When Oak Ridge North resident Paula McClung first began dallying with glass design in her garage in 1978 to stave off boredom as a stay-at-home mother, she never thought it would go past her driveway. With the children in school and her husband at work, McClung began showing her hobby at craft shows and offering gifts to friends with handmade pieces. When the artwork began to stack up, McClung decided to take her skill from hobby to business.
In 1983, McClung bought a five-year old shop from a friend in downtown Conroe in the historic Conroe Hotel. Working with her husband and her son, her business grew and soon most of their clients were hailing from The Woodlands. In 1988, they uprooted the design shop and moved to the Oak Ridge North Business Park. During the past 20 years, McClung's business has expanded to Bentwater on Lake Conroe, Pearland, Katy and Memorial.
Unlike commercial glass windows, McClung's business creates unique pieces for individuals and home builders. "It's all custom," she said. We don't create it until they order it. That's what I enjoy, the designs. We have other people who build it." About 10 people work in the cluttered shop, including McClung's daughter, Kim Gibson. "We're a close-knit group, like family." McClung said.
McClung said she never intended for her hobby to become a family business. Her husband, who has since passed away, was the salesman. He propositioned home builders to design glass doors and windows. Even now, while individual homeowners commission pieces, home builders remain a steady source of income for McClung's shop.
McClung designs unique pieces for her customers, sometimes original or copies of previous work. She said designing the glass is often the most difficult part of the job. "We sort of let them (the customers) do a lot of talking," she said. "I give them a stack of pictures of our work and let them look through them. It gives me an idea of what design they want."
Depending on the size and intricacy of the design, McClung said the glass can be complete within a week,. She hires teenagers to help out at the shop. Dressed in jeans and T-shirts, McClung and her crew design, cut and piece together the glass panels using methods mostly unknown to the public.
Unlike glass blowing, in which artista create glass from scratch, McClung buys colored class sheets from downtown Houston, Chicago and California warehouses stored in bins. Glass uses no ordinary dye to create it. All colored glass is made with minerals and metals. Colored glass is fired with gold to make red, selenium to create yellow and cobalt to make blue.
At the shop, the glass is cut into the needed shapes for each design. "We'll cut (each piece) out and each one has a number on it," McClung said. "We lay it all out like a puzzle and put it together. We draw it, we cut it, we do everything here."
The glass is sealed together with either copper foil or lead. McClung said the foil is melted to glue the glass together, while the common steel-colored lead arrives in 6-foot strips and is only soldered on the edges to seal the glass work. "It's long, hard work," Gibson said. "They (the clients) don't see behind the scenes."
Buying glass isn't cheap either. McClung said more and more glass is being manufactured overseas, upping the price with shipping costs. "When I first started, glass and all bevels were American made," she said. "Now it's all overseas."
As for the customers, McClung said clients are charged anywhere from $3 to $50 per square foot, more or less depending on the design. There is no flat fee. The more intricate and complicated the design or pattern, the more money it costs.
Clients often comment on imperfections in the glass, which McClung said is perfectly natural. "People say 'this has got a bubble in it, this has got a wrinkle in it,'" she said. "Well, it's handmade. That's the way it is. McClung said one of her more memorable clients was a mother interested in buying painted church windows with angels surrounding her daughter, who had died. McClung found an artist in Louisiana who painted glass and commissioned the piece. Upon the last firing, the artist warned her a small bubble had formed on the painting, but McClung told her to send it anyway. When it arrived, the bubble looked like a tear on the daughter's face.
"Every picture has a story," Gibson said. Some are funny, like when children arrive with personal allowances to pay for repairs on damaged lamps and glass, or when a woman requested a piece of glass that looked exactly like her doctor, right down to the black hair and glasses.
It's creative," McClung said. "I used to say it was my therapy in the garage. We really don't think of it as work. Every job is different, I've made a lot of good friends through customers. We like coming to work every day."
The glass business is ever changing. From Gothic-style church windows in Europe to the glass blocks popular in the 1930s and '40s, glass goes through fads and crazes. "There are lots of fads that go with everything, but here everybody always wants something different, which makes it fun for us because we like to do different," Gibson said.