped in scaffolding. He showed me the windows he had repaired that were 75 feet above the ground. This church is an absolute treasure. I began to learn more about and appreciate the fine art of stained glass.

We have been working together at Watkins Stained Glass Studio since 1985 when he became the sole owner. Phil already had 25 years of experience by that time and I was just learning about all the complexities of this Medieval Old English craft.

Phil drew me to this craft. I help him out when he needs me to lend a hand, but I do not do any stained glass fabrication. I handle of all of the details of running the business so Phil has more time to devote to the studio. I initially meet and greet the customers and determine what type of windows they want or help church committees. Thankfully, art history has proven to be very helpful; I never imagined I would be involved with art history and Colorado history nearly every day.

What do you enjoy most about your craft?

I spent many hours in darkened rooms studying art history and learning about the finest artists of the world. I especially enjoyed my Medieval Art class with Professor McGrew and now, here I am, working with an artist whose family goes back to the medieval times producing stained glass, possibly for some of the Cathedrals in England. Phil and I had both taken Renaissance Art classes and that turned out to be very helpful for the creation of Leonardo DaVinci’s The Last Supper in glass. This was a year-long project working on the 10’ by 20’, nearly life-size figures. It was very rewarding working on Leonardo’s masterpiece when the Archdiocese of Denver provided us the opportunity to create true art. ThIs Last Supper is at Our Lady of the Snow Catholic Church in Granby, Colorado, and might be worth a visit for anyone in Colorado. For the same church, we were asked to create the 14 Stations of the Cross in traditional Renaissance Art, as the owner wanted the finely painted European quality. We recently had the nicest compliment from a patron who said, “Phil creates Cathedral Art”. When our stained glass is appreciated, this brings us great Joy.

Phil and I have worked hard, preserving, saving and protecting beautiful stained glass windows, their history and the stories that go with them. We get to see and save treasures. I cannot do the technical work, but there is always something for me to do. When we are called out to take a look at century-old stained glass, Phil faces the challenge on how to save a window in critical condition, whereas I think of the job as an adventure by visiting nice towns on the plains or in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. Many of these projects are funded by the generosity of History Colorado’s State Historical Fund grants. We spend our days in beautiful churches or inside the Colorado State Capitol inner dome’s very dirty 5-foot cubbies of the 16 Rotunda Hall of Fame Colorado Heroes; these exquisite windows are a 10+ on a scale of one to ten and it is awe inspiring to be surrounded by such fine art.

We never suspected we’d go from studying Colorado History to saving Colorado’s History. It is an honor to be preserving our state’s history, but even more special to preserve our family’s stained glass legacy

Why is it important for people to make things with their own hands?

There is a connection between the creation and the work of art that is so much more meaningful when you know that the stained glass is actually made by hand and that is made specifically for you.

People appreciate things that are individual and unique, not something made by the hundreds, or millions. Every window we make is one of a kind and not to be repeated. When a customer buys stained glass from us they know it is “their” window. Our heart and soul go into each of our works and we hope to create a window that will be passed down through the generations and many will last for centuries to come, we are honored that many consider them an heirloom.

There are benefits to working with your hands, Phil spent about 6 months at Denver’s majestic St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral, working on the severely hail damaged Last Judgment Window. This massive window was created by Frampton in England, but installed by Phil’s grandfather when it arrived in Denver in 1912. Phil repainted the damaged glass and repaired the window. He worked atop high scaffolding, but said ‘they had a really good organist at the time, and I thoroughly enjoyed the Handel’s Messiah.

I looked up the definition of the word “Preservation” – it means KEEP. There are loads of repairmen, some craftsman but very few fine master craftsmen. We do our best to create the finest quality art and preserve the endangered. This can only be done by the hand, and by the hands of a well-trained craftsman.

We have a very fine painter who has been working for us for nearly three decades. Joan Chandler comes in when we have interesting painting projects. She and Phil are both Master Glass Painters and enjoy the opportunities to paint with our vintage collection of stained glass paints and brushes.

In what ways are handmade good better than those that are mass-produced.

We feel that things made by hand are far more special. Windows made by Phil will last hundreds of years, not a limited time as so many products are aligned with the “Throw Away Mentality”. We create a one-of-a-kind work of art, not a product. Our new windows are made with the highest quality materials and finest master craftsmanship. The same beautiful glass can be used by anyone, but when it is carefully-designed and skillfully-crafted, this is how treasures are created.

Probably, only in America, can leaded glass windows be so abundantly available at the big box stores for immediate purchase and installation. As you are driving down the road, most would not notice the difference, however, if the 2 panels were placed side-by-side, the difference would be unmistakable. Another problem we have found with the “mass-produced” leaded glass or stained glass panels is that they often cannot be repaired. Often the lead is not real, nor can the glass be matched. Often the glass is glued into place and a broken piece within the unit cannot be removed and reinstalled. So once again, we have unfortunately, a prime example of the throw-away mentality, as these door units must be discarded into the landfill and replaced rather than repaired. We cannot repair what is not repairable and most people do not realize this when they purchase the “better deal” mass-produced products.

Watkins has always had the philosophy of restoring and hand-repairing the original traditional stained glass; this type of restoration takes much more skill often more time but the results are far better in that the windows are still original. Proper historic preservation is to have any repair as reversible and keeping the original materials follows this practice whereas the remaking of stained glass with all new materials is neither reversible nor creating a sustainable future, plus the history has been destroyed and dumped in a landfill. Far too many stained glass companies also practice the throwaway mentality with re-leading and remaking a stained glass window, rather than the act of proper historic preservation. Our windows will be restored and not replaced or remade with new materials. Re-using the existing stained glass materials is the best way to create a “green” building. The greenest building, or stained glass window, is the one that is already built.

What does the future hold for your type of work?

We have a newspaper article hanging on our wall that is entitled: A Dying Art Lingers On printed in 1947, featuring Frank Watkins, Phil’s grandfather making a stained glass window; ironically this is the year that Phil was born. The Art of Watkins Stained Glass is still lingering on but we have surely seen the changes.

We are fortunate in that we have an abundance of commissioned work, in fact, often more than we can handle. During the past decade we were doing more restorations, however, last year, we did we had an equal amount of new window projects. The restoration work will surely continue as the century old windows in Denver will certainly need attention soon. It is always interesting to find out what our next project will be and we are honored to be creating new windows or restoring old treasures for the future generations to come.

We do operate our business more of the “Code of the West” as described in the book “Cowboy Ethics – What Wall Street Can Learn from the Code of the West,” by James Owens. In the same traditional way that our work is done, we also uphold the “Code of the West” with integrity, character, honesty, and hard work. A handshake is preferred over a contract.

Torches, Stained Glass, Wind Chimes




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