How to Repair a Tinsel / Reverse Foil Picture.

This picture is an old favourite of ours with great sentimental value. They are pretty rare today and can be very valuable, but you can use this technique to restore originals, and create your own beautiful modern version really easily.

This is a picture of the original before we repaired it, showing extensive damage, fading and wear.

What are Reverse Foil Pictures?

They are a real economy craft. Back in early 20th century way before the internet, home crafters had to improvise their own décor if they couldn’t afford to buy them ready made.

The desirable high-end reverse foil pictures, also known as tinsel pictures, were made with blue butterfly wings which gave the pictures a lovely iridescent colour. They also used metal foils for the other colours, but these are extremely difficult to repair, or replace, especially with current environmental concerns.

This was the time before homes even had TV, so home crafts were a hugely popular way for people to while away the time. The originals were most often plain silver, made from the foil from cigarette packets. Since smoking was far more common than today, that meant they were made out of a readily available source. The colours on the other hand where often from the foils in chocolates and confectionary boxes, but these were a luxury item for many and often hard to get.

Crafters would often have to save foil wrappers to make these crafts brightly coloured, and since these are far more easily sourced today, this makes it much easier for us. It’s hard to tell what it would have been like as new because our sample had long faded, but you can see these details from the back shown in the next picture.

This particular one was of a series made in 1939 by my mother Vera who was a ceramics artist at Poole Pottery. The design is entirely handmade. It had been on display for decades but had since fallen into disrepair, which is not uncommon because the foil they used flakes away, and they often used cheap glues that decayed.

Makers Insight: These work best when the foil has some subtle crinkly texture, as that gives depth to the picture. It does look bland when the foil is perfectly smooth.

Details: If you look closely at the picture above that shows the reverse, you can see the frill on the dress was originally deep blue. The rest of the crinoline dress was a floral design in orange. Although not as clear, the bonnet featured a blue striped foil, which would have been really vivid against the pink ribbon, and that pink is still visible.

You can also see the foil is made from many overlapping patches which are quite rough. Nothing is precision cut here, making it ideal for home crafters. The patches were then secured with tape, and often then backed with newspaper (as we found in our pieces), before a cardboard backplate was fitted and have original hook pins, which aren’t available anymore.

To make this as new we would recommend just using a normal photo frame, ideally with acid free backing. That’s much easier!

Today we are restoring this piece using Easter egg foil, which is most easily available during the holidays, but really any metal tin foil will do.

Important to know: Plasticised modern foil from food packaging isn’t suitable as it doesn’t glue well and doesn’t have the desired texture.
Ordinary kitchen foil can work, but isn’t as good as it doesn’t have a good shine.

You Will Need:

A selection of metal foils.
An ordinary office glue stick.
Sticky tape.
A fine tipped black permanent marker.
A fine hair paint brush for cleaning.
A normal paintbrush for the black background.
Black paint (acrylic).
A cardboard backing for the picture (if the original is too damaged)

Pro Tips: Use good quality black paint as cheaper paint can be unpredictable in adhering on the glass as well.
The best metal foils are from Easter eggs and chocolates, as they have the best colours. They are often very difficult to find samples of original colours, and so unless the patches are small, and the colour a close enough match, you may need to remove a larger sample of the original. It is not an original method to paint the glass or foil to match.
These actually work best with a normal glue stick, rather than liquid glues.

The above shows a the same picture placed on a pink card background, since it is easier to use a coloured piece to find holes and flaws in the silver foil.

How To:

  1. Arrange your foil samples in colour types and sizes first. This saves a lot of time later.
  2. Remove the back card of the picture, and remove any padding used in the frame.
    The originals often had pieces of newspaper to protect the foil from rubbing on the cardboard, and these snippets are fantastic for historical details (don’t throw them away!). They often have dates on the paper too, which is really helpful for giving a date for the picture.
  3. Use the fine paint brush to gently brush the back of the picture to remove any loose flakes of foil and dust. There is often a lot of dirt, as the crinkly foil can collect it easily, and the pictures have often been stored in boxes or outbuildings after they went out of fashion.
  4. Place the picture front side down (reverse side up) on a plain piece of white paper. White is best to show up dirt and dust stains, whereas any gaps in the black background and missing foil in the main design are best on a coloured piece of card that contrasts with the silver.
  5. Tear pieces of foil slightly larger than the missing piece in the picture.
    Tip: Shape the foil according to the decorative pattern you want to display, that way the colours will match up nicely. Crinkling coloured pieces does help intensify the colour in the display.
  6. Use the toothpick to scrape a small piece of glue from the glue stick and smear it on the edge of the patch of foil.
    Important: The glue has to stay on the edges of the foil, don’t let the glue touch the glass! The new foil basically glues to the existing foil, which is often glued directly to the black background. This will make sense later in the design, but glue on the glass also will make the glass look dirty and cloudy, and compromise the nice colours and textures.
  7. Use the tweezers to place the foil over the hole and when nicely arranged, use your finger to gently press it to seal and smooth it evenly.
    Tip: Work in small areas at a time rather than patching randomly. It’s best to lift up the picture frequently to see if there are still holes and that the pattern matches before you glue it in place.
    Another useful tip is to use paper die cutters for perfect sized pieces, but these are not as common.
  8. Once you are happy with your repairs, use the sticky tape to secure your patches when you have finished an area before moving on to the next area. Keep patching in small areas until all the foil repairs are done and you like the result.
    Makers Insight: The entire area of foil in the picture is usually secured simply with tape, they were an economy craft after all. It also made it easier to change the design if desired and a nicer piece of foil was available to the original artist.
  9. To repair the background, hold the picture up to the light to see any holes and flaws. Use the black paint to repair large holes in the background. This part is pretty easy and doesn’t need fancy brushes.
    The fine tipped permanent marker is best for touching up fine details, such as facial features, or for very small holes.
  10. Allow the paint to dry, then reset the picture in the frame.

Important! These original pictures are quite hard to come by and they can be very valuable heritage crafts. If you are repairing a valuable piece that you don’t know the history of, or if it has significant damage, it is recommended to have it assessed by a professional restorer first.

Like all restoration projects, this is slow and patient work but bringing old works to life again is a joy to do, especially when they are pieces made within the family. Since they are very old fashioned, they are also fantastic to make from scratch when you want to spend time on projects.

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