Carved gilded wood made its debut as a cost saving option. It is very time consuming to cast, refine and gold plate brass. By carving wood and gold leafing it, an artisan could deliver a look that was very good at a much better price. Now, those old carved wood fixtures are highly prized, and new ones are treasured nearly as much.
In our Dallas Market Center showroom, potential distributors are often surprised to hear that everything in the Colony Imports collection that appears to be carved wood is actually carved wood. Many of the fixtures today with detailing not made of metal rely on cast resin to imitate that achieved in past centuries with wood. There is nothing fine about the cast resin, much of which will ultimately find its way to landfills. Once damaged, there is no cost effective repair. It’s just not worth it. Whereas, wood can be glued and refinished. The resultant repair can, in some cases, be better than new. And the combination of wood and gesso (a plaster-like medium) or wood paste (a mixture of sawdust with a glue-like binding agent) yields beautiful detailing than is highlighted with rich finishing.
So is every carved wood piece the result of a European craftsman slowly carving out the parts by hand? No. The original piece or pattern is designed and carved by a master wood carver, like Roberto Giovannini, then that pattern is replicated by a skilled mechanic who uses a pantograph, a wood carving machine, to copy the original parts, sixteen at a time. The mechanic chucks up the part to be copied and runs a stylus over the original, with sixteen sets of automated blades replicating his every move, carving out sixteen exact duplicates of the pattern. While the process is automated, it does require a high degree of proficiency to properly produce the wooden carvings with this machine.
After the parts are carved, the individual parts are inspected and refined by hand as necessary, and sent to the next department for finishing, assembly and wiring. The finishing process is, perhaps, the most important step. An aged iron finish starts with silver leaf, followed by several layers of paints and/or glazes to yield the desired patina. What started as a block of wood can end up looking like cast iron, gilded metal, or simply a beautifully aged piece of wood. This hand worked tradition has passed down through many generations, and is thankfully still very much alive in Italy today.