Scagliola, or false marble, is a colored plaster finishing process which, when completed and polished, looks exactly like marble. This program shows one of the few craftsmen in the country using this technique of decoration. Also demonstrated is plaster casting to create cornice mouldings.
Techniques for producing ornamental plaster are being demonstrated by Earle Felber and craftsmen from the Felber Ornamental Plaster Studio in Ardmore Pennsylvania. If Mr. Felber were Japanese, he would be included in the National Living Treasures of the country. He has been a professional ornamental plaster craftsman since he was 14 years old. He is not just an artisan, however, but a true artist. In the 1920’s and 1930’s, he worked across the nation on Art Deco Movie Palaces, including the famed Roxy Theater in New York. Since he is one of the few people left in the United States who knows how to create the artificial marble called scagliola, he was brought out of retirement to work on the State Department Dining Rooms in Washington, DC.
Scagliola, or Faux Marble, is a colored plaster finishing process which, when completed and polished, looks exactly like marble. This process was developed in Italy in the 17th century. In this country, methods were developed to mass-produce this material to meet the demands of the Art Deco construction of the 20’s and 30’s.
Scagliola is less expensive than importing expensive foreign marbles. It is not a structural material but purely ornamental. It therefore may be used in structures that would not otherwise be able to house real marble. As well as being lighter in weight, symmetrically corresponding details may be made to have graining that matches almost exactly.
Scagliola may be laid on a base, plaster surface, in small pats, with the exposed surface scraped, ground, and polished, to make the final finish, or, as demonstrated here, it may be laid face down in a mould on a polished surface, to produce slabs which are then lifted from the mould and hung face out on a backing surface. Scagliola may also be made in reverse moulds to produce ornamental architectural elements.
Mr. Felber demonstrates the process of making scagliola in the form of slabs. The graining is produced by using silk threads soaked in cement-fast, lime-proof coloring that is laid into the mould first. Keenes Cement, also colored with cement-fast, lime-proof coloring, is used to produce the marble effect by dipping the end of a whiskbroom into the desired colors and sporadically spattering them into the mould. The silk is then removed and the mould filled half way up with uncolored Keenes Cement. A layer of burlap is laid across the mould and more Keenes Cement to fill out the thickness of the mould. When this has dried, the slab is removed from the mould and turned face up. This surface is then scraped and polished with pumice stone. Originally, the final finish would be what is called a French polish. This was white shellac rubbed on with cotton rag cloth. At a certain point of tackiness, the rag cloth would be dipped in linseed oil and the rubbing would continue until the shellac was dry. If the linseed oil was not used soon enough, lint would stick to the shellac that would then have to be removed and the process of the French polish would begin again. This would provide a reversible finish. Today, experiments are being made with various kinds of urethanes and varnishes. These finishes are, however, irreversible.
Methods of casting plaster from reverse moulds have been in existence for centuries. The reverse impressions are filled with wet plaster to produce a copy of the original. The earliest moulds were made of wood, lead, wax, clay, and plaster. The use of pliable materials such as wax and clay made possible undercut features which otherwise would have to be carved out by hand. Finally, during the late 1840’s, an undercut mould was produced from a gelatin mould. The modern plastiline material is pressed onto an object, as with the older materials, archiving the reverse impression. This more pliable material also enables the casting of pieces in the round in one mould, rather than the procedure known as piece moulding, where architectural elements such as the capitals of columns, would have been made in four sections and then assembled to form the final object.
Felber Studios demonstrates how a cornice moulding is run. After it dries, a mould is then created from the actual plaster cornice. From the mould, castings are made which are then shipped to the designated location for installation. This process makes a great variety of cornice mouldings possible, to be made from a single mould rather than from any number of component parts.
The use of modern materials when casting, such as fiberglass and styrene, produce cornices that are lighter to handle and stronger to transport from shop to site. The use of rubber moulds makes casting faster and allows for production runs as they may be reused many times.
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