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Craftsmen repair stained glass, piece by piece

The beautiful color and detail of a hand-painted piece of glass receives new lead before it is fitted back into a window. Photo by Dave Wallis / The Forum2 / 7
Michael Orchard fits newly leaded pieces of glass back into a window. Nick Walberg works in the background. Photo by Dave Wallis / The Forum3 / 7
Horseshoe nails are pounded into the table alongside the pieces of glass to keep things from sliding around as it is reassembled. Photo by Dave Wallis / The Forum4 / 7
Nick Walberg brushes off new grout from a reassembled section of a window. Photo by Dave Wallis / The Forum5 / 7
Nick Walberg is silhouetted against one of the finished windows being reinstalled at St. Benedict Church of Wild Rice near Horace, N.D. Photo by Dave Wallis / The Forum6 / 7
Michael Orchard and Nick Walberg install a section of a window that has been restored in the 100-year-old St. Benedict Church of Wild Rice near Horace, N.D. Photo by Dave Wallis / The Forum7 / 7

After 100 years of weather and the weight of all of the glass and lead, old stained-glass windows could be called strained-glass windows.

That’s when churches call Michael Orchard for help.

“The life of a stained-glass window is about 100 years, and lots of churches around here are about that age now,” Orchard said.

The current project, which will require about four months of work by the three craftsmen of the Michael Orchard Studio in Fargo, is a complete restoration of windows in the 100-year-old St. Benedict Church of Wild Rice – the church with the twin spires located west of Interstate 29 just south of Fargo.

By comparison, the restoration project they did on the windows at the Cathedral of St. Mary in Fargo took about 15 months.

After a window is removed from the church and taken back to the studio, paper is placed over the window and a charcoal tracing is made. Each piece of glass is numbered and the matching number is recorded on the paper so the windows can be reassembled. The glass is then soaked in a lye solution for several days for cleaning. “We have buckets of lye that we haven’t changed for two or three years. There’s got to be a lot of incense from Catholic churches in there,” Orchard guessed.

The windows are not just made of stained-glass pieces. They also have hand-painted images on them. Special glass-containing paint is used and each color or layer is then baked in a kiln at 1,300 degrees to fuse the paint and glass so it won’t wash or scratch off.

“Whoever painted these windows did a beautiful job,” Ron Brauckmuller said, as he worked on the project. “These weren’t their first time,” he added.

After the glass pieces are reassembled into new lead and grout, Nick Walberg works with a dental pick to clean the excess grout off the glass.

“With the wider and better lead, these windows should last 125 years,” Orchard said. “We’ve got the luxury of being able to learn from the way windows were made 100 years ago,” he added, noting the better way to do things now.

Orchard, 62, and Brauckmuller, 65, say the work really takes a toll on fingers and backs as they work hunched over the windows set on tables. They occasionally take time to hang from a metal bar attached to the studio’s ceiling to stretch their spines out again. “It helps to clear the mind and refocus,” Orchard said.

“Nick is half our age, and he wants to do the work,” Orchard said, hinting at the future of the studio. “There are about 900 Lutheran churches in North Dakota, and we’ve kind of been pigeonholed to doing church windows,” he added.