PAIR PRODUCE CURVED WOODEN BOWLS BURNISHED WITH PRECIOUS METALS
A bed of spiralling wood shavings forms a dome on the floor of woodturner Richard Mills’ workshop in Kent. Clamped to a motorised lathe is a partly-turned wooden bowl. A film of fine dust clings to the timber and tools on surrounding surfaces. The lathe clatters into action when the motor is turned on, and the bowl spins round rhythmically. More curled slivers of wood collect on Richard’s arm as he holds his bowl gouge against the revolving wood. The sharp point of this long scoop-shaped chisel slices small ridges off the timber.
In contrast, his friend and business partner Lenore Zavitz works at a quiet table in her home, 20 minutes’ drive away. Here, she gilds the wooden bowls Richard has turned and polished. The gold leaf she uses is delicate and ultra-fine, requiring a clean, moisture-less and draught-free space.
Richard has been woodturning since he was 12. “My father is a carpenter and I took an interest when he bought a lathe, so he taught me,” he says. During the day he works in the City of London. His evenings and weekends, however, are spent woodturning. His aim is to be able to pursue his craft full-time. “I love the beauty you find in wood,” he says. “I get to see all sorts of colours inside the wood that other people never see.”
Lenore trained at the London School of Picture and Frame Conservation. For nine years she worked as an oil-painting and frame restorer. The gilding techniques she uses on Richard’s bowls are those she uses on picture frames.
The pair met eight years ago, but only formed their company making gilded bowls in 2014. “When the economy slowed down, there wasn’t a lot of restoration work, so I was looking to broaden my range,” says Lenore. “Richard often gave me bowls as presents, and I thought they would be nice with gold leaf on them because curved surfaces complement the gilding best. He didn’t want me to cover the grain at first but, once he saw one, he was sold on the idea.”
The company’s name, Moth and Mirror, comes from the combination of wood and metal. “The moth represents the organic material, which is the wood, and the mirror represents the reflective gilding,” explains Lenore.
Sourcing the wood
They use a wide variety of woods for the bowls. Richard keeps an eye out for spare lumber from any trees he sees being felled. He points down the lane to a house where a large cedar once grew. “I used to see it when I was growing up,” he says. “Then one day I heard a chainsaw. It was being cut down, and the tree surgeon gave me some offcuts.”
Newly-felled wood is chopped into manageable pieces, which aids drying, and the ends sealed with paraffin wax. “Moisture escapes faster from the ends, so the wax enables it to exit in a uniform manner. That helps to stop it cracking,” says Richard. “Then I store it in ventilated garden sheds until it’s dry. It dries at a rate of about one inch every year, but that depends on species, thickness and conditions. A moisture meter is a valuable tool. If it has a moisture content of more than 15 per cent it will split and warp after it is turned.”
The majority of the wood he uses comes from timber specialists. It has been kiln dried and cut into rough rounds, called blanks, ready for turning.
The bowl Richard is creating today is made with wood from a London plane tree. This is known as lacewood, because the pale, intricate patterns in the grain resemble lace. “It’s gorgeous stuff,” says Richard. “I like the way the wood talks to you. You’ve picked the area you want to work, and dried it for several years. Then, as you’re turning, you come across defects and knots you want to cut out and others you want to keep. All that leads to the shape needed. I love big natural splits that happen in the growing. They add an eye-catching feature and make it unique. If the bark is nice, I might keep that as a natural edge on a bowl.”
Sometimes, however, a split can be detrimental. He has suffered a black eye and dented the workshop door when bowls have flown off the lathe when his gouge has caught a split in a piece of wood.
Turning the bowl
Richard’s bowls range in diameter from 3in to 24in (8-60cm). Once a piece of wood is dry, he cuts it into a rough circular shape on a bandsaw. The centre of the area to be cut is marked and a circle scratched with a pair of verniers, a measuring compass. Then the middle of one surface is flattened with a sander or plane. This will be the bottom of the bowl. A face-plate is screwed on to hold it on the lathe. This is only temporary and the screw holes will disappear when the inside is turned.
Most of the work is done using a sharp ½in (16mm) bowl gouge. For small bowls, a ¼in (7mm) gouge is used. To keep the tool steady, a hinged metal rest is fixed in place approximately ⅓in (1cm) in front of the section of bowl he is cutting. As he works, Richard pushes the shaft of the bowl gouge firmly against the rest with one hand. He holds the handle equally firmly with his other hand.
“A bowl is naturally pleasing to the eye, and I like them chunky with fat rims,” he says. This lacewood bowl measures 15½in (39cm) across. It will have a 3in (7.6cm) flat rim with a 1in (2.5cm) U-shaped rim in the centre of that.
Richard starts with the base. Turning on the motor, the bowl starts to spin. In the early stages, a slow speed is needed as the shape is uneven and rocks the lathe. The gouge makes a fast hissing sound as it slices into the timber. Shavings pile up as Richard moves the tool from the base towards the rim to form the bowl’s curved outer profile.
“I make small light cuts, taking off a very thin layer at a time,” he says. “Once it’s circular and smooth, you can turn up the speed, which allows a quicker cut.” He keeps refining it until he is satisfied.
Before the inside of the bowl can be worked, it needs to be reversed and clamped to the lathe. A chuck, a metal clamp with jaws, is used to do this. First an indent is cut in the base to hold the chuck. This will also act as a stand for the finished bowl. Richard cuts the recess with the bowl gouge initially. He then uses a skew chisel, which has an angled blade, to cut the inner edge with precision.
The surface is planed so the rim will be flat. Richard then digs out the middle. He makes deep cuts with the bowl gouge, working from the outside in. Once that is complete, he cuts a U-shaped channel within the wider flat rim of the bowl. This is the section that will be gilded.
Some of the bowls are fully gilded on the inside and some are gilded in special rims such as this one. “It’s simply a case of artistic preference,” says Lenore.
“Once I’ve finished with the tools, I sand the bowl, working through at least six grades of sandpaper from coarse to fine,” says Richard. “I hand-hold it against the turning bowl to remove tool marks so you see just the shape and grain.” A small cloud of sawdust forms around the bowl as it spins.
The friction created by sanding produces heat. Too much can cause micro-fracturing in the wood, which can not be eliminated, unlike some small natural splits, which can be glued. As soon as he feels his hand getting warm, Richard pulls the sandpaper away.
“Next, I rub on sanding sealant with a rag. That brings out the grain a bit more and fills any minor imperfections. When that’s dry, I go over it with very fine steel wool, then apply wax polish to help resist finger marks. I then hold a rag against the spinning bowl to give a high sheen. It feels like silk at the end.” The bowl takes up to five hours to complete.
“Turning is very therapeutic and relaxing,” he says. “My favourite bit is sealing and waxing it, because you really see the grain, which can be stunning.”
Now the bowl is ready for gilding. Richard and Lenore meet every week to discuss ideas and sketch possible designs. He nearly always has a batch of bowls ready for gilding. The actual number can vary from three to 20 a week, depending on their sizes.
There are two forms of gilding, oil and water. Lenore uses oil gilding. “I don’t do water gilding because it requires layers and layers of preparation using animal glue dissolved in water,” she says. “The advantage is that you can burnish it to a high sheen afterwards. But there is an extra cost for the time it takes.”
Oil gilding involves brushing oil size onto the dish or rim of the bowl. Size is a form of slow-drying adhesive made from boiled-down linseed oil, which has been used by gilders for centuries. “You leave it to go off for about an hour, though the time depends on environmental factors. I never gild on a rainy morning because it’s too humid and won’t go off. On a sunny morning, it can go off in 10 minutes.
“If the bowl is still too wet, the gold ends up a mess and will probably come off. If it’s too dry, it won’t adhere. I keep touching it until it just catches the skin. That’s when it’s ready. I use the back of my finger so I don’t leave prints.”
She uses 24-carat gold leaf, bought from British gilding suppliers, in 3in (8cm) squares. It used to be beaten with hammers until it was thin. Now, it is flattened with rollers.
“All the yellow gold I use is double thickness,” she says. “It handles better, doesn’t curl up on itself as much, and you get a better surface. But even that is so thin you can see light through it. You’re intimidated by the gold at first because it is the purest gold you can get.”
Great care is needed. Opening a door, laughing or coughing can cause the leaf to wrinkle or blow away.
As well as gold leaf, Lenore uses silver, copper and champagne gold. “The copper leaf is a bit thicker because copper is cheaper,” she says. “It has a warm smoulder as opposed to the flame that gold produces. Like silver, it needs sealing with clear gilding lacquer because it will go black exposed to the air. Champagne gold is 22.5-carat gold with palladium in it, and has a warmer hue than yellow gold.”
To gild the U-rim of the lacewood bowl, Lenore cuts the leaf into squares the size of large postage stamps on a suede gilding cushion. The cushion makes it easier to cut, and the leaf does not adhere to suede. She makes sure she never touches the gold by hand. “Getting to grips with not being able to touch it is very difficult. It will stick to your fingers and pretty much everything else.”
Instead, she uses small, flat, badger-hair brushes, called tips, to apply the leaf. “The gold has to adhere to the tip, so I put Vaseline on the back of my hand, then touch it with the tip before I pick up the leaf.” She lifts each piece and gently positions it in the U-rim. It clings on contact, but she uses a blusher brush to tamp it into place. This process is repeated until the rim is covered with gold, and takes over an hour. Two more layers are applied in the same way. The bowl is left to dry overnight between applications. The excess on the edge is removed carefully with a scalpel and steel wool.
Now, the wooden bowl gets its final polish. The base is then imprinted with their maker’s mark, a moth in a circle, using a specially-made branding iron.
“Gold is fabulously beautiful. If you leave it alone, it will be brilliant for hundreds of years,” says Lenore. “I start to move more slowly when I use it. There’s a delicate flow to the process that is quite meditative. We both have a similar artistic vision and a strong sense of what a piece is going to be like as soon as it’s on Richard’s lathe.”
The results are desirable timeless objects, handmade from natural materials using ancient techniques.
Words: Caroline Rees Photography: Clive Doyle