How To Make a Living at Stained Glass or Any Craft Medium

I have worked full time at stained glass for more than 30 years, always as a one-person studio and always out of my home. Stained glass is probably not a way to get rich unless you approach it some other way than I have done. The most obvious way to make a lot of money at a stained glass business is by opening a retail outlet and/or employing enough people to go after the really big jobs.

The downside of success is that is that the more successful you become, the more removed you may become from the actual designing and crafting of the work. Great success means that you may end up as the owner and administrator of a craft-related business rather than as an artisan. I think you should at least consider that remaining a small operation leads to a positive and flexible lifestyle. My choice to do this has allowed me to be the "master of my days" and a primary stay-at-home parent for my child. I have always managed to pay all my bills, buy the things that I have wanted (within reason), and even put money away for investments once in a while.

Self-employment of any kind is a difficult and often insecure lifestyle, particularly in times of economic stress. Stained glass is a luxury item that upper-middle-class people and even wealthy people stop buying when the news about the economy is poor. Although these people still have spendable cash at their disposal, they seem to hold onto it until the outlook for the economy is more promising. During those times when there is too little commission work to keep me busy, I make artworks that are for sale. Many years ago when I was less busy, I even took short-term jobs in other fields until the economy improved.

The following points should help you to become successful in your own chosen craft business, no matter what the media.

  1. Master the craft before you go into business. In stained glass, there are far too many hobbyists-turned-professional. They have sullied the art form with unoriginal design and poor craftsmanship. While this helps to keep an award-winning artisan like me very busy, it lowers the public's opinion of the craft in general. If you go into business too quickly, you will find yourself losing time and money every time your inability to fully handle the jobs you take on results in having to backtrack to correct things.
  2. Decide whether you will become a home-based business or acquire a retail or warehouse space to work in. Research all of the legal aspects of these options, including restrictions on storing and using hazardous materials, zoning regulations limiting home-based businesses, and acquiring the necessary tax and business licenses.
  3. Decide how you will market your business. There are options on the local, national, and international levels. How far you can range beyond your immediate location may depend on the ease of shipping your product safely and cost-effectively, so research shipping options as well.
  4. Take pictures of everything you make, even while you are progressing from an amateur to a professional. Learn to take good pictures. Experiment with lighting and backgrounds until you can consistently take good pictures. With installation art, you may have only one opportunity to photograph the work, that is, when the installation has just been completed. Where possible, retake photos that are poor, especially when seen on your computer screen. Learn to use a photo-manipulation software program. You can "rescue" poor photos by adjusting the brightness, the contrast, the overall color of the photo, and by increasing the sharpness of the image. With time and practice, you can even learn to completely reconstruct tiny parts of a photo pixel by pixel to make them look more like the artwork pictured.

    You may need to shoot both film and digital pictures, depending on your portfolio needs. I recommend shooting slides if you intend to enter a lot of art shows and/or craft shows as they usually require slides. If you need prints for a portfolio that you will show new clients when you meet them personally, you can easily get prints made from your best slides.

    You will also need to have digital images for your web site. It is often easiest to shoot both slides and digital photos rather than to shoot one and have to go to the trouble of converting the one to the other.

  5. Don't spend money unless you have to. Try to figure out low-cost or no-cost solutions before you opt for more expensive ones. For example, you may want to start out with a home-based business, and only move to a retail or warehouse space when success makes that necessary.
  6. Develop a web site and learn how to write it and change it yourself. Read books from the library or bookstore to learn how to get found when people search for your product at an online search engine. A web site has two purposes:
    • To get people you've never met to patronize you.
    • To serve as a brochure that you can fully update and expand as necessary.

    The first part - getting new clients - will not happen overnight. It will require marketing the web site both online and offline. The second part - acting as your brochure and maybe even your portfolio - can be an immediate timesaving tool. It will save you from having to make unnecessary trips to meet with clients. It will keep you from having to answer the same questions over and over with each new set of clients by providing information and answers to all the questions that have come up in the past with previous clients. Finally, it will help clients to self-qualify themselves by showing what you are capable of doing and what you will charge for your services.

  7. Educate yourself on business-related issues including bookkeeping, tax preparation, legal issues, insurance and liability issues, and marketing your product successfully.
  8. Visit a successful web site (like mine!) to see an example of a marketing tool that:
    • Outlines useful information for potential clients about craftsmanship and choosing a decent craftsperson in your medium.
    • Provides a detailed accounting of the commission process, including pricing info, mounting info, shipping info, and what input you will need from the client in order to get back to them with an accurate estimate of the cost and/or designs for them to consider.
    • Shows the artworks in large, sharp, easy-to-see photographs.
    • Accompanies each artwork with text that outlines additional options for the clients to consider.
    • Fares well with online search engine placement.
  9. Have fun. Since being a professional craftsperson may not be the road from rags to riches, you'd better at least like the everyday tasks of this form of occupation.

Mark Stine
Transparent Dreams Stained Glass Studio

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Your work is gorgeous and this article is very helpful. I have found I've incorporated many of the same processes while building my company these past 10 years.

By Marion Cornett