Saturday, October 10, 2015

Profane Crafting - Decoupage a Tray the Edward Lear Way!

Hello and welcome to my new series, Profane Crafting. I grew up in a crafty household, watching my mom transform our 70s-era ranch house into our own suburban Spanish-Colonial empire. Decoupage was hot in the 70s and my Mom was riding the crafting wave. She was hardcore, even soaking off the backings from glossy imagery in order to make it appear "sunken" into the wood base, once it was glued down. I didn't understand what that was all about, nor did I understand the seemingly hundreds of top-coats available to add patina to each decoupage masterpiece. But in decoupage circles, that is the goal—perfect application for complete smoothness of form.

Anyway, I visited a lot of crafting sites to get a feel of the land, so to speak and although a few had a shrugging, what-the-hell attitude toward projects (my favorite sites include blunders and mishaps), most are of the cheery, flowery, extremely enthusiastic women's-magazine variety (when will "women's journalism" stop sounding like Snuggle Bear dialogue from a Bounce Fabric Softener commercial? In my lifetime, I hope). Quite a few push product and probably get some financial reward for doing so, hence the cheerful glow throughout an often arduous process.

That will not be the case here. In fact, expect some swearing and general bad attitude from this crafter. I mean, how hard can it be to decoupage a tray, right? Well, to decoupage it well—that takes a lifetime.

Anyway, here goes nothing. I have this bamboo tray. I think it's from Target. It's a perfectly nice, serviceable tray. We use it a lot because we have little ottomans in the living room and sometimes we want to put some snacks upon them—enter the tray. It's a good size, not too heavy, unbreakable but goddamn, is it dull. Here it is:


Even with this cool rock embedded with fossilized seashells upon it, it's hard for this tray to make an impression.

I've had this dream where I take this tray and update the shit out of it to finally give it some personality. In my soul, I'm a crafter. In execution, I'm an oaf. But I was determined to live my dream through this tray.

First, I sanded it with my 220 sandpaper—one of the wussiest grades around. I just wanted to take off any finish that Target might have applied. Let me warn you, bamboo isn't the best material for this project because it's non-porous, at least compared to wood, but I wasn't about to go out and buy a wood tray, just to have something porous to work with. That's not my style. Damn the consequences and full-speed ahead.

The sandpaper shot:

I used a sanding block and my sandpaper-covered fingers. I don't know if I did a great job, but I did what I could.

Next came primer. I was painting a side-table during this whole fracas, so I had all these painting supplies out and ready to use anyway. Otherwise, this tray would not have transformed. And I advise you to do the same—try to group messy projects so your house and garage/yard areas are messy only half the time.

This primer claims to be eco-friendly (hmmm) and guarantees to seal stains, old varnish (once it's sanded) and god-knows-what before you start painting. My side-table was covered in disintegrating 50s-era varnish, so if this primer could seal that, I figured it would be all right for a serving tray.

Did it work? Mostly. After drying, it was a little tacky on first application, so I sanded it lightly and applied a second coat. I didn't mind because I've painted a lot of surfaces over the years and I know from experience: PREP IS EVERYTHING. You prep a surface properly and most of your troubles are solved. It's true! So use some primer.

Next, I needed to paint the tray. I already knew I was going to use an Edward Lear illustration for the decoupage (I'll get to him in a minute), but what colors for the base? Some people would have just slapped some leftover end-table paint on the tray and be done with it. Not me. I had a vision of cream with navy-blue trim that led me to Hobby Lobby, where I swore I'd never shop due to their CEO's dreadful campaign against full healthcare coverage for its employees. (Summary: Hobby Lobby is a Christian-based company that doesn't want their healthcare to cover contraception—which is fucking insulting to the modern age).

Anyway, I was already tired of working on this tray AND an end-table, that when I found myself across the street from Hobby Lobby, I forced myself to go in and buy two bottles of craft paint. Otherwise, I'd be driving in rush-hour traffic to the Michael's across town and blah blah blah... The upshot is: I suck. But I got my craft paint and started painting.

Note that Hobby Lobby's abundant array of paint selections didn't seem to include "cream," so I bought "linen" and mixed it 50/50 with some white I had on hand (avoiding the dried-barf look of full-strength "linen"), and painted the inside section of the tray. I then went to town with the lovely navy blue, which is my new favorite look for everything, painting the bottom, sides, top edge and handle holes of the tray.

And when I say "went to town," I mean "fucked it up" royally. Blue paint got on the cream side. Cream somehow went all over the blue while trying to cover any mistakes on the top edge. The top edge actually had no clear defined "edge" so I had to to create one with painter's tape (don't forget your painter's tape, crafters!), which didn't work either, causing me to graduate to smaller and smaller brushes to invent an edge that didn't look like shit. So that when I serve cocktails, no one will exclaim, "Jesus Christ! Just look at the ragged edges on this tray—what a fiasco!"

In summary—I wanted to kill this tray, but I soldiered on and after several coats of paint and fixes, I figured, eh, good enough.

Now it was time for the MOST IMPORTANT PART OF ALL. The decoupaging of the Edward Lear print. Who is Edward Lear? He was a great 19th century British eccentric who started out as a landscape painter and naturalist illustrator (and a good one) but once his eyesight began to fail, reinvented himself as a writer and illustrator of nonsense. In fact, his most famous work, besides "The Owl and the Pussycat," is The Book of Nonsense, published in 1848. I had a copy of this as a child and always loved the limericks, weird stories and imaginative and silly scientific names that Lear poured into it. Some of the illustrations, done with squiggly pen-and-ink and much expression, pop up from time to time in public-domain collections.

For this project, I narrowed down my image to one of three: the Fizzgiggious Fish on stilts, the Tumultuous Tom-tommy Tortoise playing a drum alone in a forest, or this Zigzag Zealous Zebra with monkey passengers. I decided the commuter zebra was the best fit for this tray. Since I own The Book of Nonsense, I scanned the image and blew it up a bit, printing it on a cream-colored background.

I made two different sizes to see which looked best and went for the larger one, but I had to cut most of it out to see how it would look. Sizing is half the battle. Because I used regular printer ink on regular copy paper, I fixed that sucker with ultra-toxic Prismacolor spray-on fixative (there's my endorsement). Being paranoid about the paper's properties, I sprayed both front and back. Printer ink is about as archival as mascara, so get yourself some toxic fixative if you plan on going this route.

For cutting out the image, use VERY sharp scissors (smaller blades are easier to work with) and a steady hand. x-acto knives are good for the little areas between the monkey arms and legs. The zebra tail—I don't know how I managed that. Dumb luck, probably. Keep the cutting-out part in mind when picking an image. You don't want to completely lose it during this important phase.

Time to decoupage! Here's my go-to glue for all collage-like projects, Mod Podge, still in its groovy packaging that I remember from childhood. All hail, Mod Podge! It goes on smooooth.

I have a matte soul, hence matte-finish Mod Podge

I poured a little in a bowl and added some water. Probably not completely necessary, but I was worried about the paper wrinkling and wanted to apply the thinnest layer of glue possible. I dipped my fingers in the bowl and smeared the glue around the tray, then laid the zebra in the middle and positioned it. (Some decoupage book from England recommended this technique—sorry I'm too lazy to fetch it for the title.) The book recommended setting the image down from the middle and squeezing all the glue bubbles out to the edges, smoothing everything with a damp sponge to collect any extra glue.

Sponge reenactment
Here I am pretending to smooth the image with my sponge. I'm just posing though, having already done the gluing earlier because I couldn't take a photo and work with glue at the same time. I'M ONLY ONE WOMAN. Also, I was really nervous that the paper zebra would:

a) wrinkle
b) tear
c) smear
d) flake apart

Out of all those disastrous scenarios, only the flaking apart was a slight problem, because I used cheap paper. Little bits of zebra came off, but I smoothed and picked them away, trying not to freak out about it as I went along. I figured, it's an old illustration—some flaking was aesthetically okay. Soon enough, I had a glued zebra.

A proud moment in decoupage

The Mod Podge surface area was shinier than the painted area, so I painted a layer of it across the tray surface to even out the finish and seal the illustration.

Then it was on to varnish, otherwise known around here as water-based polyurethane. Minwax Polycrylic was already in use for my end-table, so I brushed it on the tray as well. Wish I had read up on it first since I wanted to use a roller but assumed a brush was necessary. Turns out a roller or rag is fine. Next time!

This polyurethane had been sitting out in the garage, baking for a couple of summers. It was kind of yellowy in scope, but I didn't want to get a new can and it turned out fine.


The British decoupage book recommend four coats for a tray (up to seven for maximum toughness). I did three, then lightly sanded the third coat with a sanding sponge (the most delicate sander of all) before applying the final fourth coat. Meanwhile, the earth kept turning and life went on.

A genuine Edward Lear serving tray. It's not a completely pro job. It's not going to sell in an Etsy Store and make a name for me. But I had a dream. A dream of a navy-blue and cream tray with a zebra on it, carrying five monkeys on its back. And now that dream is a reality. And we can put our crap on it.


Update: I made a Lear "Tom-Tommy Tortoise" remote-control holding pen. It's not heirloom quality, but it keeps the remotes rounded up and out from between the couch cushions, and who could ask for more out of life?

"The Tumultuous Tom-Tommy Tortoise, who beat a Drum all day long in the middle of the wilderness." - Edward Lear

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