A William and Mary Simulated Tortoiseshell Chest of Drawers – Part Six

Upon examining early japanned furniture, it becomes apparent why so much testudinally painted furniture was surrendered to japanners and other artists accomplished in chinoiserie. The least convincing simulated tortoiseshell finishes are bedaubed with a repetitive pattern more reminiscent of leopard skin than any turtle’s carapace (figures 1 & 2).

painted_tortoiseshell_clock_case-Joseph_Grey_of_Durham_c1760_01aFig.1. Painted tortoiseshell clock case, circa 1760. (Bonhams)

Geo_III_painted_tortoiseshell_corner_cupboard_c1765_01aFig. 2. Painted tortoiseshell corner cupboard, circa 1765.

As with furniture that is veneered with tortoiseshell – the largest pieces of which seldom exceed 12″ by 9″ – (figures 3 & 4), better quality faux examples were painted in similarly small sections.

late_17C_Flemish_tortoiseshell_bureau_01aFig. 3. Late seventeenth-century Flemish ivory-inlaid tortoiseshell secrétaire-bureau de dame. (Bonhams)

tortoiseshell_cushion_mirror_01aFig. 4. Segmented scarlet tortoiseshell-veneered cushion mirror frame. (Bonhams)

I divided the carcase panels, drawer fronts and mouldings into segments and then painted each area separately to more closely replicate the use of the relatively small individual scutes that constitute a turtle’s carapace (figure 5).

tortoise_shell_01aFig. 5. Turtle carapace comprising separate interlocking scutes.

Tortoiseshell backgrounds range from cherry red through amber to pale sand, the darker colours are known as ‘scarlet’ (figure 6) and the paler colours; ‘blonde’ (figure 7).

Geo_II_tortoiseshell_caddies_mid_18C_01aFig. 6. George II scarlet tortoiseshell tea caddies, circa 1750.

Geo_III_tortoiseshell_caddies_c1770_01aFig. 7. George III blonde tortoiseshell tea caddies, circa 1770.

Paint-simulated tortoiseshell (whether ultimately blonde or scarlet) normally begins with an opaque flavescent ground. I brushed two coats of a flat, oil-based buttery-yellow over the gessoed chest and when thoroughly dry, I flattened it all with fine abrasive paper. To complete the ground, it was brushed all over with a thin spirit varnish (figure 8).

wmftcod_chest_120113_01aFig. 8. The carcase now ready to receive its decoration.

I struggled to capture the true colour of this yellow with my camera; however, the representation in figure 9 is quite true… on my monitor, at least.

wmftcod_chest_120113_02aFig. 9. The pale yellow ground.

I purchased a 500ml can of Zoffany Hawksbill from their True Turtle Paint range and brushed a couple of coats over the prepared ground, sanding lightly between coats.

wmftcod_paint_210113_01aFig. 10. Applying the True Turtle Paint to a drawer front.

When that fantasy didn’t eventuate, I resorted to the more traditional method of brushing on layers of water- and spirit-based glazes in imitation of the splotches and streaks of natural tortoiseshell. When the glazes are all dry, the whole lot will be sealed with a couple of coats of spirit varnish.

Jack Plane


About Jack Plane

Formerly from the UK, Jack is a retired antiques dealer and self-taught woodworker, now living in Australia.
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8 Responses to A William and Mary Simulated Tortoiseshell Chest of Drawers – Part Six

  1. confur says:

    Spirit Varnish ? A mix of yours ? Most I’ve come across dont add up to much and ultimately break down fairly early in life


    • Jack Plane says:

      I use various resins for making spirit varnishes including rosin, sandarac and shellac. I usually end up tipping any leftovers into a large jar… which is what I’m using on this piece. The varnish will survive longer than me and the same recipe has served me well over the past forty years.

      At any rate, I’d be quite happy if the finish slowly deteriorated over the next hundred years or so. The last thing I want is to create something that will forever remain shiny and new looking.



  2. D.B. Laney says:

    Violins bearing maker’s names like Stradavari, Guarneri and Amati are thought to owe much of their resonating qualities to the types of spirit varnishes that were used as their finish. Serious luthiers today spend a lot of time and energy trying to recreate the varnish formulas developed by the Cremona masters. And, proper spirit varnish mixtures seem to last several centuries. Long enough for me.


  3. Adrian Bileydi-lee says:

    What examples of grained furniture have you come across? Although a furniture maker, I really enjoy graining and marbling which I studied at York college of art. I now live in the states in MN so I don’t get to see a lot of quality examples.


    • Jack Plane says:

      Chests of drawers, coffers, boxes, spice cupboards, beds, tables and chairs were routinely grained and painted to simulate tortoiseshell, ivory and woods such as oak, walnut and oyster work.



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