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A graceful glazier gives a touch of glass to Toronto homes

You'd almost be inclined to call him a bull in a china shop the way he's bouncing around the 1,500-square-foot studio.

Almost. But don't confuse enthusiasm for a lack of grace: John F. Wilcox, the award-winning owner of Vitreous Glassworks, has gobs of grace and the delicate touch needed to be around all of this beautiful glass. It's just that he's got a lot of things he wants to show off - "Oh, you're a fan of Vitrolite? Follow me!" or "Oh, sure, we did the windows at the Sharon Temple; here's a picture!" - and not a lot of time.

And then there's that booming laugh that waggles his bushy beard. It's a laugh born out of confidence, not braggadocio, and it punctuates a fascinating conversation ranging from glassy things local to far-flung, modern to historic.

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"We may have the largest collection of Victorian bird windows in the world!" he says, his chuckle ricocheting off the cinderblock walls. "It's something that we can always say because it's up to another city to try and say otherwise."

He's holding up an example from Parkdale right now, which he's going to restore along with a bunch of others in the room.

He's such an expert craftsman, even if half of that gorgeous stained glass was missing - including the part with the little painted bird - he could recreate it.

Before I can get him talking about his own history, he's bouncing again - to the invention of glass as told by Pliny the Elder, to Britain's "window tax" of the 1700s and 1800s, to modernist architect I.M. Pei's urgent call for glass that was less green (the colour, not the movement) for his pyramid at the Louvre, and, finally, to where Toronto's glass factories once stood.

"It's a fascinating history, the history of glass," says the 43-year-old, sweating a little after all that running around.

But no less fascinating than the story of how he became one of Toronto's top glaziers. An early love of stained glass led him to a leading Toronto ecclesiastical studio for an apprenticeship in the 1980s. It was the perfect time to learn, he says, because many of the masters that had been working since the Second World War were basking in the glow of impending retirement ... and feeling charitable as a result.

"They weren't threatened by me," he begins. "I heard years later that they were all very secretive with their techniques before and there were rivalries and stuff like that."

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Next, he started to "augment" that knowledge with his own study, first with a course in glass-forming at the Ontario College of Art, glass-blowing at Sheridan College and, finally, the architectural technology program at Ryerson, which "gave me the language," he says simply.

He also bought a "one way ticket to Paris" to ogle medieval churches, then ended up in Egypt studying ancient Islamic stained-glass windows, in which plaster rather than lead is used because "they don't have the rains that would ruin them." Along the way, he visited as many glass-restoration studios as possible to observe local technique.

In 1992, he founded Vitreous Glassworks and, after working mostly as a subcontractor for larger companies, began to get big commissions of his own. He did restoration work on windows at Massey Hall; the Massey mausoleum at Mount Pleasant Cemetery; the Ontario government's Whitney Block; the ultra-hip West Queen West bookends, the Gladstone and Drake hotels; and, perhaps most impressive, the three long windows over the former main entrance to the Royal Ontario Museum, for which he won an award.

He also cast small glass blocks mimicking the old aluminum grills that once graced the ROM's original wooden doors before they were reinstalled: "I did this basically for free because it's such an honour," he says.

But that's not to say he's gotten too big to do little residential projects, whether it's restoration of some stained glass for a grand Annex lady or the creation of something brand new and minimalist for a modern abode or business. (If you're ever in the neighbourhood, check out the amazing non-denominational birch tree window he created for the chapel at the Wexford senior's residence.)

Although he understands that "glass is very alluring" to the general public, it's also incredibly fickle and delicate. The average homeowner, he cautions, should leave removal and restoration to the professionals: One wrong move and what may have been a quick cleaning and reputtying for a few hundred dollars will become a few thousand.

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"Somehow the glass knows," he says with a hint of mystery. "If you're afraid of it, you transfer that emotion to the glass somehow and you can break it."

Those with questions about how to keep their heritage windows healthy would be wise to visit the Lillian Smith Library at College and Huron streets tomorrow at 2 p.m. The Toronto branch of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario has invited the excitable Mr. Wilcox to leave his pen to give an illustrated talk, "Glass in Architecture," on the history of glass and his own work around town. Admission is free, and I guarantee you'll leave with a newfound or rekindled love for glass.

And that's no bull.

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