Arts and Crafts style mirror with gilding.

One project that really took me by surprise while at the Chippendale school was a mirror that ended up requiring more brand new skills than I would have thought possible.

I already knew that I wanted to do letter carving and I knew which quote I would use. I first saw the quote “The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne.” in a picture of a fireplace mantel in a craftsman style home of Gustav Stickley, who was one of the first, and most well known, US mission (arts and crafts) style furniture makers. I then did some research to find out that it is from a poem by Chaucer, called “Parliament of Fowls” which is about how love and life are crafts that take a lifetime to learn. It is also thought to be the origin of St. Valentine’s Day. That said, I only knew it as a quote about traditional crafts and still think of it that way.

It started out as a simple drawing. At this point, I was so focused on my other project that I didn’t put a lot of thought into the scale or proportion, but I knew I wanted an arts and crafts style mirror.

This plan lasted long enough to start dimensioning the lumber and then went through several modifications (in my head). Then, when we ordered the glass I realized I had designed the frame too large, so it went through another major modification.

I thunk and thunk and then thunk some more over the resizing and what shape the mirror should take but had already started laying out the letters since the letter size and font would tell me generally what shape the mirror would take. I knew from the beginning exactly which font I wanted to use on this as I’d seen it used quite often for arts and crafts lettering, but I just didn’t know what it was called. I searched several font websites and found it on and also on

This is a public domain font and is free for all kinds of usage.

Dyer Arts and Crafts font.

I didn’t want the letters too small as that would make the carving more difficult so when I settled on a size I printed them out, cut and spliced them into their lengths and lay them out on the lumber. Here I needed to make sure my kerning was consistent because I was splicing groups of letters together.

I was worried that as I started to outline the letters onto the wood with the gouges that the letters would move and I’d lose my place, so I also used graphite paper (carbon paper) to trace the outside lines of the letters. This turned out to be overkill and actually created more work for me because I then had to remove the tracing afterwards, which turned out to be more difficult and fiddly than I had planned.

You can see the result of the tracing paper in a few of the letters.

The letter carving itself was very enjoyable and cathartic. I would be so engrossed in my carving that hours would fly by and I’d have to force myself to take a break, stretch, grab a cuppa, chat with the other students, and then dive right back in.

Once I’d reached a point that my rough out of the letters was finished, I shellacked the letters. This was to exaggerate the roughness and show me where I needed to concentrate my efforts to smooth the sides and the outlines.

I’d shellacked the top row, but not the bottom yet.

The roughing out of the letters was the quick part. I spent more than twice as much time smoothing the sides and edges.

After the rough out of the letters. Next I’m on to the smoothing.
Getting there.

Once I’d finished the smoothing of the letters, I was ready to stain and then gild. I later found out that this was the wrong order and next time I’ll gild and then stain. The reason being that when I finished gilding I had to sand the surface in order to create the crisp edges, but doing that removed most of the stain. I then had to restain after I had finished sanding. Not a huge issue as the restain cost me a part of a day and I had to let it dry overnight before shellacking.

I also had to regild the letters as I initially didn’t follow the tutor’s instructions correctly. Richard Walker at was the visiting tutor for our gilding instruction and was great to work with. He never cracked a joke and we always knew when he was being serious. 😉 After realizing my mistake and regilding the letters, I sanded then restained using my super secret mix of water dyes.

Some of the testing I did for the mirror frame. Not all, but some.

After letting the stain dry overnight, I shellacked the front side. This was so I could finish staining the edges without it bleeding into the front.

As I was doing all of this I also worked on the side pieces and created the mount in the back to hold the glass. I don’t have pictures of that, but may add some at a later date.

I also didn’t take pictures of the glass/water gilding on the glass, and I’m really kicking myself now. That process was incredibly interesting and I can’t wait to do another project like this. Again, Richard was excellent to learn from as he was able to walk me through the process several times (I kept getting sidetracked on other stuff and would come back and say, “uh, I can’t remember what you said to do here”). Very patient and a great teacher.

First, I laid out the background, which was white gold (I think it has an Italian name, but can’t remember). Then, I scratched out the outline of the roses. For each rose I started with red gold, then added white gold to the center. I then scratched out the leaves and used green gold. I finished by scratching out the stems and then painted over the back with black acrylic paints. I’ve really condensed the process here because I don’t have a photographic record of the steps, but even though there are a lot of steps here and I had to wait overnight for the water to dry before I could move on to the next portion, it went surprisingly quickly. I will post pictures of the process when I do my next glass gilding project.

And the finished product, with 7 coats of shellac. I’ll add more pictures later.

A closer look at the 18th-century Italian chest.

In the previous post, I was working on the top of the chest but didn’t show any of the rest of the piece, so here goes.

The first thing I noticed when the piece came into the shop was the back.

It initially looked, and felt, like thin cement covering the joints but Graham identified it as gesso. This makes more sense because workshops would have had gesso available for painting (and gilding?)

This next picture made me think that most of the carcass may have had a gesso coating. The drawer side looks like it could have been covered, and then through the years the majority just wore away.

But then the inside of the drawer again looks like the gesso was used to cover gaps in joints, smooth dents, and fill holes. So I don’t think the gesso was used to cover the entire carcass, but I do believe it was added at a later date to cover gaps that developed as the lumber dried and shrank.

Next, I looked at the drawers. This along with the back of the chest brings up an interesting point. The craftsperson (craftspeople) who worked on this were very efficient with their time and energy. Non-show surfaces were not smoothed or scraped.

And, unfortunately, this piece had been a meal or two for some woodworms. Unfinished surfaces were given woodworm treatment as soon as the piece came into the shop.

This next picture highlights a couple of points. First, I think it re-enforces the idea that the gesso was a later addition to cover up the gaps made by dried and shrunken wood. Second, the non-show surfaces again show the efficient use of their time. The only smooth surface in this drawer space is the bottom where the drawer sanded it smooth from hundreds of years of use.

I eventually started looking at the show surfaces.

This marquetry is very similar to the table that came in a while back.

A portion of the Italian table that came in for restoration a while back. I’ll post more on this one later.

One thing about the marquetry is that the lines for the detail are not carved like first thought. They are drawn.

I didn’t think much of this at first, but when Graham needed to do some work on the table he discussed how important this detail is. If you have to use meths (methylated spirits – denatured alcohol) to clean or take off the finish for any portion, it can also erase the detail work so you have to be careful where and how you use any chemicals to clean a piece.

One major difference between the table and the chest is that the table is all marquetry and veneer with a clear finish, whereas the chest is marquetry and a painted veneer.

Painted veneer.
Veneer with clear finish.

Graham thinks this means the two pieces were made in the same shop, but the chest was a project for an apprentice. That makes sense to me and I’m running with that theory.