Genius can be a gilded error

St. Petersburg Times
Special to the Times

My husband, Les, is a furniture-maker. This is an occupation that depends on the kindness of patrons. Handmade furniture costs as much as good art,  and people who recognize the value of fine wood, hand- rubbed to a silken finish, or dove-tailed drawers that fit  so well you feel a small hiss when you shut them - those people are rare and precious.

    He was thrilled when our friends Neil and Karen commissioned a hall table  for their large and elaborately remodeled penthouse. We went over for dinner to talk about design, dimensions and wood choices. A demi-lune shape, they decided. Pink Ivory

and Boxwood.   

    As an aside, Karen showed Les a small gold table, one of three, products of an expensive commercial furniture-maker. From years of being wheeled around, there were dings in the gilt. In a spasm of gratitude for the commission, Les offered to repair the little gold table - as a favor. "Nothing to it," I remember him saying as we hauled it home.

    He filled the dents and sanded them smooth. All that remained was to patch the gilt, which we could see had been applied in golden leaves. Les drove to the art supply house and bought a package of gold leaf. These are not cheap. Each packet of a few 4- by 4-inch sheets costs $35. It's a ferociously difficult material to work with, thinner than tissue paper, floating away at the slightest breath.

    Les laid one leaf on his patch. He might as well have slapped on a bumper sticker, so poorly did the new gold match the gilt on the table.

    Back to the art supply house. This time I went along. "You're a bit colorblind," I told him. "I'll be able to see the real color." The store wouldn't allow us to lift a sheet of gold leaf out of the package and test the color against the table. The stuff is too expensive and fragile. They gave us a chart, which we carried outside. Maybe fluorescent lights had made the first choice so bad. Red-gold I decided. Red-gold was closer. We bought a $35 package of that, and another of composite, a leafing material made from brass and other metals.

    Les tried the composite, which is less expensive and comes in larger sheets. Worse. Then he tried the red-gold, which was close but still not right. He started to panic. The repaired places were a glaring white, the area around them sanded dull. In doing this favor, he had ruined Karen and Neil's expensive table. Why hadn't he tried to match the gold before he began? Not only would they cancel the commission, they would throw him out of the apartment. Huge sighs could be heard all over the house.

    In the Yellow Pages, we found Mac and Izzie, who advertised themselves as Specialists in gold and silver leaf for 30 years. On Monday morning, Les drove miles up to their shop. Mac shook his head over the table. "One thing you got to know - you can't patch gold leaf."

    Back home in despair, Les decided he would have to re-leaf the entire table. This meant applying sizing on a small area, laying down gold leaf, then smoothing out creases and excess with a fine brush. Over and over and over. The process took hours and a lot of leaf. When it was done, the table was repaired and solidly gold, but nowhere near the same color it had been. The new shade was a bright yellow-white instead of the rich red-gold of the original.

    Shellac, Les decided. He would finish the table with amber shellac. He drove to Fort Lauderdale to the woodworker's supply, bought flakes of shellac, mixed them with de-natured alcohol until they dissolved, and strained the whole thing through a cloth. The result was a batch of reddish liquid. After one coat, the table turned red-gold, but without the even, poreless finish it had before. The shellac streaked, making some places darker than others. An antiqued look, if you wanted to be kind. Les added another coat. "That's it," he said. "I give up." The favor had taken more than 40 hours, and he wasn't sleeping for worrying.

    I admit to being a coward. I refused to go with him when he took the table back. Granted, I had been the number one cheerleader when he made the offer. "He can do anything," I think I said. I was actually the one who grabbed the table on the way out. But I couldn't face the look on Karen and Neil's faces when they saw what had become of their expensive gold table - the "What have you done?" look. My excuse: "This is business, not personal."

    Les telephoned and confessed his troubles before he went. He didn't want them to take one look and keel over.

    Two hours later, Les came back laughing. Karen and Neil had examined the table, turned it around, studied it from all angles and pronounced it perfect. They love it so much that they want him to finish the other two the same way. Not as a favor this time. For money.


Norma Watkins is a frequent contributor to Sunday Journal. Her memoir, The Last Resort, was published by the University Press of Mississippi in 2011.