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The Art of Fusing Copper & Glass

By Meghan Smith/Photography by Tomasz Szumski

The art of blending mixed media has been used by artisans and craftsman alike for centuries. Artists push the boundaries of expectation by pulling various mediums and styles together. The blending creates a unique piece of art that is difficult to replicate and quick to catch the eye.

Throughout the ages, copper’s durability, versatility and resistance to rust and corrosion made it ideal for crafting useful tools. Anthropologists believe copper to be the first metal used to create wares due to its malleability.
Richard Ellard of Bracebridge takes the art and trade of coppersmithing to a new level. Blending custom copper-works with other mediums has been Ellard’s intention since starting his business, Artifex Coppersmithing Inc., in 1998.

“Artifex is Latin for ‘master in the craft’ and that’s what we strive for,” explains Ellard. “The mission statement for our work is functional architecture.”

Arts and Crafts style, the architecture style Ellard creates his pieces in, is focussed on traditional craftsmanship with the use of folk or medieval styles of decoration.

“This style came about in the 1900s in North America,” says Ellard. “It really shifted the tradesman to an artisan.”

The intention of the style is that artisans create items from scratch such as houses, decorations and functional art, including furniture, lighting and sinks.

“Architectural works are commissioned by clients, typically with a specific style or goal for the final piece,” says Ellard. “Interior work, or functional art, gives us a bit more license to create based on the feel of the cottage or home.”

Building on their experience and developing new techniques, the Artifex team began incorporating leaves within their patina work in recent years. Patina refers to the thin layer or tarnish produced by oxidation or other chemical processes that forms on the surface of copper, bronze or other similar metals. The chemical process by which a patina forms or is deliberately induced is called patination.
“Patina is the aging of copper and brass,” explains Ellard. “We formulate our own patinas with trees, leaves, roots and things. We soak oak and maple leaves into our patina and lay it onto the copper. It creates a very organic, variegated type of aging. It has a three-dimensional look to it.”
Patinas can provide a protective covering to materials that would otherwise be damaged by corrosion or weathering. Metalworkers and artists deliberately incorporate patinas as part of their designs and decorations to simulate antique qualities in newly made product. Ellard and his team’s patina work creates unique, abstract finishes to pieces. Even wildlife motifs have been incorporated into custom pieces. Artifex’ projects range from back splashes in kitchens incorporating copper and glass to range hoods with semi-hidden leaves in the patina.

“The patination works we’re using on projects now are methods I’ve been developing for 20 years,” says Ellard.
Blending glass into his coppersmithing work is an effect Ellard has been augmenting for close to 10 years. When Cranberry Marsh Cove in Bala was being built, the then-owner approached Ellard about using glass and copper together, in as many places as possible. At the time, Ellard had not experimented with the two mediums concurrently but accepted the request and ran with it. “We worked the project with both products next to each other – roof awnings, cupolas, range hoods, everywhere we could,” explains Ellard. “We received such positive feedback from that work that we started to play with materials on our own.” Glass and copper melt at the same temperature making them ideal to pair together in architecture and other items. Adding glass to projects such as cupolas on boathouses brings a distinctive quality to the work Ellard and his team produce.
“We’ve worked on pieces such as landscaping lighting with glass lenses using fused glass, instead of stained glass, which adds a different touch,” explains Ellard.
In recent years, Ellard has developed a partnership with local glass artist Gail Wilson. Approaching projects with Wilson’s artistry provides a new dynamic to Ellard’s architectural works.

“I look for creating a product out of what we’re doing and Gail is bringing an artist’s background to a number of the new glass pieces,” comments Ellard.

Ellard and Wilson’s works actively combine the traditional and the modern to create handcrafted, custom work, unlike any other in the Muskoka region.
“The essence of much our work is about splitting the needs and wants of customers with the need for true craftsmanship and artistry,” shares Ellard.

“My mission is to bring glasswork to new and exciting artistry using both cold and hot glass,” says Gail Wilson. “I am still in awe of the way the pieces, when seen in a window, are constantly changing.”

Wilson grew up visiting Muskoka in the summers and relocated permanently in 1984. In 1999, Wilson began taking lessons for stained glass work. Once she began creating stained glass pieces, Wilson was enthralled with the process and the artistry. While she is familiar in working her artistry with cold stained glass, fusing is a different art that she continues to perfect.

“My first attempt at using the kiln was a total disaster, so there have been several lessons along the way,” says Wilson. “I’ve taken a trial and error approach as I’m still learning. It’s part of the creation.”

Glass has three phases – hot, warm and cold. Hot gloss is glass blowing, warm glass is stroke fused and cold glass is stained glass, soldered together. Whether working with cold or warm glass, the process of glass selection, cutting and fine fitting is the same. The crucial portion of the process, in either scenario, is design planning.

“The glass used for fusing has to be compatible with each other for the whole piece,” says Wilson. “The pieces of glass have to melt at the same temperature or the finished piece may shatter. It’s called the coefficient of expansion, which is whether the fused glass pieces are comparable or not.”

With cold glass, segments are interchangeable and may be used together however the artist desires to create the piece. Fused glass provides a much quicker result but can be unpredictable during the process.

“You have to wait until you can open the kiln to see what has worked,” explains Wilson. “It takes 24 hours or more. You have much more control over your cold glass projects when it comes to the finishing but the product is different.”
“Fusing the copper and glass is a big part of the business,” says Ellard. “Working copper and glass together requires using quality materials and crafting pieces as well as possible. Human error is the biggest issue.”
Ellard began his career working on the rooftops of London. While roofing, he saw other companies preparing the fine detailing on the same rooves. His interest in the craftsmanship of the fine detailing led him to pay his own way to learn the necessary skills. Ellard worked with the same companies overseas, in Europe on castles, palaces and other grand homes. When Ellard moved to Muskoka, he had not anticipated the response he received to practicing his craft.

“The client base has developed into a group of patrons that, year after year, support the business with their needs and the understanding of what we can deliver,” says Ellard. “The customers were pivotal to me staying in Canada.”

A few years into his venture, a customer reminded Ellard to maintain what was in his rearview mirror. By offering a warranty for the lifetime of the materials they use the Artifex team can mend warranty work with regular maintenance before there is a crisis.

“We have lifetime contracts to follow up each year on pieces,” comments Ellard. “We service eavestroughs and roofs regularly to keep them in order.”

Whether working with a contractor, designer or owner of the home or cottage, meeting with the clients allows for a blend of the client’s vision with an artistic execution. The ‘art in architecture’ begins as a drawing of a potential project or concept. The exchange of ideas among the team is very important in creating the concept and presenting a potential product to a client.

“Our pieces are handmade by people the clients have met, in the studio they’ve visited and then they get to own a piece,” explains Ellard.

Clients trust Ellard to know the desired style and overall aesthetic of their home or cottage. Installation of custom pieces are an impressive conclusion to the creative process.
“My clients created the business,” says Ellard. “They demand and deserve great quality work. I just work here while my clients ask for projects to be created.”
“In January, we installed an eight-sided copper tower with a finial on top. The crane lifted it 60 feet in the air to complete the installation but the customer just couldn’t believe it. There’s a definite wow-factor.”
Artifex is a family business with the shop and studio just steps away from Ellard’s home. Sye Ellard, one of Ellard’s two sons has begun learning the coppersmithing craft and is interested in continuing the family business.
“It’s great to have him involved and learning the business,” says Ellard. “He’ll go to school and be able to take things to another level. I can’t wait to see this continue as a father-son venture.”

“With my son being involved, I’m really seeing this as a new stage of growth,” says Ellard. “We’re trying new things and re-engaging in events like we haven’t for quite some time.”
Having the family name attached to a business and product is an achievement a founder can feel good about. In sharing his mastery of his trade with his son, Ellard carries on the tradition of artistry and authentic craftsmanship in custom metalwork.

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