Iliana in the News!

This month Brian Coleman, author of Classic Cottages: Simple, Romantic Homes writes about Iliana’s latest project, an historic property atop New York’s Catskill Mountains. The article appears in October’s Old-House Journal Magazine.

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In the Studio: Restoring an Ebonized Elephant Table

Vintage mahogany table with elephant base, before and after treatment.

Vintage mahogany table with elephant base, before and after treatment.

Recently we received a call from a new client with a furniture problem. She had inherited a table with a base carved in the form of an elephant. The finish was black and badly damaged. I went up to meet the lady, her table and, it turns out, her dog Sadie.

Sadie has no idea how all those scratches got there.

Sadie has no idea how all those scratches got there.

Sadie is a charming young dog with good taste in furniture. She adopted the elephant table as her own with visible consequences. She even chewed the tail off the back of the elephant. Now, we TreasureTrackers are highly dog-friendly so this was not shocking. Sadie helped me examine the table, I took some photos, then I took the table back to Center Art Studio for treatment.

When I inspected the table closely, I found some surprises. First, I noticed that the eyes and tusks were actually ivory even though they were now black. I also saw strange drips in the black finish under the top. Clearly someone had painted over the ebonized mahogany to “restore” the black. Remember that “ebonizing” is not the same as painting wood black to resemble ebony. Proper ebonizing is done with black or brown-black stain (nowadays we use aniline dye – I get good results with Solar-Lux by H. Behlen). This produces a thin but strongly colored finish that allows some sense of the wood grain to show through. I determined to remove the black housepaint with solvent to expose the wood, allowing me to then recreate a proper ebonized look.

Left: after removing black housepaint. Arrows show ivory details. Right: the black aniline dye is applied, yet the mahogany shows through slightly.

Left: after removing black housepaint. Arrows show ivory details. Right: the black aniline dye is applied, yet the mahogany shows through slightly.

For the top coat I chose amber shellac, applied with a brush. The first coat was very thin, to soak deeply into the wood. The final coat was applied more thickly, then lightly sanded. Then paste wax applied with steel wool and buffed with old rags, and I was ready to return Sadie’s table.

Sadie was out, but the family cat took a test drive.

Sadie was out, but Baby took a test drive.

As it turned out, Sadie was out but the family cats, Baby and Angel, took advantage of her absence and inspected my work.

Happily scratches in an ebonized finish are easily touched up with a Q-tip and some aniline dye (available at a paint store). Some people use black shoe polish, but I recommend trying to find the dye (or contacting us!).

I may see this table again.

In the Studio with: Godzilla

Alligator lamp - I call him Godzilla - before and aftere treatment.

Alligator lamp - I call him Godzilla - before and after treatment.

Every week is different at the studio, and the end of summer usually brings some crazy projects. But a baby alligator lamp? Really?

This piece of vintage taxidermy came in with lots of problems. One leg was coming off, the coconut shell was peeling, various parts were missing, and it was leaking sawdust. Happily I have had similar things through the studio (like a diorama of a roadside saloon with 23 stuffed animals – voles, squirrels, etc. – dancing and drinking at the bar!). So I knew how to make strong but simple repairs without getting carried away.

I started by taking some Jade glue, thinning it a little with water, and painting it into all the areas where the sawdust was leaking. Jade is a great adhesive –  like a conservator’s version of Elmer’s – that won’t yellow and is easily reversible. In this case the Jade worked to hold the sawdust in place and stop it from leaking. I also used Jade to glue down pieces of alligator hide that were lifting up or flaking. Jade is a very good consolidant. I use it often on the edges of a canvas where it is meets the stretcher and is worn and flaking.

Broken leg: before, during and after repair.

Broken leg: before, during and after repair.

The taxidermist used a metal armature to give the alligator form. I used Devcon 5-minute Epoxy mixed with wood dust to cement the broken leg back in place. First I cleaned the exposed metal with a little acetone to insure a good joint. Then I filled the gaps on either side of the break with epoxy and brought the pieces into position. After five minutes the epoxy hardened and the leg was strong again. I used another epoxy product, plumber’s epoxy, to fill gaps and make the missing parts. Plumber’s epoxy (available in most hardware stores) is a two-part putty that hardens in about ten minutes. This gives you time to model shapes (like alligator toes). Finally I used Japanese mulberry paper and Jade glue to cover joints and parts made from epoxy. After the repairs were finished I inpainted where needed with Gamblin conservation colors.

Now the little guy is free to run through the streets of Manhattan like a Japanese movie from the 1950s (see picture). Have a great Labor Day and check back soon for our next post.

Happy End of Summer from the TreasureTrackers!

Happy End of Summer from the TreasureTrackers!

Treasures for sale

NightingaleTNYou can’t keep everything. Believe me, I’ve tried. So from time to time we will post items from our inventory – things we tracked down then made ready for display – in our blog. Just click Treasures for sale to visit the sale page. If you see something you like, just contact us (lansing@dongancollection.com)!

In the Studio: Restoring a Chinese Painting

Damaged area of Chinese painting on silk, before and after inpainting.

Damaged area of Chinese painting on silk, before and after inpainting.

A good antique Chinese scroll painting, now framed, in my studio for treatment.

A good antique Chinese scroll painting, now framed, in my studio for treatment.

After chasing Iliana around the fields of Madison-Bouckville I was ready to return to my work tables at Center Art Studio. A comfy chair, air conditioning, and a view of Times Square (if you lean out of the window a little bit). Best of all, some great old things to work on and enjoy.

Today I’m working on an antique Chinese painting on silk, originally a scroll. It is a beautiful thing, about six feet tall, but sadly it suffered extensive abrasion in the bottom 10 – 12 inches. The image is classic Chinese painting: a beautiful pavilion in a rocky landscape with a sailboat in the upper distance and a bridge over a stream in the foreground (the most damaged area). The palette is subtle, dominated by an amber light, with details in muted greens, reds, and brown-black. This painting shows the Chinese way of showing perspective – so different from traditional Western painting. The different parts of this scene seem to exist in one plane, then in no rational space at all, shifting as I look at it.

My job today is to inpaint the abrasions where the color is lost at the bottom. Inpainting is like retouching, with the added connotation of only adding paint where the original is missing (retouching within the damaged area rather than painting over it). I am using Gamblin conservation colors with a#6 Kolinsky sable brush (this one is the da Vinci Restauro series, which I really like).  If you are looking for supplies and have trouble finding things I mention, start with the Talas website. They have just about everything and years of experience as well.

Inpainting - adding color only within the damaged area, leaving all original color untouched.

Inpainting - adding color only within the damaged area, leaving all original color untouched.

If you do the inpainting right, the painting will look much better after treatment but the extent of damage will still be clearly visible under close examination, like with a UV lamp. We use UV, or blacklight, flashlights to check paintings when we are thinking about buying them or preparing treatment proposals. Restorations show up clearly. Often the restorer added much more paint than needed, causing a painting to look worse than it is. But I digress – UV in the field and in the studio will be the subject of a future post.

After a few hours I was pretty happy with the progress. I’ll head home, then come in tomorrow morning and see how it looks with fresh eyes.

Hard at work. Maybe next time I'll try to inpaint my gray hair.

Hard at work. Maybe next time I'll try to inpaint my gray hair.

Madison-Bouckville: What We Bought

Iliana and I arrived on the field with different goals: she was shopping for specific projects, with defined needs. I was poking around, looking for the unusual (and cheap). We both lucked out.

Soon after we arrived, I saw this beautiful Aesthetic picture frame with cattails in relief on the vertical sides. These frames were made in the 1870s and 1880s. Frames like this, which have ornament running all around the corners – not interrupted by a miter cut – are more desirable. My find is a good size (about 22″ by 12″ wide) and in great condition. I will give it a light cleaning back in the studio, but not too much – this surface is fragile. Not bad for $60!

Aesthetic frame with cattails in relief, made circa 1880.

Aesthetic frame with cattails in relief, made circa 1880.

Country bench with worn green paint and tenoned legs.

Country bench with worn green paint and tenoned legs.

Iliana is designing a general store in the Catskills, so she needs tables, chairs and display furniture. She found several old painted country benches with legs joined to the top by tenons rather than nails. She will use these on top of tables and counters to form additional display shelves in the store.

Choosing from a large selection of affordable, sturdy 19th c. country chairs.

Choosing from a large selection of affordable, sturdy 19th c. country chairs.

For seating indoors, Iliana chose a variety of 19th century chairs with caned seats and various backs – turned spindle, stick-and-ball, carved, etc. She also found painted metal tables with wood tops and chairs to match, suitable for use outside (these were already with the trucker by the time I caught up…Iliana wastes no time at an antique fair).

Iliana closes on an Empire chest.

Iliana closes on an Empire chest.

Iliana bought this Empire chest for a client. She liked that it was lighter in color than many Empire pieces we see (the result of a recent refinish, and the use of bird’s eye maple as well as mahogany).

Three panel folding screen frame with old crackled blue paint.

Three panel folding screen frame with old crackled blue paint.

Last but not least, I spotted this painted oak screen frame. The frame, which is in great condition, was probably made around 1890. It has a nice, deeply crackled pale blue painted surface. I think it will work well with some French wallpaper I have back in the studio. I was very happy with the price ($40). Thanks Brian!

So we all came away with something, and I stuck with my budget for once. Even Milly got an ice cream on our way out of town. I’m looking forward to next year’s show!

Next post: back in the studio

Madison-Bouckville: The Ones That Got Away

Well, you can’t buy everything (although this never seemed quite right to me). Here are some things that caught our eye but remained on the field.

Great old cabinet with original surface and wild shaped apron.

Great old cabinet with original surface and wild shaped apron.

This old cabinet caught my eye with a vengeance. The surface is the original red paint with no later restoration – just the way we like it for country furniture. The minor damage  (one missing knob, scattered spots) were no deterrent. Look at the shape of the skirt and the boards on the left and right of the top – this is Country Empire if I ever saw it. I’m kicking myself for leaving it behind, but my budget was tight so it will find a place with another collector.

Massive wood bowl sitting on a painted wood settee.

Massive wood bowl sitting on a painted wood settee.

Another temptation: the painted decoration on this settee looked good from across the aisle so I took a close look. I found that there were two levels of decoration. The earliest was rather elaborate scrollwork, foliage and heraldic animals executed in thin lines of pyrography (wood-burning). The black paint was added later, then painted over with the bright enamels that roughly follow the first design. The original pyrography probably was done when the settee was made, in the mid-nineteenth century. The enamels were added to “improve” the settee around 1900. I was tempted to take the settee to my studio and remove the bright colors and black to expose the pyrography. Wiser heads (Iliana) prevailed, however, so it stayed behind and my list of uncompleted projects did not increase by one. It is a long list.

I liked the bowl as well – I always like large old bowls for the kitchen. But this one was just too big to make sense for us.

Two examples of the many sets of stenciled chairs I saw on the field.

Two examples of the many sets of stenciled chairs I saw on the field.

There were several good sets of stenciled chairs on the field on Saturday. Generally mid to late 19th century, good looking and sturdy, and averaging about $150 per chair. A practical solution for someone furnishing their home, and not a bad addition to a dealer’s inventory. I saw a pair of really good windsor chairs with red paint and little yellow dash-and-cross designs on the backs, but by the time I called Iliana and went back to check them out they were gone. In like 45 seconds! You have to move fast, even in 90 degree heat.

Adirondack style table with bark covering on the top.

Adirondack style table with bark covering on the top.

Iliana spotted this Adirondack style bark table. We liked it for its size – a good sofa or window table – and for the surface. The legs are sections of branches with the original bark, which is common for Adirondack furniture. The top was unusual: a generous board covered with bark that had been flattened and glued on. This treatment continued on the edges and ends. Some areas were loose, and there was a slightly over-shiny varnish added, but these could have been corrected easily in the studio. Iliana wasn’t buying “on spec”, though, so it stayed where it was.

Bamboo etagere with maple shelves, and an Old Hickory rocker.

Bamboo etagere with maple shelves, and an Old Hickory rocker.

Speaking of bark, there were some nice examples of Old Hickory furniture scattered around the field. Some had old paint, while others (like the rocker shown) were unpainted. Most needed light repair but generally the prices were reasonable. It was hard to find good Old Hickory a few years ago so I always give a second look when I see it – particularly the early pieces or the less common shapes like settees.

I also saw lots of bamboo furniture. These pieces are almost cliché, so you want to find the ones with interesting variations. I like the squiggly bands on the bamboo in this example. Others I saw had Japanesque brass caps, beehive-turned wood finials, and feet made of the root of the bamboo (it makes a nice knob-like end).

Both the Old Hickory and the bamboo pieces seemed functional and well-priced. Under $200, a little oil soap and wax, and you have a useful piece with character. Iliana and I passed, but no doubt a good home was found by all.

Massive aluminum bass.

Massive aluminum bass.

Finally, I was blinded by the morning sun reflecting off this big aluminum bass. The perfect accompaniment to a National Steel guitar?

Next time: what we bought.