Sunday, October 30, 2016

Something From Thin Air (and paint)

As a kid I used to dream up all sorts of creations that I wanted to do, and inevitably if I showed my drawings of them to anyone they would ask me how I planned to make whatever it was that I had designed, because at the time I did not have the skill set or the workshop full of tools to do such things. Very often I would hear the expression, "you can't make something out of thin air". Maybe that is true, but the art of painting actually comes very close. With some paint and brushes, one can bring forth entire universes - or at least a marble fireplace, as I have done here.

A  bit of carving and some paint and you have a marble

I did a post a few weeks ago about my dining room project, and said that there would be only one more post on the project; technically that is still true, because this post is not about the dining room, but only the fireplace in it. As with most things I have done for this client, the project expands as it goes, so what was originally to have been a ceiling medallion and a large oval moulding filling up the entire field, has morphed into a fairly substantial renovation of the entire room.

The first addition to the project was to "enhance" the mantle. Since they wanted to keep the fabric on the walls, I opted not to disturb the structural framework of the mantle. This meant to say that I had to design enhancements and alterations that would turn the "American Colonial" style fireplace into a "French Louis XVI" one. (this is not so difficult since both styles originate from the same time period and fall into the "neoclassical" style) I achieved this mostly by carving the curved posts for the front, to replace the original applied fluting strips. This pushed the overall depth of the mantle out, so it was necessary to make a new top. My friend Steffen from Meisterbuilders Inc made the top for me; I designed it with a bit of curved step-out to the front edge because a simple rectangle would have been just too boring.

The original fireplace

Partially dismantled mantel structure

Newly rebuilt and with the first stages of  the faux finish

I often have trouble remembering to take pictures, or forget the camera, or the card, or, in the case this time, the battery went flat and I kept forgetting to charge it for about a week; thus there are not more progress pictures.

The finished marbling. The compo ornaments are flexible if they are heated
with steam, but that also activates the hide glue which is one of the primary
components of their makeup. Thus when they are bent round the wooden core
they are also glued to it.

The clients had wanted me to simply get some ornaments, gild them, and then apply them, but I explained to them that it would require some structural changes as well in order to achieve a look that would suit their vision for the room. I did use applied ornaments, however; these are not things that I made this time.. I bough ready made compo ornaments, and then used gold leaf and paint to give them the look of ormolu mounts.

Some of the applied compo ornaments
"Compo" is an ancient product, which is used to produce casting of carvings;
it is a combination of hide glue, oil, and plaster. Most picture frames one sees in
museums are ornamented with this type of product, and then gilded.

Actually, I am still very much a novice with the gilding thing, as I had only done one small frame before this project. I still have not actually tried the "water gilding" process. The process used on this project is called "oil gilding", and is accomplished by brushing on a "sizing" to the surface, and then applying the leaf once the oil has dried to a tacky finish. This client does not like things to look too bright and polished so I developed a method of applying the leaf to most of the surface and then painting the rest with a gold paint. This serves as a "glaze" over the whole surface and reduces the brightness but still allows the metal surface to show; the red primer and gold paint look darker by contrast, giving it a sort of "antiqued" look. I did not take pictures of the process whilst doing the ornaments for the mantel but here are a couple pictures which show the stages on some plaster ornaments which will go over the mirror that incorporate the same method.

Here you can see unfinished plaster, plaster with red oxide undercoat, and
another object which has been (mostly) leafed

Another festoon with gold paint applied over the leaf

In planning these modifications to the mantel, I suggested to them that we do the it in a faux marble finish as opposed to simply using the ivory white of the rest of the room. I was happy when they agreed to that, because I really enjoyed doing the marble panels in the passage and foyer and wanted to try to create something even more convincing this time. (I always strive to make each new project better than the last) Just as I was finishing up the painting a representative from a design/build firm was in the house asking me about the my previous faux marble work; I mentioned to him that I had just finished painting the mantle and he was surprised. "oh", he said, "I thought that was real marble" I guess I achieved to some degree, at least, what I was after.

View of the mantel shelf
(I have also made and gilded the mirror frame, but that is a topic
for the last post on the dining room project as a whole)
An antique French marble mantel which was my inspiration for this project I
did not try to copy the colour because the client thought the veins were too dark.
(picture from the "web")

The completed mantel

Anyone paying attention will also notice that the fireplace surround and the hearth have been replaced. I could have done a simple slab like the black granite which I removed, but that would have been way to pedestrian for me. I was so happy to find the perfect pink marble to compliment the room. What I did not realise was how difficult finding nice pure white marble would be, but obviously, I succeeded, those bits are not faux anything.

My job is a lot of fun!

Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Utrecht Psalter and its furnishings; Part II

July saw the introduction of the Utrecht Psalter on this blog, and began the examining of the furniture depicted in it; this is part two of that series. We are examining the objects in alphabetical order and the next post on this topic will conclude the matter. In the last post we got as far as boxes, so we will begin this one with chests. In general, there is somewhat of an overlap to boxes and chest, and it is sometimes difficult to decide if it is a large 'box' or a small 'chest' but for this blog the distinction is that a chest is an object large enough that one cannot hold it in his hands or arms. In the case with all of the examples from this manuscript, the chests seem to be large enough that they would require two people to carry them.


There are 9 chests depicted in the manuscript, as well as many other objects which look as though they could be chests, but are coffins. In many cases the only distinction is that the object in question contains a human figure, so it is presumed to be a coffin. Furthermore, the text of the Psalm usually supports that theory. In a few cases, there is no body, nor any detail to identify which type of object it is meant to represent, and the text must be the determining factor.

One of only two chests in the Psalter which give any indication of
hardware. Though relatively small in size, this chest is for the
transportation of money; thus the lock and carrying rings

The above pictured chest is completely void of any construction or ornamentation details and only shows an object of relative size and shape. What we can see is that the chest has extending feet and a flat lid which is more that a simple plank (in other words of inverted tray form). The lock hasp shows us that the style of split and turned ends with bulbous finials is older that the usual 12th - 15th century examples we find in museums.

From the book Zeit der Stauffers; this "ca 1180" chest, as it appears now, is actually
much simpler than the one pictured above. It is constructed of simple planks
and has a plank top. What we do not know is what its original purpose was
or if it originally had further decoration. We see here an example
of the same basic ironwork pictured in the Utrecht drawing of 360 years earlier.

Most of the chests pictured in the Psalter show extended legs, but there is never any indication as to the manner in which they were formed. Only one other chest has any indication of hardware on it.

Two chests standing against one another; the front one has an indication of having
a lock and hasp but no hinges. They both show extended legs indicating
more than simple plank construction. 

Though very prevalent in smaller 9th century caskets and boxes, and seen often in later medieval chests, there is only one example from the manuscript which shows anything other than a flat topped chest.

A curve topped chest gives someindication of post and panel construction. 
Other 9th and 10th century manuscripts show such construction in more detail. 
This type of chest goes back at least 3500 years BC and can be found in Minoan,
 Greek, and Egyptian artifact. Its form is also prevalent in 3rd to 8th century
 Western European stone sarcophagi. 


It might surprise some to find coffins associated with a treaties on furniture, but coffins have usually been constructed much the same as chests for thousands of years. As mentioned earlier, there are many Minoan clay coffins (actually large boxes for ashes, as opposed to long objects for the internment of an entire corpse.) which are clearly fashioned to represent wooden chests. In Roman times, coffins were often made of wood, clad in lead sheets, in much the same manner as chests were made of wood and covered with ivory, silver, or gold. There is enough overlap between the definition of a 'coffin' and a 'chest' that we have the English word "casket" which can mean either a coffin or a small chest.  Additionally, the English word 'coffin' shares the same origin as the borrowed French word 'coffer'.

These coffins give no indication as to what material they could be constructed
of, but they do indicate some manner of border-and-field form.

Obviously anyone seeing an actual coffin would probably not confuse it with a chest, but this further drives home the point that in the representational nature of artwork of the medieval period, not enough information is given to show actual details of objects. There are several coffins and two chests represented in this manuscript which are absolutely identical and the only way to distinguish them is from the text. In one psalm the reference is to the dead, so obviously the object pictured must be a coffin. Likewise, on another page, the reference is to storing up treasures, and therefore the same form of a lidded, four-sided object must be a chest.

Coffin or chest? Only the text can solve the mystery

Though there is absolutely no indication of any sort of decoration to any of the 27 coffins (the single most common form of object in the manuscript) there are many examples in stone, wood, and lead which have survived from the late Roman and Early Medieval periods; these help us to see the relationship between furnishings and sarcophagi. 

A 7th or 8th century Merovingian stone sarcophagus and a 3rd century
Roman coffin. The continuation of the same basic manner of ornament over
500+ years is here undeniable. Perhaps chests intended as furniture were
similarly carved and decorated; small boxes and caskets certainly were.


There is only one object which resembles some sort of cabinet of a large form. No details are visible on it other than that it has a cornice, a plinth base, and an opening such as would be associated with a door. (behind the left-hand figure) No further speculation of this drawing will be given at this time.

A large unidentified standing object; perhaps a cabinet?


There are five desks depicted in this manuscript, which are illustrated in four separate illuminations, The first, from the opening page of the Psalter, can be seen below. All of them indicate post-and-rail or post, rail, and panel construction.

This desk as well as the others in this manuscript are of cabinet form;
this one clearly shows post, rail, and panel construction, though the
 finer details are still ambiguous.

There are an untold number of books and "on-line" sources covering the history of furniture which continue to regurgitate the notion that post and panel construction was an "invention" or "innovation" of the, 13th, 14th or even 15th centuries, (depending on the book) yet there are scores of 9th and 10th century illustrations that clearly portray this method of construction. Some examples of this misinformation would be the following quotes from The Encyclopedia of Furniture, which states, in the context of "the Gothic Age"; "The development of furniture is marked principally by the passage from the hands of the carpenter to the specialised joiner. The former employed solid boards, the later made framed panels." Under the heading of "Germany" is found this statement, set within the context of the 15th century; "The post-and-panel method of construction was the great contribution of this age to cabinetwork, and from it developed all the drawer and cabinet forms." Lastly, under the heading of "France" comes this gem; "About the 14th century some genius invented the framed-in panel, a stout frame with thin filler panels that lightened and strengthened the whole structure." The book also mentions dozens of times how "crude" pre-Gothic and even Gothic furniture was.

This ivory detail is from the Ottonian (10th century) rather than the Carolingian
period, but shows a good example of the same basic form of desk. (note also
the elaborately carved chair - early medieval furniture was indeed very "crude"!)

Essentially the same desk as that depicted above; as with nearly all the objects
in this Psalter, there is no indication of ornament, but the above ivory relief
gives an idea of the manner in which one might have been decorated.

These two pictures have been used before in this blog, but the current contexts
warrants a reprint; The first is from the Late tenth century, and the second,
an actual wooden object, from the 12th century clearly demonstrate the
erroneous nature to the above mentioned statements  


Five lamp-stands are illustrated in the Utrecht Psalter, all of essentially the same form, having a tripod base supporting a single turned column with some sort of dish to support the lamp or candle and for catching any inadvertent drippings. 

A bird-formed lamp on a turned column
with a tripod animal-foot base; still
very much in the Roman style
A real lamp with essentially the same base (4-5th century) in the MET
(Author's photo)
Save for the fact that this lamp is intended for hanging, it is essentially the
same as the one depicted in the manuscript
(author's photo)


There are four lecterns pictured in the manuscript, two on a simple square base, one on a stepped moulded base (actually a series of three diminishing horizontal lines) and this one which has the lion-paw feet. All of them are virtually identical to the lamp-stands, save that they have a large sloping rectangular table on which to support a book.

This version of the tripod base has more pronounced curving legs;
three of the depicted lamp-stands have the same sort of  base
3rd century tripod with stylised dolphin feet; from the Beaurains Horde

Base of a ca 1020 candelabra from Hildesheim with lions feet

A pair of ca 1280 candelabra from Limoges, now in the MET; these
three objects illustrate the staying power of this form of tripod base.

Next time, Ordinary Chairs, Plinth Chairs, Throne Chairs, and Tables... Stay tuned.

Videre Scire

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Johann International goes to the Fair

Next weekend I will again be exhibiting at the Waterford Craft Fair, in Waterford Virginia. This is a quaint little town tucked in a valley near the Potomac River which time has mostly forgotten and, by American standards, is rather "old". I like doing this show because the exhibitors all dress in period, (or period inspired) clothing and demonstrate their crafts to the visitors. This gives me the excuse to dress up without people thinking I am a 'freak' (actually I am, but no one needs to know) and provides an opportunity for me to give others a glimpse of what goes into actually making something by hand, instead of with machinery.

Carved from antique, re-claimed timber, this is my interpretation of a
16th century "strap-work" box. Inspiration for the front dovetail and rebated
back joinery comes from a mid 16th century box in the V&A

Last year, a storm washed out the event, so I was not able to participate, thus this will be my third year of attendance. (the show has been running for 74 years) Because of the work I have been doing on my moulding project, I have had no time to make anything new for the show this year, but since I had no show last year, and was 'ready' then, I will just consider time to have stood still for a year, (it feels like it has anyway) and whatever was ready last year should still be ready this year.

Many pieces which I will be exhibiting have been seen on this blog before; here is a collection of things that have not been featured yet. Most of them were made just before the blog got started and a couple of them were made quite some time ago.I thought this might be a good excuse to showcase all of them, since I probably never would otherwise. All of these pieces have been made entirely by hand without the aide of machinery, (except the sawmill that cut it, the lorry that carried it, and... OK, all the work I did was by hand)

A close up showing the strap-work detail and the hand forged iron nails which
I embellished with a file.
Yours truly, in my shop, getting ready for a show

This is a delightful little form, or boarded stool, in the late medieval style

A baroque inspired revolving top table, in cherry

An 18th century "barrel back" corner
cabinet. I formed the hinges with a file

This and the following table were commissions, but the client is kind enough
to loan them to me for the show.

Inspired by 18th century style; made of American walnut
A hanging plate rack in the 18th century French
Provincial style, made of cherry
I love boxes, and love making them. In fact, if I could get enough clients to support me in such an endeavor, I could be perfectly happy to spend the rest of my life making boxes and chests. Below are a few that I have to offer.

Oak with cherry edge-banding and an inlay of
holly and walnut. This is a traditional English
style "candle box" of 18th century form

I used a "rat-tailed" saw to cut out the core from a solid block for this box

One of my best boxes, this was cut and carved from a block of extremely
dense and hard American walnut. This wood took on a lovely chocolate
colour and a fine polish; it is not stained.  I also made the escutcheon, the
hinges are traditional 'snipe' hinges.

No; the large worm hole did not "bother" me in the least

Most people think that black locust is a nasty wood; it is a bit of a challenge
to work by hand, but I find the colour it takes on to be worth the trouble; it
quickly mellows to a rich amber.

This was another fun project that I spent way too much time on, but
enjoyed every minute of.
As I said, I spent way too much time on it!

Most of what I have to exhibit has been made in the past couple of years, but there are a couple exception, including this box. It used to be for sale; in fact I made it with the hopes of selling it at a show I did... in 1998! For some reason, no one ever seemed to be interested in buying it, now I have had it so long, that I do not wish to sell it any longer, but do still like to exhibit it.

The design for this echoes a much larger early 16th century chest in the V&A

The above picture was taken in 1998, not long after I had exhibited it in my first show. This was the third carving project I had ever attempted, and by far, the most ambitious at the time.  Not long before making it, I made an accidental discovery of a cleaning chemical which nicely darkened mahogany to a rich deep red-ish colour. I treated this box with that chemical...

The box as it looks now
The deep red colour did not last, however, and now it has mellowed out and turned much lighter. It actually has a colour which looks much older than its 19 years of age, so I am not actually disappointed with the experiment. 

Yours truly again, at a show last year, demonstrating my work

Wish me a good show for this year...