Surface decoration and finish

The demand for novelty, and the reproduction of expensive processes by imitation, were the two main driving forces behind developments in surface decoration and finish. Many old techniques were revived, along with a range of new patented processes, some of which became established while others were unsuccessful.

The most well-known revival and its mechanized equivalent is carving. During the early years of the century the carving trade was in a poor state. With the revival of historical styles and a demand for 'old' pieces, carving was stimulated. However, much of the work for the general taste and fashion was destined to be cut on carving and routing machines. This taste was fuelled by a few schools of carving, developed by the Rogers family in London, Tweedy and Robinson in Tyneside and Kendal and Cooke in Warwick. Most of their work was based on anecdotal scenes, often of great complexity, which remained examples for other makers to copy.

To satisfy the demand for carving, particularly in the Gothic style, machine carving, which had been known to sculptors previously, was applied to architectural woodwork. It was soon used to make carvings suitable for furniture. The most successful of three major companies was the Jordan process, which allowed the model to be copied by moving the material towards a fixed cutting tool.

Pyrography, in which wood is charred by heated iron moulds being applied to the surface, was developed with the result that the surface had an 'old' finish built in. Pressure carving or moulding was another technique for imitating the work of the chisel. It was effected by applying moulds, with a design stamped into them, to wood under great pressure. It was especially useful for end-grain medallions. Finally, there was a range of mouldings and applied decoration made from wood waste and other material including colourings and adhesives.

Painting The decoration of furniture by painting is divided between that with painted ornament on a timber ground and that with an all-over painted ground which is then decorated. The latter process was usually confined to cheaper woods and is often called japanning by contemporary writers: a particular type was called pen-work. This was an imitation of etching which was made by first japanning the furniture black and then painting the design in white japan. Following this was the final process of adding line work with Indian ink and a pen.

Sheraton in his Cabinet Dictionary gives full details on the subject of painting, including the process of painting rush seats. In this instance he warns against the practice of using water colour which was designed to deceive the purchaser. This warning was repeated much later in the century by another commentator talking about painted bedroom furniture which was deceitfully decorated with water colours rather than proper varnishes.

Marquetry and equivalents During the 1850s and 1860s a number of methods of imitation decoration were invented and patented response to the demand and the rising cost of the original processes. The boulle revival of the nineteenth century was supported by stamping brass (especially borders) directly into timber

Figure 1.21 Thonet bentwood chair, Viennese c.1865, stamped Thonet Austria 6811

or by substituting other materials in place of metal and shell.

Marquetry was reproduced by embossing or printing decorative designs onto paper that were then transferred to woods and varnished over. This process was patented as xylography. Another method called diachromatizing used stains to produce a pattern which penetrated the wood. Ready-made marquetry, mouldings and carvings were available from wholesale suppliers in increasing numbers throughout the period.

The revival of interest in pietre dure, where coloured stones were let into an ebony or stone face, continued a tradition that started in Italy in the seventeenth century.

Tunbridge Ware Already known in the eighteenth century, the technique of the process was changed in the early part of the nineteenth century. The method used was to glue a selection of thin strips or rods together in a predetermined way. Once these bunches were dry, they would be sawn transversely to reveal a pattern that could be laid down as a veneer. The mini mosaic effect was best suited to small items, such as trays, boxes, tea caddies and small table tops (Figure 1.22). It is thought that only woods in natural colours were used.

Finishing Graining, staining and marbling were all processes that were well known to furniture-makers and were practised widely in the first half of the nineteenth century. These processes enjoyed a revival not only for cost saving reasons, but also because regular supplies of timber were interrupted by the Anglo-

Figure 1.22 Tunbridge Ware writing box, English, 1830-70

French wars. Graining was acceptable and strongly recommended by commentators on interior decoration. However, by the mid-century these practices were criticized as deceits, and towards the end of the century were only associated with low-grade furniture.

The finishing processes were explicitly described in contemporary trade manuals, the most important being Nathaniel Whittock's The Decorative Painters' and Glaziers' Guide. Staining was important as a finishing process and it was acknowledged that the method was especially suited to bulk treatments. Whittock mentions how chairs are dipped in large copper vats and allowed to hang and dry. The dye for this process was made from Brazilwood chips and pearlash (potassium carbonate). Other methods included the use of alkanet dye mixed with linseed oil, as a colour enhancer and reviver for mahogany. During the 1820s French polish was introduced. This was originally designed to give a thick transparent coating which would impart a highly glazed effect without changing the colour of the timber. By the mid-century the process had acquired a bad name because staining caused by the polish obliterated the natural colours of the wood and stopped it 'ageing' naturally.

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