Friday, August 5, 2011

L'école des Beach-Arts

Tina Davidson dry fits "found art" from the beach into an U-shaped mirror frame constructed from a pine board and a couple of lengths of lath.

Rather than writing or photographing or riding trains or cogitating on important cultural matters, I've been spending my time building a new medicine cabinet for our rustic cabin's bathroom in what might be called the Lake Superior Beach Arts Style.

This is to scour the sand in front of the Writer's Lair for tiny objets d'art (pretty stones, agates, fossils, sea glass, insect galls, tiny clamshells, shreds of birch and pine bark, acorns, miniature evergreen cones and bits of oddly shaped driftwood).

Then the items are encrusted atop and around a mirror frame crafted out of pine in the barn shop. Finally the frame is affixed to a wooden cabinet built to fit the hole in the plywood wall that once held a cheap (and now rusty) metal cabinet from the hardware store.

Slathering on the adhesive grout.
The technique is actually quite simple and makes a fine pastime for small children and ham-handed grandfathers. For me the project involved a couple of false starts, for I'm a longtime member of the Measure Once, Eff Up Twice Club.

First, when building the frame, I had a fight with the router (didn't lock the bit in the chuck tightly enough) and after the loose bit slashed up the wood, it fell out of the chuck and went spinning and caroming at umpteen thousand RPM around the shop floor like a maddened top, requiring me to do a frenzied toe dance to avoid getting my ankles carved up.

Of course I had to start all over again, and from then on things went well, but later on I forgot which way the hinges went on the finished mirror frame, necessitating fitting and refitting until the light finally dawned. Eventually (and with only a little swearing) I got 'er done, as they say in the Upper Peninsula.

Placing the treasures in the frame.
Construction of the cabinet and mirror frame was hardly brain surgery, but it did take some care and minor tweaking.

First, I built the medicine cabinet carcass out of leftover 1x6 pine, and gave it a 1/4" mahogany plywood back (from shop scraps) and a couple of 4-inch shelves. Then I test-fit the cabinet into the wall and achieved success after power-sanding a few rough spots off ragged edges. Finally I applied several coats of clear satin acrylic varnish and set the carcass aside to dry.

Next, I ripped an 8-foot-long 1x4 pine board on the table saw to 2 1/4 inches wide, then glued and nailed two 8-foot-long, 1 1/8-inch wide quarter-inch-thick pine laths to it. This formed the material for the U-shaped (cross section) mirror frame to receive the "beach art."

When the glue dried, I routed a 1/4" deep by 3/8" wide rabbet all the way along one edge. This cut the depression that would receive the mirror. (Of course Eff-Up No. 1 occurred here, and I started over.)

Sprinkling sand over the items embedded in the still damp grout.

Next step was to use the table saw and miter guide to cut two 20" and two 16" pieces out of the U-shaped board with 45 degree miter corners, then glue and nail up the pieces (with a pneumatic nailer; I can't hammer a nail without bending it) to make a mirror frame, making sure the rabbet ran along the inside edge.

Patting down the sand gently to embed a thin layer in the grout.
Sometimes getting everything square with a $99 Home Depot table saw can be tricky, but this part of the operation went swimmingly.

Next I brushed several coats of clear satin acrylic varnish onto the frame, sanding lightly between coats.

While everything dried, Tina Davidson, who is an accomplished artist as well as a family friend and house guest, took over the project. First she combed the beach in front of our cabin for goodies. She came up with quite a haul of small treasures.

Spraying gloss varnish onto the work.
Next she placed the completed frame on a table and carefully dry-fitted all the found-beach-art items into it until she was happy with the arrangement.

After that, she and the Lady Friend carefully removed the items and placed them in their original order outside the frame for the next step.

This was to use a putty knife to butter a 1/8-to-1/4-inch-thick coat of acrylic adhesive tile grout (emphasis on the adhesive; ordinary grout won't grip) into the U-shaped depression all around the frame. Both care and a little speed are needed here, for the grout sets in about 30 minutes.

Then Tina and the L.F. carefully pressed the tiny items into the grout until they bottomed on the wood underneath.

Finally, they sprinkled a thick coating of dry beach sand onto the whole thing, gently patting the sand down with their fingers so that a thin layer would sink into the grout.

The cabinet base, affixed into the wall.

After the grout had dried overnight and we shook and brushed off the loose sand, we sealed everything with half a dozen coats of quick-drying spray gloss acrylic varnish. You can use flat or satin varnish if you prefer, but gloss brings out the highlights in the stone and wood.

The next day we drove an hour east to Houghton to pick up a mirror at a glass company there. (Ontonagon has none.) We specified 1/4 inch thick silvered glass rather than 1/8 inch, for strength, and ordered it 3/16" shorter in each dimension than the mirror frame cutout.

Finally, we covered the back of the frame with quarter-inch plywood.

After the aforementioned struggle with the hinges, the job was done, and I'm as proud of it as I am of any of my mystery novels.

Finished and up on the wall. That's the shower curtain in the mirror.


  1. Henry, That's terrific - please send another one immediately to England!

  2. Gorgeous medicine cabinet, but did I really need to see that you have more bandaids than most people use in a lifetime?


  3. Love Andrew's work - really captures the essence of our beautiful coastline, and it looks even better in real life!
    beach art