Wednesday, January 16, 2013

My birthday present

Back when my grandmother lived in Pittsburgh, she had a unique kitchen backsplash made up of  dozens of decorative ceramic tiles. She'd collected these over many years, some picked up during her travels around the world, some as gifts from friends (or perhaps even from admirers, of which she had many). After her death, her descendants divided up the collection, and I chose two for myself: one depicting a Tudor-era shepherdess and the other an assortment of beans and pasta in glass-topped canning jars, much like the ones shown at the top of this page. We also had one tile trivet that had belonged to Brian's grandmother, and I had an idea that maybe it would be nice to display all three of them together on the wall above the shelf with all the jars as a sort of memorial to them both. I wasn't sure how to hang them, though, and so for a year or so, they just sat tucked away in a box with all the other artwork that we hadn't found a home for.

Back in June, my uncle sent me a couple of photos showing what he was planning to do with his share of the tiles. His plan was to make a trivet/serving tray out of them by making a base of bamboo, like this...


...and then cover the glued-over area with an assortment of tiles, like this:


That got me thinking about whether I might be able to put together something equally simple as a sort of frame for the tiles. I Googled "tile frame" and found several simple examples for under $10. But $10 each is still $30 for three tiles, and the construction looked simple enough that I didn't think it would be too hard to make something similar at home.

So as my birthday approached, I asked Brian if he would make me new tile frames as my present. And as it happened, he already had some suitable material on hand. Remember way back in late 2010 and early 2011, when we were refinishing our downstairs bathroom? Remember how Brian went to so much trouble to save and refinish the old baseboard molding, only to find that it no longer fit flush against the walls once we had the new floor in place? Well, he held on to those painted boards for nearly two years, sure he'd find a use for them someday, and now that day has come. The first thing he did was take a drawknife and strip off all the layers of paint and varnish that he'd so painstakingly put on. Then he cut four pieces to size with mitered corners and stuck them together with glue and small nails. A groove cut into the back holds the tile, and a washer held down with a screw holds the tile in place.

Stripping the wood pieces down with a knife, as you might expect, left them with what is nowadays called a "distressed" look. He was considering sanding and staining it, but he when brought the first frame up to show to me in its raw state, I actually quite liked it. The stripped wood had a natural, rustic kind of look that I thought would be very appropriate for the corner where we planned to hang the tiles. So he just gave the frames a couple of coats of clear, water-based finish and put on the hanging hardware. 

The project hit a bit of a snag at one point when it turned out that he'd only made two frames, because the third tile was still tucked away in the box and he'd forgotten he had it. So he thought we might end up having to make the third frame out of some different pieces of scrap wood, which wouldn't quite match the other two. But a quick rummage through the scrap bin turned up two more pieces of the bathroom floor molding, one short and one long, and with those two, he had just enough material to make a third frame—with nothing going to waste. Here are the three tiles, lined up in a row in their new frames:


And here's a picture of them in their new home, on the wall beside the staircase. Recognize those jars lined up along the shelf?


I don't know what I love most about this birthday present: the way the new artwork really completes the  look of this little corner (which was already one of my favorite parts of the house), the way it welcomes the memory of both of our late grandmothers into our home, the fact that Brian made it specially for me, or the fact that he made it completely from reused materials. So not only did it not cost a penny, it also gives a new life to those old pieces of floor molding that might have gone to waste—and finally justifies the trouble Brian took to salvage them. What could be a more satisfying gift than that?
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