The Life Of A Mantel – Behind The Paint

When we were first contacted regarding our interest in salvaging the two 1890 houses in Little Rock, Arkansas that were scheduled for demolition, we marveled at the pictures sent to us. The exterior pictures would have been enough to catch our eye. The interior pictures are what produced a jaw dropping reaction among our team. The pictures revealed some of the most beautiful architectural pieces we have seen in our 54 years of business. The pictures that garnered the strongest reaction from us were the mantels… all seven of them! Beautiful, majestic, carved mantels, each one framing elegant tile sets. Several of the mantels were purchased on location, so we only returned to Cullman with four, one of which was a painted mantel. Being painted, the wood grain was covered. We weren’t expecting to find a surprise ‘behind the paint’. We immediately sent the mantel to our wood shop to have the paint stripped off and to our surprise and great delight we discovered that underneath all the old paint was an exquisite mantel made of birdseye maple. This mantel quickly moved to the top of our favorite item list!

Southern Accents Architectural Antiques

Birdseye mantel in the strip tank.

We only see an artifact made from birdseye maple about once a year. It is a rare wood not commonly seen in antique items except in high quality pieces. Back when all furniture was made by hand, birdseye maple was only used by the most skilled artisans. It was a rather difficult wood to work with. The fine threads of the wood would easily catch and tear the grain. Because of this, items made from birdseye were extremely labor intensive. Many sawmills when faced with a run of birdseye would cut and use it as firewood! Today modern tools are available that make working with this stunning wood much easier.

Southern Accents Architectural Antiques

The mantel top in the strip tank. The natural beauty of the wood showing as the old paint dissolves.

No one really knows for sure how or why this pattern occurs in the wood grain. It is found in several species of wood but is most commonly seen in hard maple. The very distinctive pattern resembles tiny, swirling eyes that disrupt the smooth lines of the grain, somewhat reminiscent of a burl but not quite the same. Could the cause of this phenomenon be some tiny pecking birds deforming the wood grain or possibly an infectious fungus or insect? Perhaps it is the result of a genetic mutation. The exact cause is irrelevant. One doesn’t need to understand the reason to appreciate the sheer beauty of this magnificent wood!

Southern Accents Architectural Antiques

Birdseye mantel, stripped of the old paint, waiting for the final cleaning

The stripping process on this mantel is complete. It is now awaiting it’s final cleaning. The original beveled glass mirrors will be reinstalled and the mantel will take it’s place in our showroom. This birdseye mantel is currently for sale and can be viewed online by Clicking Here. We can’t wait to discover who the lucky new owner will be, but when the time comes this is one of those rare pieces that we will be sad to see leave our showroom.

Birdseye mantel before it was removed from the 1890 Bruner  house in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Birdseye mantel before it was removed from the 1890 Bruner house in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Written by: Lisa Jones

Edited by: Garlan Gudger, Jr.


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