Gold Embossed Groin Vault Ceiling

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What is a groin vault?

              A groin vault or groined vault (also sometimes known as a double barrel vault or cross vault) is produced by the intersection at right angles of two barrel vaults. The groin is created where the two barrel vaults intecept (notice the diagram below). Even though most people may have never heard the term, almost everyone who has been at a roman classical or a gothic style building, such as a Catholic church, has seen one in spectacular fashion. This is so because groin vaults are one of the most visible architectural focal points, one that is usually decorated with glorious art (notice below the monastery of Hossious Loucas in Greece, with its magnificent painted vault). I used to get neck cramps admiring in awe the magnificent groin vaults in churches and palaces I visited while travelling through Europe. At such ocassions I muttered to myself with deep regret-"They don't build them like this anymore".

Groin vaults with Roman and Gothic arches Painted vault at the monastery of Hossios Loucas in Greece

              In December 2010 I was doing my yearly stay in Puerto Rico when I got a call from Valene Loar-Tabone, senior designer at Spectrum Design Services in Cleveland, Ohio. I first worked with 'Val' in 2007 when Spectrum Design was doing interiors for the Wolstein Estate in Hunting Valley (see 2007, "The Wolstein Chateau Wine Room Murals" in the 'Current Works page). My first impression visiting their offices was the kind you get when visiting a high fashion studio. Their all-female staff had some of the most attractive people I have ever seen. Nothing wrong with that. Back then I met with Paula Jo Boykin, Spectrum's founder, and Val to discuss murals for the wine room at the Wolstein estate (see image below). Now Val was working on another residential project in Rocky River, a fifteen minute drive from my home in Lakewood's Gold Coast.

Main mural at the Wolstein Chateau wine tasting room

              During our brief conversation I got a few details about the project and an inquiry from Val about my availability to do a groin vault in a guest-restroom. I answered that I was interested (small winter projects are always welcome) and requested any available source material to start working on ideas. Well... Val sent me a picture of where the restroom was going to be. I kid you not (see image below). She also sent me a picture that showed a sample of the wallpaper and tile for the place. I could tell from the picture that was Val holding a piece of molding because of the hot red finger nail (Val, a lovely petite blond, also has a penchat for spiked leather boots -a weakness of mine... but I digress). By the end of our conversation she agreed to call me as soon as their was "something" for me to see during a site visit.

An extreme case of the imagination. A reference image provided by the designer

              Back in Cleveland in a very cold January day, I visited Spectrum Designs new offices in Cleveland's Ohio City to go over some decorative ideas with Val. The previous week I had visited the work site and taken a photograph of the vault under construction (see image below). Then I reconstructed a "finished vault" in Adobe PhotoShop and used this rendering as my main plate to tack on my designs.

A groin vault under construction A Photoshop conceptual image of the ceiling

              I began by doing a conceptual rendering with the wallpaper in place. From studying this image I concluded that because of the wallpaper's strong pattern, doing a complicated painted design would not be advisable. So instead I decided to go the other way and design something less "intrusive" that would not clash with the beautiful flowery pattern on the paper.

Conceptual rendering showing proposed wallpaper

              My solution was to design a scroll-like decorative pattern that repeated some of the organic lines present in the wallpaper pattern. The design was to be replicated in each of the four quadrants of the vault thus creating a very elegant decorative look. Painting the design, such as the one being painted by artist Jeff Huckaby as shown below was an option, but I felt this approach was not "high art" enough for this job. I wanted something three dimensional like the decorative plaster reliefs done in Baroque and Rococco decorative style. However, doing a carved relief was out of the question. Way too expensive and time consuming.

My design for the vault sections Artist Jeff Huckaby painting a design

              Next I though of doing the design in a stenciled raise-plaster relief. But this technique works best when reproducing a small repetitive pattern on a flat surface. The vault surface is round like a sphere. A design had to be created directly on this surface -upside down, not an easy thing to do under the best conditions. After some more thought, I settled for a cake decorating technique -using plaster.

A decorative plaster relief design A stenciled raise-plaster designed

             I had created all the marzipan and gum paste decorations for my own wedding cake a year before. So I was confident of my "pastry skills". The only difference now was that instead of gum paste, I would be using a plaster mix in my pastry bag. I figured I could do all the complex decorations separately, and then paste them in sections on the vault, exactly the way one would decorate a cake. And, for the final touch, I thought of gilding the entire ceiling so it looked like a sheet of hammered gold. Since Mrs. Henry, the client, has Greek in her heritage, I thought to emulate the wonderful Greek art as exemplefied by "the mask of Agamemnom". What's more, the use of gold is associated with high social status, and, as a decorative material, it is a beautifully reflective surface. Therefore, colors of the surrounding walls would be unified in the vaults reflection.

Decorating a cake with a pastry bag The gold "mask of Agamemnon"

             Now that I had a plan on how to proceed with the job, I did a final conceptual rendering of a "gilded embossed" design and then met with Val. We went over my design, I gave her a price quote and an estimated time of completion, and then presented this to the client on a separate meeting. Days later she contacted me with the news that the client approved the design and it was a go. Later on she would inform me of a starting date, once the construction was ready for me to begin.

Conceptual rendering of gilded embossed design

              When the starting date came, two months had pass; it was now March. This was not good news. In February I slipped on ice and had a bad fall. I tore the tendon in my left ankle and could not walk. I could barely move with crutches because the pain was excruciating. But I wanted to do the job. Naturally, I never told Val about my condition. After our discussion meeting, there was no need to meet again. We simply communicated through email. Besides, since construction was still going on at the site, I was going to work during the night hours when the place was quiet and all to myself. So what I did was to ask my brother Ricky for a metal brace for my ankle that could support my weight (those NASA technicians sure are a creative bunch), and, with the help of my wife Nancy, I transported my equipment to the site. During the entire three week duration of the project I stood on top of a scaffolding balancing on one foot. I thank my years as a fencer for developing a strong core!

Stencil of the design Plasterwork over design layout done on clear plastic

              The first step was to draw the pattern. I did this at home on sheets of vellum paper. I only drew half of the design. Then I flipped the paper pattern horizontally over to the other side and traced a mirror image to complete the entire design. Then on site, using a piece of plywood as my working surface, I taped the paper pattern to the wood and then layed a sheet of clear plastic on top. After securing the plastic to the surface with more tape, I traced the design on the plastic using a black marker. I repeated the process until I had four copies of the design drawn on the clear plastic. Finally, using a pastry bag and a mixture of joint compound with a clear polymer additive, I created the design. It was easy as cake! Except for one thing: it didn't work!

              Here's what happened. Problem one: the four quadrants of the vault, which had pretty much the exact dimensions when I first meassured the area during construction, were now of different sizes after the plasterers were done with it. Even a half inch difference becomes a big issue when repeating a pattern. You simply can't fool the eye. Problem two, because of the fact that the vault was slightly spherical as opposed to flat, the pieces of dry "scrollwork" would not lay even and thus crumbled when I tried to push and secure them in place. It became painfully obvious that this method would not work. There was only one viable solution to my dilemna, and that was, to trace the pattern directly to the vault, make the necessary adjustments on each quadrant, and work the pastry bag upside down. Yep, I was triple F---ed!

Flexible rulers used to guide cutting knife Appying plaster mix slowly over drawing

              One element of the design was the use of plaster molding delineating each quadrant of the vault. After tracing the design and making the necessary adjustments to account for the variations in dimensions, I secured strips of thin wood to the ceiling using drywall nails. The wood strips served as guides for running a 'shaping knife' (see image below). I made the shaping knife by cutting the shape of the molding on a thin piece of sheet metal, which I "sandwiched" between two pieces of plywood cut with the same shape as show below.

              Next, using the pastry bag and joint compound mixture, I squeezed enough "paste" on the marked area and then ran over a pass of the shaping knife keeping its edge secured tightly along the guiding wood strip. The knife would take away any excess mixture leaving behind the begining of the desired molding. After the mixture dried out (about 15 minutes), more mixture is added and a second pass of the knife is done. If necessary, a third pass is done until the finished molding is completed. Later, the rulers are moved to another area and the process is repeated. The moulding running along the wall is done with the knife firmly secured to the wall surface. Finally, the end corners where the moldings meet were shaped using only hand tools.

Shaping knife to form mouldings Corners were completed using modeling tools

              The ring section of the molding, at the very center of the vault were eventually a lamp would hang, was done separately on an oiled piece of plywood. The desired dimensions of the round molding was drawn on the plywood and then the shaping knife was secured in place with a strip of wood which had one end nailed to the center of the circle. Next, after mixture was poured on the marked area, the knife was run around in a circle thus creating the ring molding. After the piece dried, sections were cut and pasted on the vault design to complete the molding pattern. The "paste" was made of the same mixture with more water added and stirred to a cream consistency.

Center ring before it was cut into sections Plaster 'cream' with applicator brush

              The scrollwork pattern was created by applying mixture with a pastry bag in the same manner one would decorate a cake. Through trial and error I managed to achieve the right consistency for the mix. You need a steady hand to squeeze out the right amount while building up the pattern. Great care must be taken to keep the mixture within the lines of the drawing. Some areas will necessitate a second pass to build up the form. Then, after this stage of the work was completed and the scrollwork had dried, I reworked the design using carving tools and clay modeling knives. In fact, this is the same carving tool set I had since I carved wooden marionettes as a kid -that's over forty years ago!

Working a section at a time Carving and modelling tools

              After carving and modeling the design as needed, I smoothed out the imperfections with a piece of medium-grit drywall sanding sheet. It is messy work done with your head tilted back and arms raised to the ceiling. Plaster dust goes everywhere. The next step consists of brushing the entire design with plaster cream. This process fills in most imperfections and crevices along contours. Finally, once I was satisfied with the work, I proceeded to apply a couple coats of water-base primer.

It is a very dusty job Detail of primed section

              The primed design looked great! I could have walked away and the job looked finished. But that was an option for another job. I simply couldn't wait to apply the gold paint and see the gilded finish. While painting a mural on the dome of the Cleveland Juvenile Justice Center, I had experimented with every kind of gold paint available in the market. The finish on most of them looked like gold paint instead of metallic gold. I discovered the most toxic paints were simply the best! I ended up settling for a solvent-base gold paint manufactured by a local company named Sheffield Bronze Paint Corporation. Their gold paint uses xylene as a thinner and solvent. Xylene vapors stink to high heaven and exposure to it by breathing or by contact will poison you. Unless you work in a well ventilated area it will get you high. It takes several days for the paint to properly cure and for the smell to dissipate. But the gold finish looks fantastic!

Note: Sheffield Bronze Paint Corporation does manufacter a very good water-base version of the gold paint, but their solvent-base version simply looks like the real thing.

Completed ceiling primed and ready for gilding

              I applied one coat of gold paint working fast and trying to brush the paint in one direction. It dries very fast and reworking an area too much is not advisible since the xylene in the last coat will soften and remove the paint from the previous application. So if a second coat is desired it is best to let the first coat cure for a day or so. I had a fan blowing fresh air and I did wear a proper paint mask with air filters. The xylene vapor in the enclosed area soon became uncomfortable but when I finished the gilded vault looked fantastic. What's more, as dusk filtered through a window, the warm amber tones were beatifully reflected on the gold. The completed job was well worth all the pain and misery I had to endure.

Ceiling after gilding Sunset light reflected on ceiling

              I never returned to the work site to see the finished decor on the guest-restroom. Once completed, I e-mailed a picture of the finished job to Val and a few days later I received a check in the mail along with a very nice note from Mrs. Henry telling me how much she loved the work. It would take another three months for me to walk without crushes and another three months for my ankle to completely heal. Oddly enough, I forgot all about my bad ankle while I was balancing on one foot and carving the vault design. What mostly comes to mind is the pain in the back of my neck. But once all is said and one, I must confess that I really enjoyed doing this particular job because it was so different from the kind of jobs I normally do.

Conceptual image of finished vault