Friday, December 24, 2010

Historic Paint Colors for the Victorian Home: Part One

For more information about historic paint colors for your Victorian or Arts and Crafts era home, please visit the Historic Design Consulting Website today!

To view part two of the Victorian Paint Colors post, click here!

I was asked recently if I used colors from the historic color collections of major paint manufactures such as Sherwin Williams or Benjamin Moore during my paint consults.  My answer was no.  In fact, I really don't know much about these "historic" lines of paint colors because I have never had much use for them.   

Unlike many of today's colorists and consultants, I do not rely on someone else to research historic paint colors and select which ones I might want to use.  Instead, I do the research myself and use the same tools homeowners and painters did in the 19th and early 20th centuries.  These tools include a collection of original brochures with sample paint chips, advertising and commercial literature.

Below is a ca. 1900 paint brochure from the Masury Paint Company with some of its sample chips:

Here is another, somewhat older example from the Breinig's Ready Made Paint Company:

When helping my clients select interior and exterior color schemes I start with the colors found in brochures like these and other period documents.  I then match my selections to chips in the fan-book of a modern paint manufacturer or send custom-mixed sample chips that match the period originals.  My clients or their painters can then go to their local paint supplier and have them mix as much paint as needed.

Why go to all of this effort to pick out a few paint colors?  Our specialty is providing paint schemes for Victorian and Arts and Crafts era homes and businesses. The color palettes should be appropriate for the a building's age and style while still reflecting your tastes.  Although several modern paint manufacturers advertise "historic" color collections, they often narrow the selection to paint colors they consider most suitable to contemporary tastes. This means some historic shades and tones might be left out. By relying on period documents I can be sure that our historic color selections are accurate and faithful to 19th and 20th century color palettes. 

For more information about a color consultation for your home or business, check out the Historic Design Consulting website.

To view part two of the Victorian Paint Colors post, click here!

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Handmade Step Back Cupboard

Each year The Landing holds an event called Early Minnesota Trades when the site invites a number of people to demonstrate authentic 19th century manual trades and crafts. For the past three years my fellow woodworker at The Landing, Kevin Alto, and I have been joined by our fellow members of the Society of American Period Furniture Makers to make a woodworking project.  This year, under the direction of our fearless SAPFM leader Mike Siemsen of the Siemsen School of Woodworking, we built a typical, 19th century step-back cupboard resembling those once found in farmhouses across the country. It proved to be quite an undertaking for a weekend’s worth of work but we are all pleased with the results.

It seems every workshop needs more space to stow tools and help keep workbenches clear.  In our case we needed a place to put wood planes where they are easily accessible and can be viewed by visitors.  We also wanted a place to hide 21st century items like water bottles, nylon bags and our good friend Dave Winter’s Dremel (Dave is the site’s old- time instrument repairman and wood carver).  Our new cupboard fits the bill quite well.

 The cupboard is made of white pine using the usual dovetailed case construction.  The face frame was made using mortise and tenon joints and attached with glue and square pegs.  The shelves are set and nailed in dadoes and the back fitted with  1x4 ship-lap boards. 

Since high-style furniture would be out of place in a workshop, our cupboard is rather plain but does feature a bit of stylish ornament.  It is topped off with a nice crown consisting of a graceful cove and bead.  The bottom is fitted with a dovetailed skirt with an cove planed along its top.  Kevin and I finished our new piece with a couple coats of milk paint.

Like all our projects at the Landing the cupboard was made by hand using tools and 19th century techniques.   This gives our furniture a distinctive look that sets it apart from modern, machine made furniture.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Why Use Hot Hide Glue?

Years ago in elementary school I remember being warned not to eat my glue because it was made out of horse’s hooves. I thought this was an odd thing to tell someone since I couldn't imagine any reason to eat glue in the first place regardless of what it might be made of. Many years later I learned that my classmates weren’t quite correct.   We used good old Elmer’s white glue, or polyvinyl acetate (also called PVA), which is a chemist’s concoction and contained no hooves. However, there was a time glue was indeed made from hooves, skins and other bits of connective tissue so I suppose my classmates weren’t completely off-base.

Today I use traditional hot hide glue almost exclusively both because it’s use is historically accurate to the 19th century and because it has several advantages over modern PVAs, polyurethanes and epoxies. It is reversible, cleans up easily, is non-toxic and essential for repairing antique furniture.

Hide glue is rendered from connective tissue and other parts of animals that contain lots of the protein collagen. The treated hides and other parts are boiled in large vats of water, the nasty scum skimmed away and the reaming accumulation collected and dried. During the 19th century the glue was usually shipped in small blocks but today is broken up and sold in granular form. I keep mine sealed in an air-tight container: an old mason jar.

Here is some granular hide glue up close. Since hide glue can be re-heated and re-used it once was the responsibility of the shop apprentice to gather up all the waste bits of glue and return them to the glue pot so nothing would be wasted.

The granular glue is soaked in cold water over night until the water is absorbed. The usual ratio of glue to water is one part glue to two parts water. Thicker or thinner glues can be cooked for certain occasions. I use a cast iron glue pot which is actually two pots in one: a smaller pot which holds the glue/water mixture and an outer jacket pot that holds water and functions like a double boiler.

I place the glue pot on our shop's wood stove until it reaches about 150 degrees. Despite being made from the skin and tendons of farm animals the hot glue has almost no odor.

Once the glue reaches the correct temperature it will become viscous, have the consistency of egg whites and can easily be applied with a brush.

One disadvantage of hide glue is its short open time. That means it sets up quickly so large glue-ups must be planned and executed quickly. Here I am doing a simple glue-up of a small table top. I apply the glue liberally to both surfaces with a glue brush. It is important to use plenty of glue and not to clamp so firmly that all of the glue is squeezed out. Sometimes urea was added to the glue to increase the open time (it is also added to liquid hide glue which you can buy in bottles) but this can weaken the glue if too much is used.

I sometimes clamp when using hide glue (especially when its cold) because it can thicken and gell so you don't get a tight joint. In this case I rubbed the joint until it just began to stick and then quickly clamped the pieces. As you can see it can be a messy process but excess glue can easily be softened with a damp cloth and and then scraped away with a knife. I have dedicated an old, dinged-up chisel to the task of scraping away the gluey mess. Be sure the surfaces are warm. If they are too cool the glue will shock, or gell, and the joint will not be tight.

So, why use hide glue? Its greatest advantage is that it is reversible. Heat and warm water remove spills and messes. Reversibility is particularly important when restoring or conserving antique furniture because any work that you do can be undone later on with no damage to the piece. Epoxies, PVA and and polyeurathane glues often cannot be satisfactorily removed and can leave residue. This residue cannot be dissolved by fresh glue meaning later glue-ups might not adhere to the old glue and result in a weak joint. Old hide glue can be scraped away quite easily or reactivated with heat or fresh hot hide glue. It is very strong and (depending on the grade of glue) creates a bond that rivals that of modern epoxies. It is also compatible with stains and finishes. Since modern glues can leave residue in wood pores there are often spots and blotches when finishing. Hide glue can even adhere to glass!

Like all glues, it does have some weaknesses. It is not resistant to water, although some additives can be mixed in to make somewhat more resistant. It does not fill gaps well, meaning close-fitting joints are essential. I am convinced that most of hide glue's poor reputation comes from failures attributable to poorly fitting joints rather than problems with the glue itself. Left-over glue will deteriorate quickly if left in the pot so it is best to make just enough for your project and throw the remainder away if not used within a few days.

Even though it is all-natural and non-toxic I cannot recommend eating hide glue. But, if on a dare, make sure it is hot hide glue and not the stuff in the bottle. I hate to think where the urea might come from that is added to keep it liquid. Bon appetit!

Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Berkeley Plantation

In his book Architecture in the United States, Dell Upton proposes there are two themes in American architecture: The classical, which is “regular, ordered, modular, symmetrical, balanced,” and the picturesque, which is “less obviously ordered, asymmetrical, less obviously unified, often accretive.” Upton’s views echo those of E. K. Rossiter and F. A. Wright, who wrote in their 19th century guide to house painting “There are strictly speaking but two great styles of architecture, the underlying principals of which are based upon construction. One is the classical style, based upon the lintel as its chief constructive feature, and the other the medieval Gothic in which the arch is used to span openings.” Several of my posts have focused on the picturesque (see my posts below on the Cummings house and the LeDuc). In this post I will venture far from the frozen tundra of my native Minnesota and examine a wonderful example of the Neo-Classical Georgian style in tidewater Virginia.

During the 17th and 18th centuries younger sons of English peers and less prominent gentry families found it increasingly difficult to establish themselves financially and socially. Primogeniture favored the oldest sons, who were able to inherit titles and estates, leaving second and third sons with little aside from land grants in the American Colonies. Many royalists also felt threatened during the English Civil War and Interregnum, leading some to emigrate to the colonies where they sought to create a new, landed aristocracy in the wilderness.

An early example of this aristocratic migration to the New World is Berkeley Plantation. Berkeley was founded in 1619 on the north bank of the James River about 20 miles upstream from Jamestown, the first permanent, English settlement in colonial America. The estate was acquired by Benjamin Harrison III in 1691 and this mansion built in 1726 by Benjamin Harrison IV. Later inhabitants of the estate included Benjamin Harrison V, a governor of Virginia and signer of the Declaration of Independence, and William Henry Harrison and Benjamin Harrison, both of whom would become president.

Constructed with bricks fired on the plantation, the building was designed in the Georgian Style. The Georgian Style reflects its classical heritage, where symmetry and order are the rule. The front of the house is perfectly balanced and centers on a pedimented, 8-panel front door (sadly obscured by an ugly, steel storm door). The bricks are patterned in the Flemish bond, where courses are composed of alternating headers and stretchers. Brick was favored in the Middle Colonies and the Flemish bond was characteristic of Georgian style.

The cornice features heavy molding and dentils, which are more prominent than those found on the more refined Federal Style homes of the early 1800s. Try to ignore the ugly, aluminum storm window!

The gable end also shows the characteristic classical pediment with heavy, projecting molding and dentils. Also common on grand Georgian homes in the Middle Colonies are paired interior chimneys.

Berkeley Plantation is open daily for tours during the summer and is located at 12602 Harrison Landing Road, Charles City VA 23030, which is just off of Route 5 between Richmond and Williamsburg, VA.