All That Glitters
Southport's Old-World Artisan, Neil Layne, restores antique furniture, looking glasses, and picture frames
Photos by Wendy Carlson
A pair of ornate 18th-century Chippendale-style English mirrors lie on the workbench awaiting the artist’s touch. Over time the wood has shrunk causing bits of gold leaf to pop off in places. In other places pieces of carved wood are missing. It’s rare to find a pair of antique mirrors but it’s even more rare to find a skilled artisan who knows how to restore such pieces so they look as if they’d never been damaged or worn in the first place. That someone is Neil Layne, a Southport gilder who restores antique furniture, looking glasses, and picture frames using the same techniques as used in Renaissance Italy. “There is nothing modern about what I do,” Layne says.
On one shelf, hundreds of brushes sit in mason jars like bouquets of flowers; dried pigment and a tub of rabbit glue sit on the shelves of his meticulous basement workshop. Stacks of old lumber lean against one wall, he might need to carve a new curlicue or an acorn. Or, he might decide to make an original frame in his spare time.
Layne says he hadn’t set out to be gilder. In fact, he didn’t even know there was such an art form. “I grew up in Long Island with a sofa and formica kitchen. I didn’t know this stuff existed.”
But he was artistic, always sketching, taking photographs, and carving wood. He graduated from the School of Visual Arts in New York City. While Layne was in school someone suggested he try antique restoration.
Layne apprenticed at a large studio in Tribeca where he learned French polishing (a laborious process that involves applying multiple coats of shellac dissolved in alcohol using a rubbing pad lubricated with oil) as well as how to strip furniture, clean furniture. And he
learned how to gild. “The pay was awful but I learned a lot,” he says.
During this time Layne took a wood carving class at a YMCA in New York City. He knew that if he was to make a serious go at a career in antique restoration he had to understand the process from start to finish. “If you’re going to be in the gilding business you pretty much have to be in the carving business. There is no way to repair this stuff if you don’t know how to carve using the same carving tools they used centuries ago,” Layne explains.
Gilding has been used for thousands of years in cultures around the world. Egyptian tomb painting and reliefs from 23rd century BC are among the first known examples of the art form.
While each piece that finds its way into Layne’s studio is unique, the technique he uses to coax it back into shape is the same. First he figures out if he needs to carve replacement wood pieces. After that he gets ready to gild. He first coats the piece with a plaster-like material called gesso, a calcium carbonate. It resembles flour in look and touch before it’s mixed with water.
Layne builds the gesso up coat-by-coat on the object to be gilded. It could be as few as five to six layers and as many as 20 layers. After the gesso is dried Layne sands the surface until it’s smooth as glass. He then re-cuts the gesso removing any and all irregularities. Then Layne uses a tiny hook-shaped metal scraper to carve details into gesso. Next the gold leaf is applied to the wet surface.
“It looks like a wrapped candy as it pulls the gold onto the surface,” Layne says.
Gold leaf is so thin it would take about 250,000 leaves to make one inch, Layne said. It’s also so fine that one can’t handle it bare handed; it clings to fingertips before simply dissolving. And yet, despite its fragility, it will not tarnish or deteriorate once applied.
After Layne applies the leaf he polishes it with a smooth stone. Agate or Hematite are the most commonly used stones. This is what creates the rich luster. Sometimes Layne will abrade the gold leaf so it looks worn from handling and sometimes he will use an umber or pale gray wash over the leaf to tone the gold down.
He counts antique dealers, and even the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City among his clients. Layne has restored everything from a nearly life-sized 16th-century Japanese Buddha to a Russian throne supposedly owned by Catherine the Great.
“After 25 years I’m still learning,” Layne says. “How to do it isn’t a secret; but it takes a long time to learn how to create a patina that looks 200 years old and just blends right in.”