Thursday, April 4, 2013

A visit to the frame makers

I went down to Rhode Island last week and picked up a frame from  PS Art. They make most of my frames. As I have written before, I use handmade closed cornered frames on my work, except if they are going to an art association or a gallery with a record of damaging my frames. Those folks get the Chi-Com units. I have worked with PS Art for years and they have been a valuable ally in my business.
These are museum quality, handmade, closed corner frames. Some of you may not know exactly what that means, so tonight I will show you. I brought my celluloid phone and took some pictures so I could explain the process of making a fine frame.

Henry Karakula, owner, PS Art frames, Central Falls, Rhode Island
You have all probably gone into a frame shop and bought a frame. What you got was an open cornered frame. After you dropped off the painting to be framed the shop pulled out a length of prefinished moulding, that is, it was already leafed and finished. They took it over to their miter saw and chopped it to the right length, Then they glued and nailed it together to fit your picture. They might have even picked up a phone and ordered what is called a "chop" from a moulding supply house. That supplier cut the moulding to the lengths required and mailed it to the frame shop where it was then assembled to fit your picture. That frame has a visible cut at each corner where the stick of moulding was cut to make your frame. Therefore it is an open cornered frame. While that is fine for diplomas, and photos of your deceased pets, it is not good enough when you play above a certain level in the art world. When you reach a higher price level or show in a high end gallery they may expect you to use closed corner frames. A closed corner frame is assembled and joined before it is covered in gold or metal and finished. There is no visible joint at each corner.These are artisan built frames made to order in a workshop. They are a much higher level of quality than the prefinished moulding frames found in a regular frame shop or big box store. They also cost a lot more. Here is how they are made.

Here are lengths of molding in raw wood, they come from a specialty shop that has an enormous machine that mills them. Usually it is basswood. They come in lots of different profiles in "sticks" from 8 to 12 feet long. Some frames are assembled using two or three mouldings to build up a wider or more complex profile (shape).

Here's the heart of a frame shop, the miter saw. This beast cuts both sides of a 45 degree angle at the same time. This is a 30,000 dollar saw, if you want one for your basement workshop. Accuracy is real important and this sort of saw cuts to  very close tolerances. Slight inaccuracies in the angle of the cuts add up as each corner the frame is assembled. By the time you are ready to join that last  corner unless each chop is nearly perfect the corners won't meet up properly. If you pull the frame together anyway it will be skewed. That is, it will rock when set flat on a table top, and look twisted hanging on a wall. It may also come apart down the road in your collectors house, who will then return it. He might want a new frame.

After the frame is assembled, screwed and glued together, it goes to the carvers bench. Above are carving tools, called gouges, that thin one is called a veiner. A skilled craftsman using a gouge makes it look easy, but it requires a lot of skill and practice. Many of of the carvers in New England are Polish immigrants.

Here is a partially carved corner with the drawn outline of the design on the wood.

Heres a fine One, a nice wide frame is important
Above is an example of an arts and crafts style carving. The arts and crafts design period  that happened in the late nineteenth and the first part of the twentieth century was a golden era for artisan made frames and many styles of moulding and carvings popular today date from that era.

After carving, the frames are sprayed with bole, a red clay that serves as a primer upon which the gold will be laid.

The frames are sanded next, this step can be laborious, although  less so if the frame is accurately cut and joined. You can see there is plenty of hand labor involved in this. Little of it is done by computerized robots.

Another skilled craftsman, the gilder, wets the bole activating the glue included in it and gently drops the  microns thin and very fragile gold sheets called leaves onto the bole. This is done with a tool called a guilders tip, a sort of comb like flat brush made of soft hair. The gold is pounded so thin that a breath will tear it to uselessness. It cannot be picked up with your hand without disintegrating. Some frames are laid with imitation gold, sometimes called Shlagmetal, which is bronze. It is thicker and easier to lay but tarnishes eventually and doesn't have the gleam of the real thing.

Here is a finished frame that will be toned. Toning is applying a thin coat of paint or dust or any of about a zillion concoctions onto the surface of the frame to antique it. Sometimes areas, usually the high points, are rubbed back to the red bole beneath to soften up the look of the finish. Often frames are waxed after toning. Every shop has secret methods of toning frames and it is one of the things that separate a merely good frame from an excellent one.

Here is a pile of corner samples in different profiles and tones.

 The frame on the left is a copy of one that is on a Tarbell in the Boston Museum. It is about 30 by 40.

When I opened my first gallery in Rockport in 1983 I made and leafed some of my own frames, in those days there were very few framers making closed corner museum quality frames. Today almost every part of the country has someone making fine gilded frames. Along with traditional painting, frame making is enjoying a renaissance.

PS Art frames