Mirror, Mirror...

When we brought this Victorian mirror into the studio last year, we had to handle it very carefully. It had been heavily damaged in a fire to the point that the top third of the frame had essentially converted to charcoal. We were very glad that the owners wished to restore the mirror as much as possible to its former glory, so we rolled up our sleeves and got to work.

First, we had to stabilize everything structurally. After removing the old, broken glass, the upper ornamentation was sealed with multiple coats of shellac to lock in the pervasive smoke smell. We brushed on several applications of wood hardener,  then carefully repaired the trim with various formulations of epoxy. Several glue blocks were hidden within the upper structure to add strength. Finally, any missing decorative elements (a carved leaf at the base, portions of the pediment) were cast in resin and attached.

Probably the most striking part of this mirror had been the beautiful burl wood veneer that once covered it, which was now hopelessly lost. We were able to clean and save few portions from the lower sections of the frame, giving us an idea as to the original look of the wood. After doing a test corner and consulting with the owners, we began the process of grain painting the entire frame. This was by far the largest piece I’ve applied a faux finish to, but Joshua kept things going in the right direction. A base coat of yellow water-based paint was applied, followed by layers of pigmented shellac. This shellac is what creates the pattern of wood grain, so method is important here. Depending on the kind of wood that is being simulated, you might dab the shellac on with a rag, or use a small brush and twist it as you apply, or even brush a bunch on and wipe most of it off. Maintaining the regular pattern is important, but so is introducing plenty of randomness. This is wood, after all, that we’re trying to duplicate. I think it’s hard to appreciate the complexity of the grain and flow of a piece of wood until you get right into it with simple tools… or try to copy it on a blank canvas.

We reached a point where we were happy with the graining, so we wiped a brown glaze over the whole frame, focusing on packing it into the corners and recesses to simulate aging. Then came clear shellac, built up and sanded fair with grits starting at 400 and getting finer. Finally, a coat of flattened shellac was brushed on, followed by rubbing out with dark paste wax and #0000 Liberon steel wool. The new glass and back boards were installed, then we very carefully drove the piece back to its owners. They proclaimed it “more beautiful than it used to be”, which is the highest praise we can ask for!


- Mike


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