Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Hell Frame

Once upon a time there was a massive, hand-carved mirror frame.  The overall shape is an upside down guitar body with huge leaves, big blossoms, bulging buds and assorted flourishes.  Perhaps it had been a beauty in the newness of its youth, but it was middle-aged now and hideous.  The once glorious gold leaf had been covered with ugly gold spray paint.  Some of this finish was peeling off in sheets – some of it was stuck fast.

This frame was brought to me by a decorator so I could “tone” it to match her client’s newly redecorated living room.  Upon close examination I said I could do no more until the surface was smoother and stabilized.  I did not want to charge for a paint job that would fall off in the van on the way to the installation.

So I dug out my sand paper, nail files, tungsten-carbide sanding sticks, and wire brushes and I started in on the thing.  A fair amount of the old finish (first layer of plaster, gold leaf, second layer of plaster, gold spray paint) came off easily.  And the rest did not.  Ugly ridges resulted and no amount of sanding helped.  I dragged the thing into the back alley, draped it with wet towels, and found that moisture helped make the scraping easier but not by that much and it required a lot of backing and forthing (in at night, out in the morning, etc.) with this heavy monstrosity of a frame.

So I made a trip to the hardware store and bought a couple of new wire brushes for my drill.  I dug out my Dremel tool, and the array of cylindrical grinding and sanding implements.  I donned goggles and a respirator.  The goggles steamed up.  I could not see a thing.  I removed the goggles.  My glasses steamed up – I still could not see a thing.  I abandoned the respirator and went with a face mask – and then I abandoned the face mask.  Then I abandoned the power tools.  They were useless and way too messy  (dust everywhere!) – and by this date the time had come and gone to work outdoors.  Too darned cold!

I unearthed my sets of clay and plaster tools, files, rasps and many kinds of scrapers - from sharp pieces of glass to a batch of razor blades and mat cutter blades.  I tried my large variety of both full size and hobby size chisels.  I added dental tools and nutpicks to my arsenal.  I scraped as much as I could in any given day until my fingers were cramped into claws.

Somewhere along the line I managed to break the mirror.  Like I need seven years of bad luck!  I called the mirror guy and he came and picked up the plywood backing board to use as a template and we carefully marked which side was the shiny side because the frame was far from symmetrical.

I continued scraping away at the unrelenting finish until I finally came to my senses, stamped my little feet and demanded that the thing be taken away to a real furniture stripper to be professionally dipped and stripped.  This was eventually accomplished with a helpful go-between who had a vehicle large enough to transport what I had by then begun calling the Hell Frame.

The frame returned with most of the finish removed and mostly bare wood showing.  I went back to my array of tools and began picking off what the dipping had been unable to remove.  In some areas the bare wood needed filling and at this juncture my hapless neighbor dropped in for a visit and I inadvertently Tom Sawyered him into the project.  He is an auto body expert and he went back to his place and returned with some professional grade fiberglass filler, some spatulas and the best sandpaper I have ever used. The filler worked well but as it was very messy and sticky I eventually went back to my tried and true epoxy putty to fill gaps, gouges and scrapes.  So after a couple of weeks more, the Hell Frame was ready to paint.

I remembered a marvelous brand of metallic latex paint that I had found for another project at Benjamin Moore in Fort Erie.  I felt my luck had begun to turn as I was able to buy the very last jar of gold in stock!  Yippee!  I prepped the frame and painted the rabbet and the interior of all of the cut-outs in the design with black gesso.  I decided to christen a brand-new really good paint brush for the gold paint.

After a bit more epoxy, a bit of sanding and smoothing and a second coat of gold, I was feeling rather mellow towards the Hell Frame.  I mixed up the toning color, burnt sienna and burnt umber artist acrylic (adding water to arrive at a nice creamy consistency).  I used brushes, sea sponges and gauze to achieve the desired results.  Then I used a stiffer sea sponge to apply the gold over the highlights and even out the finish.  This turned out very well and I was ever so pleased with myself.  Damn I’m good!

I maneuvered the frame into position for the installation of the new mirror.  I said a brief but heartfelt prayer to the Framing Gods that the mirror would fit.  My prayer went unanswered as I discovered that the mirror was too tall for the frame by between an eight and a quarter of an inch.

So I carefully removed the mirror back into safe storage and began widening the rabbet to fit.  Of course by this time all of my big chisels were back home but I simply could not wait another day to finish this job so I set to this task (which involved drilling holes, cutting with a  utility knife, smoothing with a rasp, using the Dremel – the usual array of desperate measures), and after a half dozen attempts (Backing and forthing with the mirror – does it fit? – No! – Slice, slice, fit?  No – Cut, cut, - now does it fit? Arrrggghhh!).  Two hours later I finally managed to fit the mirror into the frame.

That is when I discovered that, ONE:  the rabbet varied in its depth by as much as an eighth of an inch, and TWO:  the mirror was a bit on the shy side at the “waist” of the frame.  The rabbet was also a bit on the uneven side so I dared not shoot framer’s points to secure the mirror (Come to think of it, which is how I broke the first mirror!) – I had to use upside down offset fasteners and the very hard wood kept killing my rechargeable drill when I installed the Robertson screws.  I kept charging it and recharging it. Then the drill slipped and drilled a small hole in my left index finger (OUCH!) – applied a bandage and carried on until the drill quit again.  And of course I did not have my regular Robertson screwdriver with me – that was at home.

So I uninstalled the mirror again (again) and painted the edges with black gesso to kill the reflections.  I then mounted felt pads along the outer back edge of the mirror to act as cushions so the plywood backer would fit more snugly.  I went home to retrieve my Robertson screwdriver and charge my drill.  Got a great night’s sleep and returned to the shop this morning to finish the Hell Frame.

And now, at long last, the job is finished.  I think it looks great.  I am pleased with the end result – it is once again beautiful and stable and reinforced and should last well into its dotage.

Of course workers in third world countries make more than I will on that beast but at least I can view the ordeal as a learning experience.  I learned two valuable lessons:  ONE - I will never EVER strip any frame or piece of furniture again in my life.  I will gladly and brilliantly (she adds modestly) refinish anything you bring me – as long as you bring it to me stripped down to bare wood.  Thank you.  TWO - I also swear I will use my good brushes from now on.  What am I saving them for anyway?   There will always be uses for the ratty ones – but I swear that when I need a good brush I will use a good brush.

Thus endeth the saga of Mar’s trials with and eventual triumph over the Hell Frame.