Etched or stained glass – which is better for your home?

Etched designs can be much more detailed than stained glass

You want to decorate your dream home with art glass but you don’t know which type to choose? Which is better – etched or stained glass? The answer, as always in life, is … it depends!

Etched and stained glass are both excellent choices for adding beauty to your home – choose etched glass if you are on a budget and stained glass if you really love color.

Certain design styles are more suited to etched glass and others work best with stained/leaded glass. Read this post as we break down the pros and cons of etched vs stained glass.

What is the difference between etched and stained glass?

Etched glass

The term “etched” glass is used to describe glass that is frosted or carved either by sandblasting or by etching with acid. For a complete description of the difference follow this link. Several other techniques, including laser engraving and diamond-point or copper-wheel engraving, are generally used for small-scale decoration of glassware and are extremely expensive for large windows.

Hopi Indian rainman etching on shower door

Sandblasted shower panel featuring a Hopi “Rainman” – an iconic image from the American Southwest. Sandblasting is normally a black and white artform involving shaded and carving – a medium where strong design is at a premium. Note that designs are best developed from black and white line art drawings rather than from photos.

Stained or leaded glass

Learn about all types of stained glass in this landmark post describing its application in religious windows.

"H"-shaped lead or zinc came.
Colored glass held together with H-shaped lead or zinc came

Stained glass (also called leaded glass) is an umbrella term used to describe glass panels that are made with art glass (colored, textured, or beveled) that is held together with metal came (generally lead but also sometimes zinc, brass, or copper).

Tiffany-style lampshade

An additional method of stained glass manufacture, generally used in lampshades or small panels, is the copper-foil technique, made famous by Louis Comfort Tiffany. Artistry in Glass specializes in fixing broken stained-glass lampshades.

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Etched or stained glass – which is better for you?

Answer the following questions to decide which style of window (etched or stained) is better for you. 

  • What is the budget for your project (do you want to save money)?
  • What is the function of the panel (privacy, view control, shower door)?
  • What design do you want (Southwest, traditional, country etc)?
  • What will be the color of your window

The budget for your project

The exact cost of an art glass commission depends on numerous factors including design time, measuring, manufacture, and installation. Details of the pricing structure of stained glass are summarized in this post, and the corresponding information for etched glass is shown here.

As a guide – the tables below give approximate costs for etched and stained glass. Note that these numbers are for the manufacture of your panel and do not include design/artwork charges or the cost to measure, deliver and install your panel.

Approximate costs for etched glass

Costs are shown for the three categories of etched glass – simple frosting, shading, and top-of-the-line, carving. Follow this link for an explanation of the differences between frosted, shaded, and carved glass.

Area of panelCost $Cost $Cost $
in square feetFrostedShadedCarved

Approximate costs for stained glass

Area of panelCost $Cost $Cost $
in square feetSimpleAverageComplex

More details are described in a separate post but the bottom line is that etched glass is much more affordable than stained glass. So if the price is important for you, then etched glass is the better choice.

The function of your panel

As we explain in this post about the benefits of etched glass – the main function that homeowners are looking for are privacy (stopping people looking in) and view control (stopping you from looking out – on an ugly view). If these are your main requirements then etched glass is the sensible choice.

Spooky guy is obscured by frosted glass
Privacy – stopping a spooky character from looking in
Etched glass obscures ugly view
View control – hiding an ugly garbage pail

Remember that frosted glass does not reduce the light significantly – it merely diffuses it.

Custom Agate Cabinet Insert
Expensive leaded glass panel
Etched glass
Affordable frosted glass panel

Etched/sandblasted glass produces a frosted texture that obscures the view without reducing the light and at a much lower cost than stained glass.

Shower doors and panels

A unique benefit of etched glass is that it is possible to decorate the glass in shower doors or shower panels. Stained glass cannot be used in showers because the leaded structure is not waterproof and water would stain, oxidize, and degrade the lead came.

Etched shower panel with Hokusai wave
Stylish etched glass on shower panel
Etched maiden against black background
Carved maiden on shower panel

Note that when decorating a shower door or panel the sandblasted surface is always placed on the exterior surface – away from the water.

The design of your window

This is your opportunity to have fun – to choose a design that has a personal significance as well as performing the desired function. The main design styles that we have identified in more than 35 years of window designing are:

  • Traditional / Tuscan
  • Southwestern
  • Country/ Arts & Crafts
  • Mission/Frank LLoyd Wright
  • Victorian/ Art Nouveau
  • Abstract/deco/contemporary

Some of these designs look best in stained or leaded glass while others are better made with etched glass

Traditional style

There is nothing to beat the look of sparkling bevels if your home is traditional or Tuscan in design style. Economize by using stock-sized bevels and textured glass.

Leaded glass with beveled diamonds
Leaded glass with faceted jewels

Southwestern designs

Snowbirds making their homes in the southwest often fall in love with the Sonoran Desert and love to incorporate plants and animals into their windows.

Artistry in Glass highly recommends etched glass as a way to render southwest designs because it is very difficult to make realistic images of cacti with their thorns and flowers in the medium of stained glass. So you have to make an artistic decision – if you really need color be prepared to spend big bucks.

Etched designs can be much more detailed than stained glass

Cacti made from stained glass need to be done in folk-art, unrealistic style because of the limitations of lead-lines. So, if you really want color your designs have to be simplistic rather than realistic.

Southwest stained glass scene

Realism in stained glass is achieved by sandblasting thorns on prickly pears and by painting quail and other animals. An authentic colored image of the desert can be made – but at very great expense.

A tip if you reall want color – but are on a budget

It is always less expensive to purchase a ready-made stained glass panel rather than commissioning an original custom window from a glass artist.

Mission/Tiffany-style stained glass hanging panel. To economize on stained glass, purchase a ready-made hanging rather than a custom design.

For the really frugal homeowner – window film will bring bright colors into your home at budget prices. Not for the purist but ideal for the cash-strapped apartment dweller.

Sandblasting is the best medium for naturalistic southwestern designs

For customers who delight in the details of southwestern flora, fauna, and folk art – the medium of sandblasting is the best choice. A very high degree of realism can be achieved by talented artists (such as those at Artistry in Glass) working in the etched glass medium.

Southwestern birds
Sonoran Desert birds are best rendered by etching
SW petroglyph look like aliens
Petroglyph images from the Hopi Indians – look like spooky space aliens

Tips for designing southwest etched glass

A full post will explore this topic in detail but the most important advice is that is very difficult and expensive to design etched glass from color photos.

Wild cat and Big Horn Sheep
Do not use photographic images as a basis for etching

Do not expect your etched glass artist to quickly produce a design from a color photo. In particular, hair is very difficult to render by sandblasting.

An important cost-saving exercise in etched glass design is to always work from black and white line drawings. The design time and labor charges will be much reduced if you can provide your designer with line art rather than colored “photographic” images.

Etched or stained glass which is better for other design styles?

A future post will explain how to design etched glass windows in various styles including country/ arts & crafts; mission/Frank Lloyd Wright style, Victorian/art nouveau style or abstract, art deco, or contemporary styles.

In summary: attractive etched glass can be created in any one of these various styles and is more affordable than stained glass and therefore the preferred choice if cost is a primary factor.

Save money on etched/frosted glass for privacy by purchasing a ready-made etched glass door – like this pantry design available on Amazon from the National Door Company

The colors of your window

The bottom line is that etched glass is normally not colored – it is a black and white artform. So if you really want color, to match an interior design element or for spiritual or other reasons then stained glass is the way to go.

For some homeowners, color is paramount – a polychrome symphony is the objective – as in the designs below:

Abstract stained glass cornucopia
Abstract cornucopia – jewelry for the home
Colorful abstract with rondels
Abstract carousel with

For a great example of the incredible impact of colored glass illuminated by the magic of bright sunlight – take a quick look at this video of a sidelite created by Artistry in Glass:

Etched glass with color

We have explained that, traditionally, etched glass is a black and white artform – in comparison with colored or stained glass. However – there are exceptions to every rule and some innovative companies like Artistry in Glass in Tucson have devised ways to add color to etched glass.

Sandblasted (carved) dove
Sandblasted dove with deeply carved feathers
Sandcarved dove with painting
Sandblasted dove is painted and surrounded by yellow glass

Sandblasted dove is embellished by painting (a halo of translucent blue) and “plating” – the process of adding colored glass to the reverse side of the panel.

So the bottom line is that etched glass is normally black & white and much less expensive BUT it can be enhanced at additional expense to provide color.

Types of etched glass – frosted, shaded, and carved

We define the three main types of etched (sandblasted) glass as frosted, shaded, and carved (illustrated in the images below).

Frosted art glass agave
Frosted glass, single-stage sandblasting
Shaded art glass
Shaded glass:-like air-brush painting
Deeply carved art glass
Carved glass – deep sandblasting creates a 3-D sculptural effect

The simplest and most affordable method is a single-stage (one-shot) process that we call frosting. It is the cheapest to produce because a stencil is weeded just one time and the entire panel is frosted.

The second method of sandblast etching is what we call shading. This art form is analogous to air-brush spraying. Beautiful gradations for fully etched (white) through partially etch (gray) to unetched (black) can be achieved by sequentially removing areas of masking.

The third, and most expensive, category of sandblasting is what we call carving. This is the term for deep etching that creates a 3-D, sculptural effect that is extremely beautiful – especially when illuminated from the side with bright lighting.

For functional privacy and view control, simple frosting of your glass is the most affordable option.

Etched or stained glass which is better? The bottom line.

As this post has shown, etched glass is the preferred construction method for cost-effective solutions to privacy and view control issues, and also for the accurate representation of southwestern and other flora & fauna.

Choose stained (colored) glass if you wish to make an artistic statement – establish a mood or celebrate the beauty of abstract art.

All you need to know about art glass

Commissioning stained and etched glass

Technical information

Guides to stained glass design

Unique Mirror Resources from Artistry in Glass

Mirror Design & layout

Mirror Installation & Removal

Mirror Repair & Restoration


I was an exploration geologist and University Professor working in Botswana, Zambia, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, the Netherlands, Portugal, and other countries before opening Artistry in Glass in 1986. In my more than 35 years of experience, I have brought my technical abilities as a scientist to the trade of glasswork. During this time I have become an industry expert in glass and glass-related skills. Watch out for special insider tips developed from my detailed knowledge of the glass business.

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