Archives for category: art restoration

Arts and Crafts

A.V. Walters

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When I refurbish a piece of furniture, I have a couple of rules. This is not to say that my way is universal, or that I pretend to be some fancy, high-end professional restorer. But, I do try to maintain the integrity of the piece. My rules, in short, try to restore the piece to its original condition, respecting the aesthetic of the time; when possible (in keeping with the first rule) try to reveal the beauty of the wood (or other materials); and maintain, or return the piece to its original functionality. It’s not enough to be cool-looking and old; I want it to be useful, too.

There are exceptions—just as our aesthetics are shaped by our experiences, sometimes we make substitutions. What we modern people admire about classical Greek sculptures—the revealing beauty of the white marble—is not what the Greeks had in mind. Originally, those marble statues were painted! Accustomed to the elegant monochrome, my eye is offended whenever I see a “fully restored” Greek figure. To my eye, with paint, they look garish and cheap.

My favorite era of antiques is Arts and Crafts—sometimes known as Mission. This artistic movement was a backlash against the frippery and soulless excess of industrialization. At its best, the lines were clean and simple, harkening back to a time of craftsmanship and honest labor. (At its worst it can be chunky and monolithic, crude for crude’s sake.) The philosophy behind Arts & Crafts reflected the relationship between the materials and the craftsman, showing each to its best potential. Of course, once popular, its designs were copied and manufactured, en masse, by American factories. Savvy manufacturers, like the Stickley brothers, created a design cult and a “buy in” mentality for their lines of cottage-style furnishings. The success of the movement’s philosophy, and marketing, soon made it another passing fad. By the start of The Great War, the style was already fading. Its American heyday was between 1905 and 1915.

I like the furniture of that era, featuring rich woods, quarter-sawn oak or aged natural cherry. Like many antiques, there’s additional caché for a piece when it has its original finish. Sometimes, that’s an original “fumed” finish—and I laugh. What we see today in those fumed finishes, often dry feeling and nearly black in color, looks nothing like it did when it came from the factory. They were ammonia based “lusters”—added after the standard wood finish, a process that created an iridescent color—almost a glow, in pastel tones. But, the factories knew that the fuming was ephemeral. It didn’t last. In fact, the fuming actually degraded the wood. So current antique emphasis on an “original fumed finish” puts a premium on what was really a failed experiment from the start. It’s not unlike the Greek statues—completely different in their own time. I’ll sand and refinish a fumed surface—regardless of the premium (breaking my own first rule.) I once sold a chair to an appellate judge who wanted a blond mission rocking chair, specifically so that he could experiment with fumed finishes. Now, that’s a purist. I pale by comparison.

Recently I found a lovely little “sewing rocker” on craigslist. From the picture, it had nice lines, but was nearly black. I figured I could refinish it, so long as it was solid and the joints tight. At thirty-five bucks, it was worth the effort, especially since I need a small chair for the downstairs bedroom. In person, it was just as dark, but it didn’t have the dry feeling of a fumed finish that I’d expected. I bought it. Once home, we found a faded label—Otsego Chair Company. A quick trip to the internet told us that Otsego was a Michigan company that closed in 1915. So our little rocker is at least one hundred years old.

With winter slowing us down outdoors, this is a nice time for indoor projects. I’m still waiting for the rest of my banjo parts, so I pulled out the little chair. I wondered about the nonstandard color—near black. I decided to start with a thorough scrubbing with Murphy’s Oil Soap. What a shock. This piece was never fumed; it was just filthy!

Underneath all that grime was a lovely little chair with a slightly weathered, rich patina. I didn’t remove the original finish, but, in the interest of my second rule, I did cheat a bit and enhance it with a layer of penetrating stain. The oak is quarter-sawn and highly figured. That means that the wood was cut for structural stability—and to enhance the variation in the wood’s grain. Before adding stain—I hit the “rays” with a lighter, golden-oak stain, another cheat. That way, they resist the overall, darker stain, and emphasize the contrast in the natural oak grain. I think it came out nicely. A coat of beeswax polish and it will be ready to put back into service.

 

 

 

 

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The Sum of Its Parts

A.V. Walters–

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We tend to be do-it-yourselfers. Both Rick and I come from families where you fixed it, before you replaced it. Sometimes, if whatever “it” was, was not within your field of expertise, you paid somebody to fix it. Sometimes, cost or convenience inspired you to do it yourself. There’s a little bit of a mantra to it, even if “it” is intimidating, “Well, how hard could it be, really?”

All the way to building a house.

That history, combined with an appreciation of older things, has led us, separately and together, to a good bit of investigative repair and reinvention. My home is filled with rescue-antiques. Rick is the mother of invention when it comes to building and repairing challenges. We have accumulated no small measure of experience in woodworking, refinishing, building, tool maintenance and repair, mechanical and electronics repair (mostly Rick), art restoration and the mending and making of things in fabrics (mostly me.) We have projects upon projects. Which brings us to the Paramount question.

In the midst of my mid-life upheaval, I decided I needed an intellectual challenge (because writing novels wasn’t enough?) I wanted to learn to play an instrument, and in so doing, to immerse myself in a participatory way, in the language that is music. I had to choose which instrument would be appropriate for a (then) solo, middle-aged woman. It had to be something I could play alone, and maybe with others. I envisioned myself playing and practicing on a big porch with a view. My first choice, violin, wasn’t a good fit—as a previous car accident had left me with neck issues. I thought about the sax—but even the idea of relearning the breathing for a wind instrument, left me winded. So, I decided on the banjo, mostly because I could not think of any banjo music that sounded sad. I picked up a cheapie banjo on craigslist and began learning and plinking. I have a long way to go.

But, as things work out, once you open the door in a particular area, opportunities step in. When my brother learned that I had an interest in the banjo, it turned out he had a contact for an old banjo with history. He sent it my way.

It is a Paramount, tenor banjo from the mid-twenties. It’s beat up and beautiful. For a number of years it’s been sitting, disassembled (thanks to a “well intentioned” friend) in its case. I’m coming very close to having that lovely long front porch, overlooking the valley, so I thought it was time to get the Paramount in shape. Rick, as is his way, raised an eyebrow.

The banjo needs a lot of work. First and foremost, it needs to be completely disassembled and cleaned. Then, a new “head”—the stretched skin that gives the banjo its distinctive sound. The choice was whether to use a synthetic head material, or the traditional calfskin head that was used when the Paramount was first manufactured. We also need to replace the tuning pegs—which raised the question,again, of new versus old. The Paramounts had ingenious Page, geared pegs, new back in the day, and no longer manufactured.

In the past, everyone had said that I need an expert to help with this banjo renovation. So, I asked around and received several referrals to a local guy, who was reputed to be both better, and less expensive, than the “ship it off to Lansing” guys used by local music stores. I called and made an appointment. First, he gave me his tour of successes—a line-up of string instruments, hanging awaiting pick up by his other customers. They were lovely—so we got to the Paramount. His eyes widened when he saw the disassembled banjo. A Paramount is an impressively machined instrument, sturdy and buttressed with all manor of hardware. The expert marveled that the parts were mostly there—you could see that he was positively itching to get to the task. He knew that I had contacted him mostly for assistance with the installation of the new head—but soon his enthusiasm overflowed to the rehabilitation of the wood and the nickel-plate parts. He pointed out the accumulated finger grime on the mother-of-pearl inlayed finger board. I hadn’t noticed how bad it was. He insisted that the entire instrument be disassembled, lovingly cleaned, then reassembled, before a new head could be stretched. He was adamant that only vintage parts should be used—and of course, a calfskin head. He explained the intricacy of the stretching of a banjo head, a process not unlike stretching the canvas for an oil painting. His enthusiasm was contagious, and I was completely on board. As he described the work necessary to restore the banjo to its former glory, the dollars were mounting. He looked up at me, but I didn’t blink. I’m a pushover for any argument favoring an antique’s original integrity. I was sucked in by his description of the painstaking task. With the vintage parts and laborious restoration, my “free” banjo was fast approaching a thousand dollar rehab.

“That grimy fret board,” I asked, “what would you use to clean it?” I expected to be drawn further into the secret and arcane world of instrument restoration.

“Oh, Windex will do it.” He said offhandedly.

My heart skipped a beat. “Windex?” I’ve done enough antique restoration to know that you minimize “wet” treatments, especially near inlay or marquetry. He noticed my alarm.

“Why, what would you use?”

“As mild a cleaner as possible. Probably Murphy’s Oil Soap, with very little water, a damp cloth to wipe it clear and then dry it immediately with a soft terry.”

He nodded, “Yeah, that’d work, too.”

But he’d now handed me the tail-end of the thread that would soon unravel the spell he’d woven.

“And the nickel-plated parts?” I asked.

“Ammonia soak—you know the Windex, and then, where needed, a little steel wool.” My eyes widened and he followed up, “Don’t worry, that steel wool wouldn’t hurt for the tough spots. Why, what would you use?”

“I like Never-Dull. It doesn’t scratch and can clean most any metal finish.”

“Never heard of that.” He pulled out a polishing compound he sometimes uses.

I had to press further. “What about the areas on the neck, and the other wood surfaces, where the finish is worn?”

He looked at me seriously. “There’s a temptation to refinish that—but it’d be a mistake. As long as the wood integrity isn’t threatened, you keep the value of a vintage instrument by maintaining the original finish. You can do that with a little Pledge.”

The bubble didn’t just burst, it imploded.

Pledge?”

“Yeah, you know, or any polish and wax finish.” I had visions of 60s era homemaking commercials and gingham aprons. I needed an exit strategy.

“This is adding up. We really just need help with the calfskin head—the cleaning part is grunt work that we can really do ourselves.” His face fell. It wasn’t just that the fish had slipped the hook—you could tell that he had really wanted to get his hands on the banjo. There’s genuine satisfaction in the restoration of a beautiful old item. He nodded. And helped me repack the banjo parts back into the case. He was really a nice and genuine fellow. He was, after all, the person most recommended in the area.

I took the banjo home and told Rick the tale.

So, really, how hard could it be?

We went online, researched and ordered the replacement tuning machines, and the calfskin replacement head material. We even broke down and bought an original Paramount wrench to stretch the new head. (They look kind of look an old skate key.) There are You Tube videos that show the many phases of banjo restoration, including stretching a calfskin head.

Rick helped disassemble the rest of the banjo, and I started the painstaking cleaning process, starting with the inlaid fret board, using the materials of my choice. The expert was absolutely right (in part)—cleaned up, it is beautiful. The nickel plated, metal parts have been gently restored to their former gleaming glory. We have some wood repair still to do, but I’ve ordered all the replacement parts and look forward to the challenge of finishing the job.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Spam Review

A.V. Walters

Does anyone else read their spam? I fully trust WordPress to save me from the horrors of the spam kingdom, but recently I took a renewed interest in the junk file. Something about my post, “Revealing” caught the attention of the spam-spiders. I have no idea why a post on art restoration (oops, maybe that’ll do it again) would garner so much spam. The overwhelming majority of the spam came from one vendor. I’d mention it by name, but then I’d just be giving it the very name-recognition attention it was seeking in the first place. I’m a firm believer in not rewarding bad behavior. I’m dying of curiosity as to what sly and secret algorithm garnered that flurry of electronic litter. So now I read the spam. I’m looking for some connection between the blog I write and the junk it attracts.

Perhaps the art restoration (there I go again) blog contained words leading one to believe that I was a high-end shopper and would be interested (oh-oh, here we go) in high-end leather goods or handbags or coats or men’s accessories. In truth, I’m not much of a consumer. My first-choice venue for shopping is Craigslist. Indeed, I confess, I am a Craigslist addict. In particular, I love to peruse the construction materials section. I know, it’s weird. I find it reassuring that used/recycled or mis-ordered materials are available, in case I ever need to (literally) rebuild my life. I once remodeled a kitchen (cabinets, appliances, fixtures and flooring) almost entirely from craigslist. That’s when the addiction started. Some people watch television, when I’m stressed, I scan the listings for unwanted construction materials. My sister suggested a particular microwave and I nodded and said I’d wait to see if one got listed. I’d completely forgotten that most people shop in stores. I saved a bundle on that kitchen. Mostly though, I avoided stores. That poor spammer is really barking up the wrong tree.

In my last post, I mentioned that a particular phrase was “ringing in my ears.” It was just a phrase, not a subject of discussion. My spam box filled with remedies for tinnitus. Actually I do have tinnitus, so it took me a minute to trace back to what I’d said that would lead to that advertising pitch. For just a second, I wondered what they knew about me. I don’t mean to be internet paranoid, but in fact, they are listening. My last book included a lot of Catholic references, and I did a good bit of research online. Now, I’m plagued with pop-up ads for Christian Singles. (Oh no! now what will the spammers do with me?) It’s a funny bit of cat and mouse, this. But I have the ultimate power–I press delete.

 

 

Revealing

A.V. Walters

Skov painting

After almost a decade of owning it, I finally cleaned a painting today. I haven’t done that in a while, but once you learn the technique, you’ve got it. The painting needed cleaning the whole time but I was afraid. Sometimes you buy a painting, liking the muted hues you see, only to clean it and find it garish, or not just right anymore. I wish I’d taken a “before” picture. This painting has a lot of pinks in the sky and I was concerned that, cleaned, they’d overtake the canvas. I needn’t have worried. Even ninety years ago, the artist had more sense than that.

If you read The Emma Caites Way, you’ll see that art restoration is actually a part of my background. It’s an interesting way to learn more about art. I’m taken with the plein air paintings of the Arts & Crafts period. I like how the artist, on the fly, can suggest light and space with a few deft strokes, or even just a well-informed line or a perfectly placed splash of color.

Generally cleaning a painting brightens it and more clearly reveals the artist’s original intent. It removes accumulated oils, dirt and smoke residue, helping to protect the canvas over the long haul. In the process you become almost intimate with the work. You have to work within the artist’s original brush strokes, gently wiping clean the grooves left by the bristles in his brush. If you work the surface too hard—or scrub—you can damage the original paint. The work is painstaking. When you’re satisfied that you’ve done as much as you can (or as much as the canvas will endure) you protect it with a thin layer of conservation varnish. By the time you finish, you really know the painting.

This Danish painting is from 1923, apparently painted in Tuscany—I don’t think there are olive trees in Denmark. The artist, Marius Skov, is a “listed” Danish artist, meaning that he was recognized in his time. The cleaning lifted nearly a century of grime and funk from his canvas. It’s brighter and clearer than I would have guessed. Indeed there’s a roadway (or maybe a river) in the foreground that I never saw before. It’s a surprise.

With a good cleaning, you expect to see more features in the bright areas. What surprises me is how much new detail is revealed in the shadows. The trees in the center, once just a blob of dark green, now reveal new colors and brushstrokes that weren’t visible before. And now the countryside is dotted with neighboring villas and farm buildings, previously lost in the haze. Even the distant hills undulate in new distinct shades of blue and purple.

Once, years ago, I cleaned a painting of a waterfall and pond, and found that it’d been partially painted over–a figure, a man fly-fishing, had been painted out, covered with bushes and shrubs to convert the painting to an elegant and simple landscape. Some research on the artist showed that his specialty was paintings of fishermen. The part of the painting that made it the most valuable as an example of this artist’s work had been obscured. Worse yet, the owner of the painting had liked it as a landscape and was disappointed by the appearance of this new interloper. I was torn–how was I to be faithful to the intent of the original artist and satisfy the owner?

It makes me think about writing. It’s easy to move the plot along “in the light,” to reveal the obvious. It’s another thing entirely to look into the dark parts of the story and to reveal the texture that informs how things go wrong. It might be enough to let your readers know that a character has done something vile, or selfish. Yet, the story is more telling if we can see the brushstrokes in that life that consummate in that act. I need to remember to look hard at both the light and the dark in my writing. (And the painting turned out okay, too.)