Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Dutch Black Finish for Picture Frames

The predilection for frame finishes during 17th century Holland steered away from the opulence of the gold leaf gilded frames being produced at the time in France and Italy. Tastes tended more towards simpler, earthier tones as seen on the frames of Vermeer and Rembrandt and as shown below on Rembrandt's early self-portrait which hangs today at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Many of the early, ripple-style frames, however, were actually manufactured in countries such as Germany and Spain and thought of as 'Dutch' because of their extensive use in Holland.

Frames were often painted black in a form of ebonizing, due to the limited availability and cost of ebony. Considering the wide use of this approach the finish has come to be known in certain circles as Dutch Black.

The method used to achieve a deep, antique umber-black tone involves painting a custom blend of casein onto finely sanded wood which is sometimes burned with a torch for deeper colorization. Numerous layers of ruby shellac are brushed or padded on, depending on the shape of the frame profile, and hand-rubbed between each layer. The use of gilding combined with the Dutch Black finish is optional and can add an attractive, complex contrast, especially when silver or white gold is used.

For a somewhat deeper variation thee is a similar approach based on original techniques used in both America and Holland during the 17th and 18th centuries. This exquisite finish combines lampblack pigment and ruby shellac, best prepared fresh from shellac flakes and alcohol due to the short shelf-life of shellac. As many as ten coats are applied, each layer hand-rubbed. Early American cabinetmakers referred to this finish simply as Black Varnish.

The use of Dutch and Early American black frames offer an excellent choice on certain works of art such as portraits in oil as well as for mirror frames. The toning texture can be represented as a modern finish, smooth and free of distress, or enhanced with various antiqued effects, a vocabulary achieved through various means including the deposit of gray and umber pigments in crevices, washes, and rubbing-through to the wood on high points to signify age. Often, a simple and occasional rub-through to the wood and moderate distress provides the most attractive and sophisticated finish.

For those interested in experimenting with the casein-based Dutch Black finish the following steps should prove helpful:

1. Apply a diluted coat of shellac to the bare wood which helps raise the grain while holding the fibers stiff to facilitate sanding (a commercial brand of blonde shellac may be used if flakes and ethyl alcohol are not readily available)

2. Apply two (2) coats of Iddings black casein (one available source is Pacific Northwest Theatre Associates in Seattle –; sand between coats with low grit sandpaper or scotchbrite pad)

3. Apply 8-10 coats of thin shellac. Lightly sand between coats after the second coat.
4. Allow last shellac coat to dry a minimum of 24 hours.

5. Polish the frame with 0000 steel wool with a little water. Avoid using too much water as this will break through the shellac layer. In areas of desired rub-through, the steel wool and water is used to this effect but must be performed carefully. Also try polishing without the use of water for a more contemporary ‘look’.

6. For a final, higher luster, an optional 1 or 2 layers of shellac may be applied and dry buffed with 0000 steel wool without water. Rottenstone applied with cheesecloth and/or steel wool can marry the overall tonality while leaving a small amount of ‘aged dust’ in crevices. Distressing with chains or other objects may also be used along edges and surfaces but should be done with great care and kept to a minimum.

1 comment:

Ian Russell said...

I would be very interested to see a further article expanding on the various patinating effects touched upon in this piece.