(Still) Made in Cincinnati: Behind the scenes with local artisans keeping traditional trades alive

While traditional trades like carpentry, blacksmithing, upholstery, and tailoring seem like dying trades, they’re not dead yet. It might be hard to find them but, yes, there are still plenty of things being made in Cincinnati.
People like making things. It’s in their nature. But the kind of working knowledge acquired over a lifetime—rather than an afternoon on Pinterest—cultivates a different kind of fine craftsmanship than the average DIYer.

Handicrafts and homemade goods are abundant at urban street fairs and on Etsy, but skilled tradespeople like tailors and carpenters seem few and far between. In an era of throwaway fashion, fast food, and MDF furniture, is it even possible to commission a truly custom dress suit or a hand built coffee table?

Cincinnati has a long heritage of tradespeople and artisans. Its historic buildings and urban infrastructure speak to this heritage—everything from the stonework to the street lamps say, “someone made me.” But the modern absence of skilled craftsmen becomes apparent the moment a favorite pair of boots needs a repair, a family heirloom needs reupholstering, or the neighbor kid busts a hole in a stained glass window.

The building trades and their artisans

Cincinnati rose around the Ohio River in the 1800s and most of its iconic buildings and landmarks were constructed sometime between 1820-1960. Those structures were built by teams of architects, skilled craftspeople, and laborers who put them together, piece by piece, sometimes over years. (Cincinnati’s Music Hall, for example, took two years to build.) Modern construction has brought its own charms to Cincinnati—the Contemporary Arts Center, for example, built in 2003—but Cincinnati is still, categorically, a historic city.

21st century property owners who live and work in historic buildings have a unique set of challenges in keeping and maintaining their property, especially if they want to preserve the historic architectural and ornamental elements of the buildings.

Even modestly-sized historic homes have features not found on modern houses: plaster walls, leaded glass, wainscoting, transom windows, interior molding, exterior cornices, etc. Maintaining these historic elements is not always as simple as making a run to Home Depot.

It is a real challenge to maintain historic buildings in a modern economy, but this is where traditional tradespeople come into the picture.

“Quality historic rehabilitation and restoration work requires skilled workers in the traditional trades,” says Beth Johnson, Executive Director of the Cincinnati Preservation Association.

“Without skilled masons, carpenters, painters, plasterers, and others that know how to work with historic materials as well as replicate the craftsmanship that originally went into the buildings, we will continue to lose high quality building elements, such as windows, doors, plaster moldings, and they will be replaced with less sustainable, lower-quality and unrepairable materials.”

In the building industry, these niche, traditional skills are sometimes called “preservation trades.” Johnson says that, in Cincinnati, Terry Rasche is one of the best in the industry.

Terry Rasche is a stained glass craftsman. He learned the craft from his father who was one of a handful of stained glass artisans in the area.

“When I started at five or six years old, I had to run tools and ride along with them to jobs and learn from the ground up,” he remembers.

Rasche’s home and studio are in an off-the-beaten-path neighborhood: Woodlawn, Kentucky, near Newport. He’s a third generation homeowner there on the street where both his parents and his wife’s grandparents lived. He owns the home next door but bought and moved into his parents’ home and studio a few years back.

As is often the case with craftsmen, Rasche has acquired many skills in his 73 years. He says his expertise is stained and leaded glass restoration and repair, but he can also build glass panels from scratch. His niche skill is color; and texture-matching glass.

Terry Rasche learned the craft from his father who was one of a handful of stained glass artisans in the area.“You have a lot of people with old houses having new stained glass panels made, but if there’s a piece broken off an old one, they probably can’t find it. I can. I have that niche of restoration to make the old one like new.”

Rasche’s leaded and stained glass work can be seen all over Cincinnati in homes, churches, and community buildings. At this point in his career, he keeps it simple. He says “no” to a lot of offers, taking on work that excites him and employs his true expertise.

In recent years, he took on the job of restoring stained glass windows for the ARCO arts and community center in an old Masonic lodge in East Price Hill.

The project was monumental in scale. He remembers massive boxes of disassembled windows being delivered to his home; 2,587 pieces of glass in total that he had to clean, repair, or replace, re-assemble, and re-lead. He also created 18 new stained glass panels modeled after the one single panel that remained in the building after the rest had been stolen during its thirty years of vacancy.

His next large-scale project is in Augusta, Kentucky where members of the Clooney family are working to preserve a historically significant African American church. Rasche will be restoring the large stained glass windows. Again, the project is monumental. He estimates it will take about 6 months to complete.

Passing on the trade

Most of Terry Rasche’s work is done alone. He says “you have to be a bit of a recluse” to enjoy his craft. But, for the past few months, he’s had two young apprentices working alongside him.

A few evenings a week, Matilda Blades and Sarah Cousino come to work with Rasche. He teaches them the skills of the trade; they help him around the studio.

Both Blades and Cousino work during the day for Olde Fort Restoration, a company that does water, fire, and storm remediation and repair. They met Rasche when he was called in for a consultation on a window repair that didn’t fit into their capabilities. After working together on that project, Rasche enlisted them to lend him their skills—in welding and carpentry, respectfully—in exchange for learning a bit about stained and leaded glass.

Matilda Blades, 23, is a graduate of the Art Academy of Cincinnati. She’s excited to learn more about stained glass and painting with metals and solvents. She’s interested in using the skills in her own fine art applications.

Sarah Cousino, 25, learned carpentry from a young age from her father, a woodworker. A self-professed glutton for knowledge, she wants to learn every skill she can. She has always been interested in stained glass and jumped at the opportunity to learn from an expert like Rasche.

Apprentice Sarah Cousino, 25, learned carpentry from a young age from her father, a woodworker.“I’d like to learn everything Terry can teach me,” she says. “It’s definitely a niche skillset and there’s not a lot of people who actually know how to do it.”

Blades says that they are at Rasche’s “beck and call” when he needs their labor or skills and, in turn, they get to learn from one of the best.

It’s been a great, mutually beneficial apprenticeship. In addition to helping with his work, Rasche been investing time in their professional development. He recently passed off a family heirloom table to Cousino for restoration and he took Blades with him to get a kiln for firing stained glass, which is something she’s interested in learning. Rasche says he enjoys the company and values their help.

A life of work and wisdom; and glass

Skill isn’t the only thing required for Rasche’s work. Every art glass panel is like a puzzle and every step in the process of restoration requires knowledge, skill, and the right materials. So, while Rasche is highly skilled and an encyclopedia of knowledge, he’s also a collector. He spends a lot of time and energy collecting the materials for his windows—things like specialized tools and materials, window frames, and a lot of pieces of glass.

“You’ve got to wait a long time for glass unless you can find it,” he explains. “Some of the glass I have is from 1935. And they only make some [of the new] glass in a cycle of every 42 weeks because there’s no call for it.”

A few times a year, he drives out to a company in Kokomo, Indiana, which is one of the only places that still produces the kind he needs for his repairs. He says some of the glass he needs can take months to make new. For smaller repairs, he salvages broken windows and saves glass remnants, sorted by color and texture.

In 2021, Rasche’s studio was destroyed in a fire. He lost a lifetime of tools and materials in the fire–including those owned and used by his father. It was a devastating loss. Over the past two years, he has rebuilt his workshop from the ground up, collecting tools and materials from other craftsmen in the region who are downsizing or retiring.

Rasche says that his generation of business owners are aging out and offering to sell their businesses, but there’s no one to buy. At one point, Rasche says, it was common for children to take over their family trade, but it is far less common now. Even his own kids aren’t interested.

Over the past two years, Rasche has rebuilt his workshop from the ground up, collecting tools and materials from other craftsmen in the region who are downsizing or retiring. “It’s not as glamorous as some other jobs,” Rasche explains.

“You have to work with your hands and climb ladders and scaffolding. You work by yourself most of the time or maybe you have one other helper… [Younger people] aren’t interested in that. They’d rather sit at a computer.”

There is plenty of preservation work do be done in a historic city like Cincinnati, but even finding a skilled employee is hard. Most stained glass workers are hobbyists and want to create their own designs to sell. His niche is a little different.

“I’d like to see someone qualified take [the business] over eventually,” he says. For now, he has plenty to keep him busy–plenty of windows to restore and plenty of glass to sort.

As Rasche continues to rebuild his workshop, he is also making space for a small design studio and museum to share his library of resources and display some of the historically significant pieces he’s collected. He wants to create more opportunities to help preserve the heritage of this traditional trade.
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Liz McEwan is a proud wife, mama, urbanite, musician and blogger. Follow her at The Walking Green and on twitter at @thewalkinggreen.