Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Wedding Cake Topper Part 1

I started yesterday on a really exciting project to do a wedding cake topper. I wanted to go through my current process step by step. Anytime you are working with wood, especially thin-stock, there are several things that must be done to painted pieces before they are ready to be engraved. Laser engravers do a great job of detail but can leave smoke and soot streaks if run on an unfinished product. I prefer to have the wood showing on the edges of each cut rather than try and paint after a piece is complete. Painting and prepping ahead of a cut and engraving also keeps all of that precision and clarity that you can get from a laser engraver. Trying to paint after a cut introduces bubbles, smears, and you lose clarity on detailed areas of the piece.

First- a bit of info about the shop. Right now I'm into silhouettes and vintage graphics. I absolutely adore making things that are safe for kids (and for me in handling), nostalgic, and require no batteries. I think it's important to be selective about your materials, where they come from, and what goes in them. There are so many frequent spots on the news about contamination or high mercury or lead levels in everyday products- it can be a little confusing when purchasing an item because there is no history behind it. I insist on purchasing sustainably sourced wood products or I beg and borrow scraps from my local woodworkers (reuse and reduce as my mode of recycle). I prefer to use all natural finishing products as well. From the source to the end user, products that don't contribute to toxic trash is a plus in my book. I use an all natural milk paint for my wood projects. This is the same formula originally used by the colonists and is used for all shaker style reproductions and for museum quality reproduction furniture designs. The binding agent, casein, is found in milk. Original settlers would have used liquid buttermilk or skim milk but this product uses just the powdered protein which makes it super easy to store and use little bits of it when I want. I won't go into depth here- but you can read more about milk paint on your own if you are interested. I'm thinking about starting to carry it as a supply item in my shop- what do you think?

On to the cake topper. I have had the fantastic opportunity to work with a couple to design a unique and personalized cake topper for an upcoming wedding. We started with a theme and and a few ideas and the result... well- maybe that will be part of the suspense. It would ruin it to describe it now. I think it will just be super neat- is that vague enough? I started working with the wood forms yesterday.

First I selected two different types of wood. There is a rear layer that is rather wide on its own so I picked up some 1/8 in Baltic birch plywood for strength. The cuts later will be quite precise and I wanted to maintain the delicate look that thin-stock affords. The other pieces of the topper are going to be done in solid ash. Ash is a softer wood and allows for amazing precision. The natural resins in the wood also contribute after each cut to a neat effect at each edge- like honey on pears.
The first step is to make sure that each board piece is sanded down to super-smooth level. I used descending grit sandpaper. The pieces I have are already pretty smooth so I was able to start at about a 500 level grit and move up to a 600 level grit. I hand-sanded each piece on both sides until they were practically polished.
 
Sanding to Smooth
 It is important to sand with the grain of the wood and to apply even pressure with each pass. I then pass over each piece with a slightly damp towel to remove any dust that accumulated during sanding. I stress on the slightly damp as you don't want to introduce liquid into your wood ahead of painting as it could cause warping and discoloration. OK- all clean and shiny. My next task is to pick out a color of paint. Yummy...

Milk Paint Colors- Which to choose?
 This project will be working with Light Cream, Lexington Green, Pitch Black, and Barn Red. When stored in airtight container like these jam jars that I'm in love with- the powdered form of milk paint will last indefinitely. If it's continuously exposed to air, the lime in the paint will turn to chalk and the powder will not mix or adhere properly. The proper way to mix milk paint, especially when only using very small portions for detail work, is to mix up a paste of some powder to a little water and the water the paste down until it's the right consistency. The best part is that there is no "right"- it just depends on the look you want for each project. For some projects you may want only a color wash in which case you just water the paste down until it's giving you the results you are looking for. In my case I added too much water and had to add more powder. No biggie!
Left Shows Proper Mix, Right Shows Washout
You can see the difference in the photo above. The streak on the far right was my first test and it was just a little too thin for good full coverage in two coats so I added more powder and ended up with the sample shown on the left. This is giving me good coverage for a single coat without being gloppy. A double coat will definitely provide the look I'll need for this project.
Did I mention there are no fumes? Yay! Painting Day!
The next step is just to provide an even coat all over the initial form.
Still Wet- Single Coat


 Milk paint is really easy to work with but can b e misleading as you are painting with it. The color from wet to dry is quite different and as you work on the end of the piece, the top section may already be drying. It's very tempting to go back over that section with the brush again but this will only cause drying issues- the first coat isn't that important so just go with a pretty decently even coat.

There are some other pieces to this fun project- so I measured what I would need and figure out that all three can fit on a single stock sheet with extra room. Bonus! The only scary part is trying to not get paint from one section onto another.... My advice is to start with the scariest or darkest color because then you know whether or not you have dripped or sprinkled on the light section before you get there and not after you have ruined it.
No drips or smears-- I think I get a gold star!


Ah- then the hard part... waiting for everything to dry!




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