Sunday, May 29, 2016

Plaster Moulding Project - Update VIII; A Big Transformation

Since returning from my trip abroad, I have gotten back into the moulding project, and the past three weeks of work have made a  big impact on the appearance. Following are some pictures of what has been done and some of the stages along the way.

Gold paint on the over-door ornament. This extra long ornament began with
the same castings over the other doors, but I extended it by sculpting  sections
of wet plaster right there on the wall.

Before the gold paint was applied, a layer of red oxide primer was added. This simulates the red "bole" used in traditional gilding, and is the red-orange colour one sees when old gilding has gotten worn. It adds a richness to the overall finish that is not achieved if the gold is painted directly onto the white surface.

The red-oxide under-paint

In most traditional 18th century work one sees of this nature, all of the moulding is gilded, but sometimes one does come across work that is primarily white with gold accents, or where the gold and white are more or less evenly divided. The clients for this job really like the gold and white look much more than all gold, which is more of a Venetian look than a French one; though that is somewhat of a generalisation. (a lot of German Rococo work was also done in gold and white) People's tastes have always varied, and the artists and craftsmen who catered to them have always adapted.

I had originally wanted to do all of the carved ornament in gold, and leave all of the linear borders white. The clients thought that that would still be too much gold, so they suggested doing the carvings in gold and white. Their idea was to leave all of the edges of the sculpted elements white, so that the line of white would flow, unbroken. In theory, it seemed like a viable option, and even the sample that I prepared for them looked good, however, by the time an entire section of wall was finished in that manner, it looked like something from a circus. I hated it.

I did not even take a picture of the entire wall like this; I did not want to
leave any evidence

After a thorough discussion with the clients, we agreed to increase the gold areas in order to minimise the busyness that the contrasting colours created. One thing that would have helped would have been if the gold were actually genuine leaf, but they do not like bright gold, and wanted a darker, "antique" gold colour. This darker gold also contributes a lot to the sharp contrast between gold and white, and made it more critical to not have so many areas of both colours together.

In the end, we all agreed that leaving a few areas of white, and all the linear elements remaining white did, in fact, give the look that they were after. (I am glad, because I never could have put these pictures on this blog if they had stuck with the first idea!)

This is the first view one gets of the project as they enter the house
and pass through the stair vestibule

More free-form sculpted decorations

My new favourite vantage point of this project

This wall is nearly complete, there is one more
frame to the right of the door which still
must be completed

Just to remind everyone of where we started, here is a picture of the early stages of this project. I "took pictures before I started", but later discovered that the card was not in the camera. At this stage, the lower mouldings had already been installed, and most of the walls were plastered. This picture was taken just before the onset of the upper moulding installation.

It looks so plain and empty by comparison

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Conecting with the Middle Ages - in the Philippines

Well, not really, but a lot of aspects of life in the Philippines are very much reminiscent of the way things would have been in medieval Europe. From abject poverty rubbing right up against immense wealth, buildings in every state from brand new, to near total collapse in the same city block, and craftsmen working with simple hand tools to produce all manner of finely made products.

Four gilt copper gem housings for my 9th century box
there will be a piece of lapis lazuli in each

It is the last aspect, which I want to focus on in this blog posting, as I made a new friend in the jewelry district of Chinatown, Manila, whilst on my recent holiday. He gave me a helping hand with some of the metalwork which I need to do for my 9th century box. The box will have embossed metal foil borders around the imitation ivory panels and the junctions of those strips of foil will be covered with gems and semi-precious stones, just as the more expensive caskets, and treasure bindings of the Middle Ages were made.

Nestor, a very talented goldsmith.
I took more than a hundred pictures as we worked to make the housing for four oval and four rectangular stones. It was hard to condense all those pictures down to one blog's worth. I will try to keep the text to a minimum and let the photos tell the story.

I couldn't resist getting in on the action as well

The work begins with square wire which is made with this wire drawing
machine; on the left, square wire can be made; or round wire on the right

Repeated passes, through the machine, and repeated annealing every other pass
eventually produces a suitable gauge wire. It is then passed through the flat
part of the rollers to transform the square wire to thin strips.

The strips are cut and bent to form the sides to the housing

Here one of the rectangles is being formed

Once the sides are formed, they must be soldered together. This is done with
silver; the little lump at the end of the flame

A long piece of stainless steel wire with a sharp point serves as a soldering iron

The finished solder joint

Filing the joint flush, notice the little work surface tenoned into the bench;
old worn-out sandpaper compensates for too much wear on the tenon

Some copper for smelting
Much like in medieval times, materials are usually more expensive than labour in the Philippines. I was not surprised to see Nestor collect every grain of gold and silver and re-melting it, but when he began doing so with the copper I felt guilty. I could easily bring him pockets full of the stuff from wire trimmings the electricians throw away on job-sites here in the West. He gets his copper from the scrap dealers because he cannot afford to buy new wire from the hardware shops. Every scrap he has left, he smelts and reuses. Hopefully, the cost of the fuel used to melt it is less than the value of the recovered copper.

This was not the same batch, but it shows borax being added as a flux;
this allows the copper to melt into a lump, with no impurities

Ordinary automotive grade petrol is the fuel used for smelting as well as

Just as in medieval times, a bellows provides enough oxygen to raise the
heat to melting point. Of course in the Middle Ages, the fuel was charcoal;
blacksmiths here actually still use that.

One cannot get much more medieval than a simple un-glazed clay bowl
used for smelting

If  too much heat is lost for a large batch, a pot shard serves as a lid, creating
a miniature smelting furnace 

Once the copper is melted, it is poured into a form, to produce a miniature

The resulting "ingot" and the wire which served as the valve

Another very medieval looking piece of equipment; the anvil, set into a log

Repeated rolling and annealing produces a thin flat sheet for use in making
the 'floor' of the housings

Trimming the sheet to width

Cutting rectangular plates for the housings

Another "anvil" this time the face plate off of an antique flatiron

Once the parts are made they are "pickled" in a borax solution to aid in the
soldering process

Soldering is done by picking up a bit of molten silver with the point of the
instrument and allowing it to wick into the heated joint of the parts

Soldering a rectangular housing

The oversised bases are to allow for an eventual beaded wire border, a detail
I forgot about with the first batch of oval housings

The only thing powered by electricity in Nestor's shop were the lights

Four oval housings, with holes bored to be able to eventually attach them
to the box; once I manage to find some tiny hand forged copper nails

The parts being scrubbed to remove any foreign contaminates before plating
Very much as it would have been in medieval times, each person specialises in a particular task. If I had wanted any sort of engraving, repoussé or chasing work done, that would have been done by a different artisan.

Once the pieces were formed and soldered, he handed them over to an old woman who works there polishing the pieces and doing electroplating. (I could have had them plated in the old fashioned mercury amalgam method, but then I would have had to wait a week, and that process is done in a village some distance from the city where there are no laws prohibiting the use of mercury). I opted for the un-medieval method of electroplating.

So I lied; this is powered by electricity as well. This is the liquid which
contains dissolved gold, which by some magic art... 

involving electricity...

Causes it to materialise and adhere to the object being plated

The finished rectangular housings 
Except that they are not finished, because oddly, they had no device for making beaded wire. In the book of "Diverse Art" written by "Theophilus" in the 11th  century, (and mostly reciting practices which were much older) he explains a method of making a stamping die for creating beaded wire. For some reason, no one in the Philippines seems to have a need for, or thought of such a device. If I had wanted him to add the beads around the borders he would have made and soldered them one bead at a time. I did not want to spend that much time on the project, and am planning to make a device to take back to him which will make authentic medieval beaded wires the next time I return.

I share this story and this series of photos because I really want to point out the contrast of the amazing things which can be made with the most "rudimentary" equipment in the hands of skilled craftsmen, compared with how most westerners seem to think they need a super high tech machine for every single task they do. A perfect example of that being the touch screen (really???!) controlled 100% automated KEY CUTTER, which I just witnessed two days after I returned.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Plaster Moulding Project Update

It has been a few weeks since I posted anything about my ongoing moulding project, but it is wrapping up nicely. This week I will be tackling a new aspect of the project which is to paint faux marble in the lower panels in all the rooms where I have been working. In the picture below you can see the sample I prepared for the clients. They were extremely pleased with the results. A future blog will feature this process.

Small vestibule off of the main passageway
In my last post on this project, most of the moulding was finished, except for the large archway. I had cast two sections of it on a table and then attached them to the wall, but then still had to make the tight radius ends, which I did on-site. I decided to do the entire other side this way instead of forming pieces on the table and transferring them. The results turned out well. Thomas took pictures with his phone, so sorry for the poor resolution. Looking at all the pictures, it is odd to see that there are none showing the actual process of shaping the moulding with the form. It looks like some sort of conspiracy to guard against the trade secrets, but was not intentional.

The process begins with a piece of rope used as a "backbone" to anchor
the moulding to the wall

It also serves as a base from which to begin building the plaster up

Layer by layer it gets built up
The template is passed over the plaster after each application

Still does not look like much

A little free-hand forming

To the right you can see the moulding begin to take shape

Hiding the secret to how it is done

Nearly finished

Because the template is made of aluminium it leaves black marks on the
dry plaster wall

Finished and ready for cleanup
What we did not manage to get any pictures of was my process of sculpting leaves and flowers from freshly applied plaster, but some of that was done as well. I began with the castings that were made for over the doors, but stretched it to more than double the length by breaking it in sections, adding wet plaster between, and then sculpting it to match up to the cast parts

Finished plaster arch moulding with sculpted leaves

Another thing that has been done is the changing
of the newel posts and balusters.
(they were just simple square pieces)