Robert Bolton and other artisans working with Stained Glass Express are bringing Lithgow Library’s 120-year-old stained-glass windows back to their former, full-color selves inch by painstaking, dirty, leaded inch.

The gleaming finished windows Bolton has completed so far in a Manchester studio at first glance almost don’t seem to be from the same batch of dark and dirty ones he has yet to start working on. But they are. And despite each window having, on average, 20 pieces of broken glass among their 300 to 400 individual pieces, almost all the windows will still contain their original, 120-year-old glass held in place with all-new lead when the restoration work is complete.

The goal is to restore the artwork and colors of the 32 windows, while keeping them as original as possible. Bolton clearly holds the original windows in high regard.

“The windows are spectacular,” he said while describing the process of disassembling the windows, repairing the glass that needs it, cleaning the glass and then reassembling the windows with new lead outlining the intricate glass details. “They just need some attention. It’s fun to be able to look at these things as they come back to their restored youth.”

Bolton is the lead restoration artisan on the project to clean and restore Lithgow Library’s original stained glass windows, which will be reinstalled as part of the larger project to renovate and expand the city’s public library.

Bolton first took an interest in stained glass as a child. A babysitter took Bolton and his brother to Saturday Mass while his sister was being born, and he marveled at the church’s stained glass windows as sunlight streamed through them, taking on the color of the glass. He still remembers sticking his hand up into a yellow-tinted shaft of light coming through one of the windows, coloring his hand.

Some 30 years ago, as an adult living in Colorado, he found a book on stained glass, read it cover to cover, bought a couple hundred dollars worth of tools and materials, and taught himself the craft of making and restoring stained glass.

“I’ve had a lifelong interest in stained glass since I was a child,” said the Spruce Head resident who also designs his own new stained glass windows. “Many years later, I acted on that interest and made it into a career.”

Bolton said the Lithgow windows, most of them about the size of a large serving tray, so far have typically taken between 120 and 160 hours per window to restore. The work appears painstaking and meticulous.

“Toothbrushes, water, a small amount of Simple Green (diluted), patience and elbow grease,” Bolton said of how he cleans the unpainted stained glass. “It’s a very labor-intensive craft. There is no getting around that.”

Elizabeth Pohl, director of Lithgow Library, said the windows were so dirty and in such poor condition it was hard to tell what their true colors were. She said she’s been to the Stained Glass Express studio to see the windows that have been done so far. She’s impressed.

“They’re beautiful, like jewels,” she said of the highly detailed windows which previously lined the upper portion of walls on the original portion of the library and which will be reinstalled as part of the expansion and renovation. “They’re going to be such a lovely feature when they go back in and people can enjoy them.”

Pohl said the $116,000 cost of the stained glass windows’ restoration is being paid for with privately raised funds. Those funds include $43,000 raised about 10 years ago and held by the Friends of Lithgow Library for the project and $73,000 raised as part of the more recent fundraising campaign to help pay for the cost of the $11 million library renovation and expansion.

Richard Parkhurst, whose wife, Janet, runs Stained Glass Express and Oakes and Parkhurst Glass, said more breakage has been discovered in the stained glass than expected. However, he said the company really wanted to get the work and gave a firm price. “It’s a job we wanted,” he said. “It’s high-profile, and we wanted to keep the work in our area. We may have underestimated our time and underestimated the amount of breakage a little bit. But we’ll do alright.”

Parkhurst said the company has good relationships with stained glass artisans such as Bolton and Lucy Boucher, who is doing the highly detailed window painting required for the project, because it has been in the business for some 26 years, in many cases providing artisans with their raw materials. He said good artists are hard to come by.

“We hand-picked Bob for this one,” Parkhurst said. “He has a lot of experience with church windows. Bob’s style and skills lend themselves to this kind of work. He’s very talented. I couldn’t do it. I’m proud of Bob’s work.”

The painted glass pieces, such as the center medallions of the windows, are cleaned with distilled water to avoid risking doing any damage to the painted portion of the glass.

On some of the windows, the painted part of the artwork has worn off. To restore them to their original appearance, but not mess with the original glass art, a method known as reverse painting is used.

A third pane of glass is added to the two original panes. The artist paints the missing part of the painting on to the third pane, which is fired in a kiln to dry and harden it. That pane is then added to the back of the originals. Thus, the originals are preserved but the combined piece shows the intent of the original work.

Most of the Lithgow artwork on the stained glass transom windows features printer’s or publisher’s marks, details that once served as a sort of logo or trademark of early printers. Pohl said those designs were likely chosen when Lithgow was first built as a form of “tribute to the art of the book.”

Six windows depict images from Augusta’s history: the Plymouth Trading House built in 1628; Fort Western built in 1754; Town Meeting House, the first public building in Augusta, which was still part of Hallowell at the time, built in 1782; the Kennebec Bridge, the first bridge to span the Kennebec River, built in 1797; South Parish Meeting House built in 1809; and Cony Female Academy, founded in 1815 by Daniel Cony.

The Plymouth Trading House image was worn completely from the medallion of that window. Pohl said she has done and continues to do research to try to find a sketch of the trading house so it can be recreated on the window before it is returned to the library.

Not being restored as part of the current project are 16 windows in the library’s Reading Room, which were restored in 2004 by Robin Neely.

The broken pieces of the 32 windows being restored now, when they can be salvaged, are glued back together using a high-technology epoxy.

When new pieces are needed, such as when pieces of glass are missing, new sheets of stained glass are ordered from suppliers. Some of the suppliers still use the original formulas for the old glass. Parkhurst said every batch is different, even using the same formula. So they’ve ordered many sheets of the same formula of colored glass to try to get one that matches the original glass.

Once the glass is reassembled in new lead, Bolton places putty between the edge of the glass and lead, a tedious process needed to keep the glass from moving and to prevent it from leaking.

The old lead, after 120 years, is fatigued and not re-used.

Parkhurst said some of the old lead from the windows they restore is sold to historical reeanactors, who use it to make lead balls for muskets.

Bolton works with the new lead wearing protective gloves.

He said once the new lead is in place with the old glass the windows “should be good to go for another 100 years.”

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj

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