BY KAREN GERHARDINGER | MIRROR REPORTER — When retired Hillsdale College Art Department chair Sam Knecht needs frames for his own work, he travels to Deluxe Frame Shop in Waterville to consult with owners Terry and Rob Rousseau.
“I’ve been bringing my best work to these guys for a long time. They are the best. They are probably unique in the Midwest for all they have to offer,” said Knecht as he selected a frame for an oil landscape to be featured in an upcoming show.
Deluxe Frame Shop offers antique frame and artwork restoration and conservation, custom framing and picture installation, explained Terry.
“When you’re a master painter, you can’t just go to Hobby Lobby and buy a discount frame,” Terry said. “We want these to look good. A frame can dress up a painting, but at the same time, the artwork is the star of the show.”
Terry’s grandparents, Bob and Jackie Rousseau, founded Deluxe Frame Shop in 1960 on Cherry Street in Toledo. In 2019, listening to advice from customers, Terry decided to purchase a historic home in Waterville. With help from his father-in-law, Ken Swartz, the circa-1836 building was renovated, and in April 2021, the move was complete.
“Ever since moving to Waterville, we’ve been swamped,” Terry said. “We used to be one of 30 frame shops in Toledo. Now, we’re one of eight or nine. I think we’ve done well because we’ve found our niche.”
As his father, Rob, sits at a workbench applying gold leaf to a frame, it becomes clear that his work as a master gilder and frame restorer is one niche that’s unique to Deluxe Frame Shop.
Holding the 135-year-old frame, Rob applies tissue-thin pieces of gold leaf and brushes it into the crevices – one of 32 steps involved. After the leaf is attached, it’s sealed and then toned with 20 to 30 thin layers of paint.
“That’s what gives it the old look. It’s not a solid color. I wipe it on and tone it down,” Rob explained. “Every step of the way, you can wreck it. It’s time-consuming, tedious work.”
The frames he sees for restoration come from basements and attics and arrive with dings, dents and missing pieces.
“Someone finally finds it and wants to restore it to look like it’s 300 years old but always taken care of. That’s my specialty. Making frames look as old as they were but not like anyone worked on them,” he said.
Often the gold is missing, usually due to cleaning the frame with a wet cloth, which will wipe it away. If a piece of wood is missing, a direct mold process is used to replicate a section to make it look like it’s original.
Learning how to create and restore frames is something Rob began learning as a kid. As early as age 5, he was helping his parents in their shop after school. When his parents went to visit frame companies in Chicago, Rob would hang out and watch the gilders and ask questions. He’d try out the techniques on his own, and the next year, he’d go back with more questions.
“They would say, ‘Try chicken fat. Try oil. You need to do this or that.’ If you want to do it right, you have to do it ancient-style. There are no synthetics. There are no quick ways of doing it. I kept playing with it and talking to the old masters who would share some of their secrets with me. I kept getting better. If you live long enough, everyone dies off and you’re at the top,” he laughed.
With such mastery of the process, Rob was confident in taking on a customer’s request to build from scratch an elaborate circle frame for a 36-inch Italian plate. Rob used board, composition, decoration, gold and toning in a process that took about 50 hours.
Rob and Terry will also repair a tear or puncture in a painting – another tedious job that requires multiple steps. Only a few reputable people in Ohio are available to do artwork preservation and conservation, Terry said.
Conservators are more focused on preserving artwork as structurally sound and halting deterioration. While many conservators shy away from inpainting – placing new paint on a work to fill in missing areas – Rob and Terry will do so at a customer’s request.
“It’s not run-of-the-mill what we do. We have to be extremely careful because a lot of what we work on is irreplaceable. A handful of people in the United States do artwork conservation or preservation or dabble in restoration. If you do mess up, there’s not a big list of people to call because they’re usually calling you. We’re the surgeons of the art world,” Terry said.
Over the years, Deluxe Frame Shop has been behind the restoration of frames seen hanging in well-known galleries, the Toledo Club and private homes, to name a few.
Both Rob and Terry have continued Jackie’s love of fine art and appreciate the opportunity to work with it on a daily basis. In the midst of the pandemic, Knecht surprised the father and son with a work of art he created just for them: a painting of the two men working on a frame.
“It was the biggest spirit-lifter,” Terry said.
Deluxe Frame Shop is located at 19 N. River Rd. in downtown Waterville. For more information, visit www.deluxeframeshop.com or call (419) 244-1876.