Boldly Going

I recently accepted a challenge to attempt something not often encountered, and learned the reason why: it's quite difficult to do well. That is, gilding an inscription carved in slate with a natural cleft surface. Slate being made up of infinite layers of pressed and petrified sediment, when split the stone yields two naturally undulating planes. The harder the slate the cleaner and calmer the undulation; pick a softer shade like, say, purple, then brave thyself for stormier seas.

Since the client for this house number specifically requested purple slate, I reached for a honed piece that was already nearly the right dimension, grabbed my 3-lb sledge, steadied the wide splitting chisel and hoped for the best. It was the worst. Fortunately I had another piece from a Vermont quarry, a massive beautiful length of purple cleft I was saving for a big inscription. I cut off a jagged end and fabricated it to size, leaving much of the piece intact and still awaiting something big and bold and to-be-blogged-about.

The house number was intended to be set in to a cut-out of the building's brick facade, no mounting hardware required. That meant I could get away with a relatively thin piece of slate, in this case around 3/4" thick. The design called for lining figures, and since the dimension for the stone had already been determined by the contractor responsible for installing the stone (and for getting me the job, thanks, John Carlton!), I made them 2.25" tall to work best with the aspect ratio.

I've taken to rebrushing my designs onto the stone once the layout is transferred, and for a job in cleft slate it makes a huge difference, as often the transfer process only touches the high points of the stone, leaving gaps between flakes in the cleft. It also restores the calligraphic link to the original design. Otherwise I might have to call myself Marsolais Press & Stencilcarving. No thanks!

After carving to within an eyelash of the painted outline, the stone is then washed and given a final pass of the chisel. This actually was the easy part. The thing about gilding is that even in ideal conditions, with a beautifully cut inscription in hard, honed slate, it is an incredibly fussy process. The gold size (a bonding agent, not a dimension) is temperamental and translucent, making it difficult to see over the layer of shellac, also translucent but shiny, applied to the finished inscription to seal the slate. Also the gossamer sheets of 23K gold, only a grain of sand heavier than air itself, like to take magic carpet rides powered by currents of static electricity all over your work station and go everywhere except on the sized landing strips you've prepared for it.

But the main challenge here is that both the shellac and the size had to be applied with surgical precision to the very living edge of the carved figures. And with the jagged fractals inherent in the cleft, a clean outline occasionally had to be painted on.

The first pass, predictably, yielded what are referred to as "holidays", which is where it is supposed your attention, skills or luck went while you were trying to do a good job. The size was then reapplied and once it dried to the right amount of tack, the gold was carefully feathered into the gaps, holiday over, back to work.

It took a few attempts and the judicious application of a scalpel, literally a surgical operation, to remove flecks of gold sunk into the cleft. But I eventually arrived at the finished product. Gilding is a process that normally rewards fussiness, shining a flashlight on one's best work. Here it shined on imperfections with humbling clarity. As with every project made by hand, the organic irregularities left by the mark of the tool and the quality of the materials either accentuate or thwart the idealization of the desired form. Where this falls in the range of acceptable variation depends on your definition of it. I proved to myself that I was equal to but not greater than the challenge. In the end, that's the mixed pleasure of learning things the hard way.