When designing our library I was looking to create a formal arrangement of Nineteenth century paintings, largely portraits, and this meant that I kept coming back to the idea of a picture rail. Not a piece of wooden beading positioned three quarters of the way up the wall, but one of those brass affairs just under the cornice and from which paintings hung on wires or chains. Most of the examples I saw were in stately homes or the type of faded Georgian townhouses that were once occupied by the types of men depicted in the portraits – so the match seemed a natural one.
There are a number of these systems however none seem available in New Zealand. My favorite is by Frank B. Scragg & Co of Birmingham, established in 1933 as general brass founders but now specializing in supplying the picture framing trade. However the punishing exchange rate meant that I was left to lean on their expertise and head off on a journey to re-create something similar.
Therefore, in a rare moment of practicality, this posting is about how to create a brass rod and chain picture hanging system of your own, using what is available locally in New Zealand – a land in which a basic picture hook,, capable of supporting any one of the paintings in question, costs about fifty cents and any other option is considered insanity.
Those of you not of a practical bent – but who can see the inevitable result clearly foreshadowed – should skip to the last paragraph now.
The project: to create two 5metre long brass picture rails to run along parallel walls of the library. One of these passes over a window, so it will only have pictures at the far ends of the rod, but for purposes of appearances it has to span the entire wall.
The rod: This is the easiest part. A 19mm diameter brass rod is available through Mico Metals [50013468:19.05 x 1.22 HHD BR Tube]. It comes in 5metre lengths with a surface finish somewhere between shiny and dull, so just about right for our purposes. Know that you can also buy this same product as curtain rod through a number of different retailers but this is 4 or 5 times more expensive than going to a metal merchant and you’ll need the money later on. Jo Ratana at the Petone/Wellington branch of Mico Metals is friendly and helpful. They deliver at a very reasonable rate (the product is shipped from Auckland) and also they’ll cut to length – for a small charge.
The brackets: Now you need to get the rod up on the wall. Frank Scraggs uses what looks a lot like a brass curtain rod bracket – of the type you can buy at Recollections/Early Settler. (Max at Te Rapa/Hamilton branch is very helpful and again they ship for a small charge). However Scraggs’ advise a spacing of approx 1000-1200mm between brackets – so on a decent size wall of 4 metres you will need about 7 brackets. At Recollections each curtain bracket will cost you around $33.00, so in this project I’d have been up for a figure of $462.00 just for brackets.
I looked around and found that Recollections’ sash window pull [1630 Sash Eye – Offset PB] will accommodate a 19mm brass rod very nicely and these cost $10.00 each. In retrospect I might have gone for a more open style sash window pull, on which the rod could rest and rely on gravity to hold the whole lot in place (as is the case with the Scraggs system). However I was worried about the jump factor – I didn’t want the lot to come crashing down in an earthquake. Note that you must secure these to the wall with a good strong screw and as is always the case discard any screw that comes ‘free’ with the hardware – it’ll be cheap and nasty.
The finials: Again, ends for the rods are easy. There is a range of curtain rod finials at Recollections and elsewhere that will fit into your rods – everything from balls to acorns. You can even go for wooden ones (potentially painted black) as it’s worth remembering these rods are going to be very high up at the top of your wall and distance is a very forgiving thing.
I went for their Acorn finial [4612-Acorn Finial 19mm PB] at $20.00 per unit, because I’ve used them on the brass curtain rods elsewhere in the house. This added $80.00 to the project.
Having established the rods, you need to get something from which to hang the paintings. You can go for cord, ribbon, wire or chain. Hanging from a cord or ribbon means you could skip the next steps – but you want to be pretty sure of your knot tying ability. I didn’t investigate wire, which struck me as a fiddly option but if you’re a freak about getting paintings perfectly level, then consider wire). I chose chain in part because this is a room to be used at night and in winter and chains will reflect the flickering light from the open fire.
The intermediate point is a clip or hook that will go over the rod and from which the chain can be hung. Again – a traditional picture hook might have done the trick but I was looking for something jump-proof.
The clip: I thought of a shackle. However these are only really available in a crude galvanised form or as hyper-expensive bronze castings from a ship chandlers. Then I tried for a small-scale version of those S-shaped double-ended hook used for hanging pots and other kitchen objects. There are plenty of these around but those in brass didn’t intersect with the scale of the pipes.
In the end found what I needed in our local hardware store Mitre 10. This was a simple snap swivel hook with a closed loop at one end and a spring-loaded jaw at the other. In essence it is a heavy brass version of the clip that used to hang bunches of keys from a belt. The 20mm version proved to small for my 19.05mm pipe so I ungraded to their 25mm size. Made-in-Taiwan these were cast in brass and retail at a very reasonable $6.98. However I estimated I needed about 20 – so I brought them on an instalment plan – adding one or two every time I went to buy paint or screws. Still they cost about $140.00.
The swivel hooks slot onto the rods. Be aware if you’re using closed sash eyes then the whole spacing of the brackets and clips needs to be determined before they are attached to the wall – because the clips can’t slide past the brackets afterwards. This takes a little thinking through.
However the point of using a system like this is to formalise the hanging process in terms of the architecture of your room and to avoid the haphazard banging of a picture hook into the wall surface. So plan your hanging well ahead, noting that some paintings will share a set of chains with another work while some will have their own individual set.
The chains: All that needs to be done now is to add the chains. I went for two different chain sizes [Mitre 10 Chain Oval Link R242 12mm and 16mm] depending on the weight and scale of the paintings to be hung. The smaller chain needs a small spilt ring (like a key ring) in order to fit into the jaws of the snap clip. These don’t come in brass but are too small and too high up for anyone to notice.
Brass chain isn’t cheap [12mm $15.21 and 16mm $19.90 per metre] and chain doesn’t pop up as a featured sale item in Mitre 10 catalogues very often. With the ceiling height here 3.7metres, it takes about 4metres of chain to get a painting to eye level. I got lucky finding a spool marked down in a local hardware, but although the cost of this exercise was adding up I was too far in to stop now.
Hanging fixtures: With the chains cut to length and in place you need to connect the paintings. I’ve not settled on one method but many. Those little split rings come in handy, so do the butcher’s hooks. In some cases I’ve used an open-ended cup hook screwed into the back of the picture and hooked into the chain.
I’m looking to see how each system behaves before settling on any one way of doing things. Attaining a level picture is something of an issue – but what I’ve found is that with a little adjustment near enough – can be achieved.
The finished result works well. The paintings all hang out from the wall on a lean, with their bottom edges separated from the wall by little cushioned buttons provided by the framer. This gives good airflow around the works and helps with reflections. Where more than one painting is hung on the same set of chains they seem to hang flatter.
The result is grand and luxurious, perfect for the room, and suited to its aristocratic painted occupants.
The cost however was excessive.
I’ve never bothered to add it up but I’d guess it comes to about $80 each for the 9 paintings the system currently supports. It was, like so much in decorating, one of those projects that appears at first to be a minor detail (to be tackled after the costly building work had been undertaken). It was certainly one of those projects you must never cost out beforehand (or after). It is one of those ideas that you must simply commit to you must and just press on and most importantly never confess to anyone what it really cost.