Tool box of a frame maker


The frame of an artwork may go unnoticed as viewers are enamoured by what is contained within its borders. A frame in itself can be a work of art, created by a skilled craftsperson within an artisanal tradition that is becoming rarer. The tools required to make a frame, especially an ornate frame similar to those bordering many artworks in the NGV collection, are specific and fascinating.

A tail vice on the workbench holding timber during frame making work.

A workbench is an essential ‘tool’ within many trades; a frame maker’s workbench uses vices such as a bench vice and a tail vice to hold timber while planning, shaping, carving and joining pieces of the frame together.

A range of planes on a workbench.

Planes*A tool used by wood workers to remove thin scrapings of timber, for example to create a flat surface. are an older style of tool traditionally used for preparing timber. Nowadays frame makers generally use wood working machines to cut and shape the timber, however hand planes are still used on occasions. There are planes of different sizes and functions, to shave and shape the wood. The largest plane shown, called a jointing plane flattens and smooths long pieces of wood.

NGV Frame maker using a mortise gauge.

The toolbox of a frame maker wouldn’t be complete without measuring and marking equipment; a mortise gauge, bevel, square and profile gauge are some tools regularly used. A mortise gauge is used to mark-out a mortise joint, in which one piece of wood fits into another, like a socket

A range of chisels with a frame corner sample showing the process of carving

Chisels are used to carve out patterns by hand, in a European carving tradition. A fish tail chisel creates a round curve, while dog leg chisels create a trench to get in and under the wood. Chisels are kept incredibly sharp and create different shapes and angles.

A range of clamps and clips used for frame making.

All pieces of wood need to be glued together, and to hold them in place during drying of the glue a range of clips and clamps are used.

Composition being pressed into a mould.<br/>
Composition being pressed into a mould.

Using a press to force composition into a mould.<br/>
Using a press to force composition into a mould.

In the 19th century most frames were decorated with ornament made from either composition (compo) or plaster,*A shortened term for Plaster of Paris, which is a type of calcium sulphate powder that sets hard when mixed with water. It was often used in the 19th century to cast large sections of ornament for frames as well as architectural details. producing intricate designs that mimicked carving in a fraction of the time. Composition is made from materials used since ancient times; including animal glue, whiting (chalk powder), linseed oil, glycerine, and rosin (a tree sap also used for violin bows). The composition is heated and then placed in a mould. Moulds allow an identical design to be made multiple times instead of individually carving each part. Once the composition is in the mould, the press is used to apply force to ensure that all the details of the design are transferred. After it has set, a drawing knife is used to slice it to size.

A frame corner sample showing the stages of gilding a frame.<br/>
A frame corner sample showing the stages of gilding a frame.

After the frame has been decorated by carving, composition or plaster ornament it is prepared for gilding with gold leaf. Following a white ground layer,*The surface layers applied to a frame to provide a foundation onto which gold leaf (etc.) applied. These usually include gesso and bole. Also called foundation layers. a clay mixture known as bole*A fine clay mixed with animal glue which is the foundation layer for gilding. Prior to applying bole the timber is prepared with gesso. In burnishing, the bole beneath the gold is polished to give high shine to the gilded surface. is traditionally applied to the frame prior to gilding.

Gilding tools and materials:A book of gold leaf<br/>
A book of gold leaf.

Gold leaf is produced in a diverse variety of tones depending on the small quantities of other metals added to the gold to form an ‘alloy.’ The selection of the gold leaf determines the final look aspired to, a reddish gold can cast a different impression on a painting than a bright yellow gold. The pages within a book of gold are rouged*A powder made of finely ground ferrous oxide used to prevent gold leaf from sticking to surfaces, such as a gilder’s cushion. to ensure the gold does not stick.

A gilder&rsquo;s cushion, tip and knife used for preparing and handling gold leaf.<br/>
A gilder’s cushion, tip and knife used for preparing and handling gold leaf.

A piece of gold leaf is selected and placed on a ‘gilders’ cushion.’*A padded wooden panel covered with fine suede, which is used to lay out gold leaf for flattening and trimming during the process of gilding. This specialist cushion is comprised of a board covered in suede. The delicate gold is sufficiently attracted to the suede that it doesn’t fly away, but stays put to enable accurate handling.

A range of gilders&rsquo; tips.<br/>
A range of gilders’ tips.

A gilders’ tip*A natural hair brush, usually made with squirrel hair, used by gilders to pick up gold leaf. made from squirrel hair is used to pick up the gold leaf and place it on the frame. These tips are incredibly soft and pick up small pieces of gold leaf from the leather cushion to gradually cover a frame. The gold leaf application is done with either a water mixture, known as ‘gilders’ liquor’, or an oil layer.

A frame corner sample showing a range of toning finishes on gilding.<br/>
A frame corner sample showing a range of toning finishes on gilding.

Now the frame is resplendently gold, probably far too bright and fresh to harmonize with the artwork that will be contained within. The frame then needs to be toned. This process is undertaken with a variety of materials and equipment depending on the final look desired. These include ormolu, a glue-based solution, that is coloured and applied to the surface, as well as gouache paints and a type of finely ground limestone known as rottenstone.*A finely ground limestone powder that can be lightly applied to gilding during the finishing of reproduction frames, to help provide a sense of age. Methods include using a spray gun, brush and abrasive materials. During this toning*The application of coatings to a frame to reduce the brightness of the gilding. Often these coatings are glue-based (see ormolu). process it is invaluable for the frame maker to be able to refer to an old frame with a well-preserved surface, to assist in creating a realistic aged appearance to the gilding.

With thanks to Jason King, NGV Frame maker, and Selina Ou, NGV Photographer.

NGV Frame Maker in the NGV Conservation studios<br/>
NGV Frame Maker in the NGV Conservation studios.

Read more about frames at the NGV’s Centre for Frame Research