Saturday, May 11, 2019

Reusing a makeup mirror if one side gets broken

My niece Brenna was here last week with my brother. He picked her up from her dorm and came straight here. In the process of rearranging their luggage before driving back home to South Florida he broke her makeup mirror. She left it here and told me to throw it away. I can't just throw something away. It has parts I can save!

It would be lovely if these lighted mirrors had a circle light inside that I could use for shooting videos. That is not the case though. It's just two 20 watt bulbs behind some extra foil on the back of the glass.

The dimmer switch only controls one of the two bulbs.

The magnifying side of the mirror wasn't broken so I put a wire between the screw holes on the frame and hung it on the wall in my lab with some LED string lights behind it. Now if I get something in my eye I can see to get it out!

I'm saving the cord, lightbulbs, and dimmer. I'll just throw these in my bin of lamp making supplies in case I ever need them for a project. NOW I can throw the rest away.

Making a Fake Cake: Lessons Learned from Failure

I recently went off on a two week tangent from sewing work and did a deep investigation into papier-mâché (Or in easier-to-type Americanized spelling, paper maché.) Hat tip to Jonni at and her YouTube Channel. I love her. I also researched the art of making cold porcelain clay from scratch (glue and corn starch) and making that into flowers. This is also amazing. I like Christina Wallis's YouTube Channel for tutorials on how to make permanent flowers that look real.

I was interested in making an elaborate faux wedding cake with a plain cake underneath it. In my mind it would be glorious. And the reveal would be hilarious. It turns out nobody else got it. I made a prototype birthday cake version and the future bride was ambivalent about it. And somebody anonymously arranged with her caterer to pay for her wedding cake. So she went to meet with a baker the day after her birthday. I'm off the hook for wedding cake! But I did learn some things I'd like to record in case I need to use any of these techniques again later. Or if anybody has this same idea and has an actual need for the final product you can use what I learned to start out ahead. There is more work to be done, for sure.

What I learned that I didn't find online in other tutorials:
  • Hair coloring tools are great for paper maché work
  • You can make fake bark out of joint compound, bentonite, and Floetrol
  • Hat boxes actually aren't great for fake cake -- use the styrofoam like in all the tutorials
  • Plain All-Purpose sheetrock mud is the best fake icing


The first thing I tested was the idea to paint real leaves with some sort of polymer mixture, let it dry, then peel off the leaf. Voila, permanent decorative leaf. I started experimenting with ingredients I had on hand because my car was in the shop and I couldn't go get sheetrock mud to start the cake experiments. Things I mixed together:

  • Chalk like you use with a chalk line
  • Elmer's Glue
  • Plaster of Paris
  • Acrylic Paint
  • Mineral Oil

I painted this stuff on beech tree leaves and dried it in the sun. 
Various formulations of setting plaster type ingredients
It was still spring and my leaves were pretty new. This made them curl up a lot when they dried out. It would be better to use mature leaves for this. 

The PVA glue made the molds stay flexible when they were peeled off. This was kind of weird. It mostly works though! If you really wanted to make a lot of green leaves it might be worth buying some granular white chalk. I found it online pretty cheap from soap suppliers. I started with bright blue chalk and added yellow paint until it was green. I shot video, but it didn't work well enough for me to want to edit it.
Faux leaves peeled off the real leaf after drying

Faux Icing:

The second thing I experimented with was what sort of product works best for fake icing on a fake cake.
  • All-Purpose Joint Compound -- The Winner. But you need to paint it after it's dry.
  • Lightweight Spackle -- looks grainy
  • Mixture of these and PVA glue -- ok if you want a glaze, otherwise useless
Plain sheetrock mud on a foam core rectangle. Top half painted with white acrylic paint.
I got a quart of Pro-Form All Purpose Joint Compound at Walmart. It was less than $4. It's important to mix it up really well before you use it. You need to put it on thin and let it dry between coats. I rushed my final project and it cracked from being too thick. But if you do it thin you can even polish it with a damp offset spatula just like icing.

The other things I tried weren't as good.

Lightweight Spackle
Lightweight Spackle mixed with Elmers Glue

Tree Bark Cake Plate

My niece has been pinning pictures of wedding cakes she likes and a lot of them have these logs under them. I looked up log cake stands on Etsy and they run about $100 including shipping. They're heavy. I have access to trees and thought about making some of these. This would help me rationalize why I'm making a fake cake, as a prop to pose on my log cake plates. I can't get anybody to saw my logs for me though, so I'm not doing that anymore.

If anybody really wants a heartwood cake stand I would take that commission. It will cost about $500.

I think the bark is the thing people want though and that's not really the kind of trees I have in the 13" diameter range. I have Longleaf pine. There are green pine cookies on Etsy, which kind of freaks me out. All that sap! If I made one out of aged heartwood the sap would be crystalized and the wood wouldn't check. But it would weigh twice as much as these ones that are all sapwood and bark.

I decided to incorporate the log base into my cake cover idea. I got a styrofoam wreath form at the craft store that was bigger than one of my hat boxes. But first I have to test some ideas for how to make bark. 

Sassafras bark with a Pipevine Swallowtail caterpillar

Paper maché boxes were on sale at the craft store store so I got some small ones to experiment on. My first attempt at faux bark was simply the cheapest toilet paper I could get at the grocery store torn into little pieces and stirred together with methyl cellulose. I had some of that already mixed up. (I bought the powder on ebay a couple of years ago to use for marbling paper. I gather from Jonni from that Elmer's markets methocel as paper maché paste. Here it is on Amazon.)

  • Shredded toilet paper
  • Methyl cellulose (methocel)

White bark look on paper mache box lid, just toilet paper and methylcellulose
This could be pretty if you were going for an all-white look.

But I wanted something barkier. I found a technique for throwing clay pots where the artist would throw a pot on the wheel then heat the outside with a torch and then enlarge the pot some more, which made the outside crack like bark. Neat! Well, I have some clay that does that all by itself, that expansive bentonite clay they sell at the health food store for facials. So I tried mixing that with methyl cellulose and put it directly on a paper maché hat box lid.
Looks neat, flakes off

It looked cool, but it didn't stick to the paper underneath. So I picked it all off and tried something else.

Magical ingredients in bark clay
I tried one part joint compound, one part expansive clay, just gauging by eye, and enough Floetrol acrylic paint additive to make it a useable consistency. I just smooshed it onto the surface with the plastic spoon I stirred it with and sort of made peaks in it like you would do with chocolate cake icing.

Wet bark
Dried bark on the first experimental prototype.

That worked great.

Here's how it looks paired with a prototype fake cake with out-of-scale cold porcelain molded flowers. I dry brushed a little white paint on the bark to accentuate the texture.
Mini Fake Cake
Because of the texture of the fake icing I had to use hot glue instead of tacky glue to attach the flowers. It looks pretty bad. If you are doing this for real be patient and use tacky glue and not hot glue. Maybe even put glue on the flowers and push them into the wet joint compound. But I'm moving on anyway.

Time to scale it up and do one big enough for an actual cake. Here's my plan:

Hat box and styrofoam wreath form fit check
I decided one problem with those tree cookies people are using for cake plates is they would be really hard to pick up. They need some kind of hollowed out place for you to get your fingers under there. So I incorporated that into my styrofoam version.

The next problem is that hat boxes are sort of flimsy and won't stay round. Flexing would crack the faux icing for sure. So to stabilize the shape of the paper maché box I cut a groove into the sytrofoam for the box to push down into.

Groove to stabilize the hat box shape
I need to cover the styrofoam with paper maché. I used torn up kraft paper and school glue watered down. I used my hair coloring bowl and brush for this. That works great. I decided to use newsprint for the top since I had some. I cut it into rings the right size and clipped the edges to go around the curves.
Plan out the paper covering for the top of the log
I drew tree rings on the paper with a pencil. Since I didn't know if this was going to work I didn't strive for perfection. Only proof of concept.

Draw tree rings on the part that will show
Black construction paper for underneath the bark

I covered the outside with black construction paper pasted on with Elmer's school glue watered down enough to make it brushable. Jonni from the paper maché videos would probably use flour paste but in South Georgia that sounds like a disaster of bugs and mold. She says she doesn't like the way it feels when PVA glue dries on her hands. I didn't notice it ever getting a chance to dry on my skin.

I pasted on the newsprint tree rings and the inner covering after the black paper. I let that dry in front of the air conditioner overnight. Then I added a layer of tan tissue paper over the penciled lines. That gave me the subtle effect of tree rings I was after. It's kind of wrinkly though. I had wrinkles in my newsprint so I knew it was going to be inferior. If you really need to make something like this and want it to look good there are lots of decoupage techniques that could make this look amazing. Do more than what I did.
Add tissue paper over the tree rings for a more realistic wood look
All that paper and paste work took a long time. If you get into this be sure you have a good audio book and nothing to disturb you. You can't pick up the phone when you have this stuff all over your hands. When you add water to Elmer's it makes it take an amazingly long time to dry. It's kind of nice so you don't have to rush to get back to an overlapping edge. I expect Mod Podge would work for this too but Elmer's is cheaper and doesn't smell as bad to me.

When it's all dry you can move on to the bark. I optimistically started to mix this in my hair color bowl then realized it was too small and moved it to a big mixing bowl. I thought about using an electric mixer but I didn't do it. I just stirred it with a rubber spatula.
Sheetrock mud, clay, and Floetrol
The mixture was kind of weird, not as muddy as the first batch I made. I may have used more sheetrock mud in this version? Not enough Floetrol? The proportions could stand to be refined. This had a putty like consistency so I sort of patted it on the sides.
Squishing the bark mixture on the sides
While the bark was drying I moved on to painting the inside of my hatbox. I did a few coats of white acrylic paint. I wanted to seal it so I could wipe off any icing that might get on it and so I could be sure it's clean before I put it over a cake.
Paint the inside of the hat box

At this point in my experiment my niece was in Beachton to visit and had already seen what I'd made so far and expressed zero interest in this concept. So I was just finishing it for the sake of finishing it at this point, knowing I wouldn't go any farther with this idea. I hot glued the hat box into the wreath shape and slathered it with sheetrock mud. I did it way too thick and I knew it was going to crack. I was on a clock and I just didn't care.

Now, how does this actually work IRL? I ordered an 8" cake from the grocery store app on my phone. I asked for nothing but the plain icing, no decorations. I froze it for a few days. After it thawed out I tried using my offset spatula to make the kind of texture Kate likes in a cake. That didn't work either. My failure spiral is expanding. But I shall press on with the experiment and put it under my new spit cake.

Kate asked me to digitize the video from her second birthday party. This forced me to closely examine how much she spit on her Winnie the Pooh cake back in 1998. This should motivate some people to make a fake cake like this just for kids parties.

What I would do better if I did this again:

  • Make the bark mix wetter so it could be put on like the prototype, with peaks in the application.
  • Put some expansion joints in the bark from the beginning so it gets more vertical cracks than horizontal cracks
  • Use a more subtle color than black for the background
  • Add a bit or paint to the bark mix to get a darker color
You could do a lot of colors and make the bark have realistic lichen on it and stuff, but for a cake I sort of liked the texture minus color. The all white bark prototype looked really elegant to me. I might try to refine that a little bit with some paper pulp and expansive clay and white paint. If I had the need for such a thing. 

Smooth icing and white paper pulp bark cake plate

White cold porcelain flowers on the white cake

This little prototype is sort of the proof of concept of the all-white elegant cake look. I don't know why anybody would want to combine elegant with rustic in this way, but it's oddly compelling to me. Somebody should do it full scale in a bakery window and let me know what kind of response you get.

I also think hat boxes are just too flexible. For doing a tree tier fake cake I thought about reinforcing them with sections of cardboard tubing cut on my chop saw. Hot glue these inside and have your three tiers not go all saggy in the middle.
Top view three hat box stack with cardboard tube pillars
I think for a display cake for a shop window or a prop cake for photos the actual styrofoam cake forms at the craft store would be a better option than hat boxes. I didn't buy them because they were just so expensive. I was reserving that option for the contingency that my niece actually wanted this. Fortunately I was able to end the project after the fun research phase.

Styrofoam cake forms at the craft store
I haven't said much about my experiments with cold porcelain. That's because I mixed up a batch and made it work but my plan for actually making flowers required the participation of some of my nieces with strong hands and a love of squishing things. There is too much kneading required for my current state of arthritis. It's neat though! You can make realistic looking flowers and they don't die. And they don't contaminate a real cake either. You don't even need a fake cake to use fake flowers.

My problem with real flowers on a cake:

  • Latex floral tape to wrap the flower stems. I'm allergic to latex.
  • Serving the cake is complicated by needing to remove the decoration first
  • The plated cake looks gross if there's been stuff stabbed into it
  • Flowers have to be added at the last minute so they don't wilt
I have made a wedding cake with real flowers on it. But I arranged them in a ramekin and just plopped them on top after all the icing was done. I was a lot younger then and could squeeze an icing bag to make a lace pattern icing which was popular back in the '90s. It was easy to just lift off the arrangement and cut the cake. What is popular now is flowers flowing down the sides. I can't help thinking that's going to look yucky on the inside. Square cake back in the kitchen, fake cake with all the flowers you want out by the buffet. That sounds good to me! But I'm not having a wedding. Ever. Hell no. Yuck.