Mixing Old & New: Reproducing a 19th Century Frame

© Amanda Quinby

Recently I was asked to reproduce an oval frame to fit into an existing collection of four matching frames. I had already restored those four frames and was familiar with the materials and gilding techniques originally used in their construction. My challenge for the reproduction was to find the best frame solutions while maintaining my client’s budget. Of greatest concern were the material and construction techniques to be used for the body of the frame and the methods used to reproduce the ornamentation pattern. Other considerations such as leaf choice, gilding technique (oil versus water) and final finish were predetermined by the existing frames and the work I had already done on them.

The first problem was to find a frame body and the most obvious solution was to contact production frame companies around the country.  I invariably encountered one of two obstacles at this point: either the frame could only be made in a stock size or it could be custom sized using composite wood material. I needed a custom sized frame and I wanted it to be of solid wood. I have used  composite materials before and find them to be quite adequate for some uses, such as large spandrels, the liner which fills the space between a rectangular frame and an oval or circular picture. The material is stable, doesn’t splinter as plywood does, and accepts gesso perfectly well so that gilding is not a problem. It is as durable as any well made wood frame and its heirloom qualities are probably more than adequate. These are all factors that have to be taken into consideration when making such decisions but, in this case, I couldn’t surrender to my own sales pitch. I knew I would probably end up paying more for a traditional solid wood frame but it seemed an important detail in the overall integrity of the frame collection. This is an example of art taking precedence over business. There are times when pragmatism cannot prevail over craft and I held myself up for several months in my effort to find the frame I considered to be suitable for the project. I finally connected with Schwamb Mill in Arlington, MA where custom frames are still made using 19th century production techniques. (See Living With Antiques, December 2001 for my article on the Schwamb Mill.)

With the finger-jointed basswood frame in hand I then turned my attention to the reproduction of the ornamentation. All four of the existing frames are ornamented with molded composition ornamentation, most commonly referred to as “compo”. Three of the frames match one another. The fourth is of a similar style though slightly heavier. Its ornamentation echoes that of the other frames but it is different, most noticeably around the sight edge and the back edge of the frame (the edges of the frame closest to and furthest from the picture, respectively.) It was the ornamentation of the original three frames that I was interested in reproducing but the details of the pattern, at both the back and sight edges, have been obscured by over a century’s accumulation of dust, soot, and abuse.

I often use the dental material, Alginate, to create my molds and cast the ornamentation with a dental plaster, called Hydrocal. Experience has taught me that, using this process, details are often lost in the smaller patterns or those that have been worn down by time,  such as the egg and dart pattern found at the back and sight edges on this frame. I had similar expectations for traditional composition material. Before beginning this project I spoke with frame conservators at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and at the Athenaeum in Hartford, CT. Both use moldable epoxy for much of their ornamentation work. It’s smelly stuff and, again, I felt it not quite appropriate for this frame. I ended up finding a suitable pattern for the sight and back edges in the impressive Decorators Supply catalog of compo ornamentation. I thus was able to use authentic compo which I could then distress and fill to match the 19th century frames rather than trying tediously to regain detail lost in the reproduction of the new ornamentation.

I was then left with the rather substantial repeating floral pattern of ornamentation along the top ridge of the frame. I chose to reproduce this ornamentation using Hydrocal which sets (depending on the temperature) in about ten minutes. It remains soft enough for several minutes after the mold is removed to be shaped and carved. In a matter of hours Hydrocal becomes quite hard though it can be sanded. I also use a Dremel tool, once the plaster has hardened, to recreate details that have been lost during casting.

While not strictly authentic for compo ornamented frames, the use of dental plaster to recreate complex ornamentation is common in museums and gilding studios throughout the country. I have also read of its use in Great Britain and Australia. It is a relatively fast process and the resulting product is strong and accurate. The use of this modern technique was a compromise I made in concession to my client’s budgetary concerns.

I filled the Alginate molds, cast in successive sections, with the Hydrocal and, while still flexible, placed them on the raw wood frame to which a thin layer of wood glue had been applied. At this point in the process the molds can be manipulated to fit the curve of the frame and the height of the previously cast section. After the Hydrocal sets the mold is removed and the casting is detailed.

Once the oval ornamentation was completed it was allowed to set overnight. I gave the ornamentation a final shaping with rasps, picks, Dremel tool and 150 grit sandpaper to ensure that all sections matched one another and appeared seamless. I then gessoed the entire frame. Gesso, made of whiting and rabbit skin glue, serves to fill the wood grain as well as flaws in the ornamentation. It provides the smooth surface essential for traditional gilding. I applied several layers to the remaining wood areas of the frame while the compo and Hydrocal ornamentation received varying quantities of gesso depending on the type of gilding to which they would be subjected and how much detail was meant to show in the final frame. I then recarved the gesso on the top ridge ornamentation to bring out details lost to the thick white substance. The highlights of this ornamentation also received extra gesso as these were the areas to receive water gilding. All other areas were oil gilded using 22 3/4 k gold leaf.

The highlights, water gilded over black bole, were burnished and the entire frame surface was lightly distressed. I marred the edges of the frame somewhat more aggressively, in keeping with the general look of the companion frames. I used a raw umber casein wash followed by a wax and oil based antiquing toner, identical to the finish used on the repaired areas of the four restored frames. A final light dusting of rottenstone completed the antique look.