THE L.M. CASTNER COMPANY 

In 1857, in the town of Glen Gardner, New Jersey, the four Gardner brothers established a successful business producing fine, oval mirror and picture frames. In 1865, Lewis M. Castner entered the business as an office boy. By 1869, he had assumed an "on the road" position for the Gardners and remained in this capacity until 1874. The brothers relinquished the manufacturing of frames and engaged in other pursuits. The new owner, Thomas Edgar Hunt, allowed Mr. Castner to continue his work in the plant operations. Castner managed the business until 1882 when he acquired the interest of the former companies, and moved the frame business to Williamsport, Pennsylvania. The primary reason for relocation was to be near an abundant supply of lumber for which Williamsport was famous. First Castner established a client base with a craving for finished frames, length molding and gesso blank frames. By the turn of the century, Williamsport was home to the most diverse and largest picture frame manufacturer in the United States. Known for some of the finest picture frames ever produced, the L.M. Castner Company sold frames by direct representation in every major city in the United States, Canada, and many foreign countries.

 

THE FACTORY

Located at the corner of West Fourth and Rose Streets in Williamsport, the business consisted of two medium-sized buildings, one for the machinery and one for the finishing area. As the business prospered, the size of the factory increased. The number of buildings eventually expanded to cover an entire city block. The main building was a frame structure, 54' x 240', two stories and basement. There was a powerhouse, which supplied power for the main building or machinery department, along with a large warehouse, dry kiln, finishing department, and office of space over 70,000 square feet. Trestles connected the buildings, and on the north side of the factory were the tracks of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company. At this time, the specialty was the production of circular, oval and shaped frames, as well as the refurbishment of antique frames. While maintaining and meeting a steady demand for its frames, L.M.Castner employed approximately one hundred highly skilled people, and in a normal year turned out 600,000 frames. Although it specialized in picture frames, the L.M. Castner also made mirror frames. With so many advantages, not only could the factory keep up with the trends, but set them as well. By this time, the smart consumer looked for the mark {L.M.C.} for quality, and the name "Castner" became a dignified complement to any frame..

 

THE FRAMES

The L.M. Castner Company produced a virtually unlimited variety of frames. The phrase "oval and square and mirror frames," used to describe the products produced, was misleading. The shapes and patterns actually made, varied from simple oval wooden frames to beautifully hand-carved and hand-painted gold leaf frames. Some of the frames were almost entirely the product of handwork. The services of a superior designer, and skill of expert wood-carvers, were essential to carry out the design and to produce the final result - a beautiful frame of original design, exactly in harmony with the picture or mirror it would enclose. At Castner more than half of the work was hand produced.

 

THE PROCESS

To produce the best frames, the work had to be done meticulously. Moreover, every frame was produced from scratch, using only the finest select wood. Received in its rough state, only knotless and straight-grained lumber was used in construction. After delivery, the lumber was kiln dried. The wood was then carted from the kilns, run through ripsaws, and cut to the desired width. The wood passed from one machine to another until it emerged in the form of a handsome, durable frame that brought fame to the L.M. Castner name. The various woods used included poplar, walnut and oak as well as exotic types such as mahogany.

After the frames were shaped, they were moved into two adjacent buildings for finishing. Application of the finish was a delicate hand process. In some instances, a week would elapse before the next treatment could be applied. Other frames needed as much as fourteen days between treatments in order to secure the permanent desired finish. In the whitening department, where the frames received their initial treatment, revolving lathes spun the frames around while the operators applied five to six coats of the whitening. After this treatment, the frames were sent to the finishing areas. About a dozen people worked in the finishing department.

One popular finish was the antique metal leaf. With the use of a fine hairbrush, a dry powder color, usually gilt, and then an oil color were the first finishes applied. Next a turpentine and benzene solution was added to insure proper consistency. After this treatment, the frame was wiped with cotton waste to produce an antique effect. The product was then dusted (fly-specked) for a soft look. Another popular antique finish was a burnished gold, admired for its brilliant luster.

The more expensive frames were ornamented, while the most expensive were both ornamented and gold leafed. First, the ornaments were heated and pressed in the desired shape. After they were molded, the ornaments were mounted by hand to the frame. The gold leaf used was applied with a small camel's hair brush. Prior to the application, the gold leaf was denatured in a water alcohol solution. This enabled the gold flakes to be brushed on smoothly to ensure uniform color. Liquid colors were also used. They were sprayed on in an incredibly short time in a much more efficient manner than by the slower method of hand painting.

The finished frames were moved to the packing department after they dried. Here glass was fitted and the frames prepared for distribution. Each frame was labeled indicating finish, size and model number. Most orders were processed within two weeks following the initial contract agreement.

It was once said, "Times change and we change with them." A similar fate held true for the L.M. Castner Company. Due to the economic woes of the Depression and eventual emergence of competition, demand for unique and elaborate frames gradually diminished. Less expensive and mass-produced frames eventually supplanted the variety of carefully crafted frames made by the Castner Company.  With the introduction of machine produced frames, the need for skilled craftsmen dwindled. Most of the woodcarving and ornamenting skills are now considered "lost arts".   Luckily for the discerning buyer, Castner has preserved these arts.  If one compares a Castner frame with a contemporary one, he or she will surely discover how the "times" have affected the mirror and picture frame business. 

 

THE PETER RADIN ERA

Peter RadinIn 1943, Peter Radin purchased the Castner Picture Frame Company. Within a year after the purchase, Peter moved the Castner Company to Cincinnati, Ohio, where it continues today to produce high quality gold and silver leaf picture frames. Peter, with a background and genius was industrial design, first studied under William E. Hentschel at the Cincinnati Art Academy. He applied his talent to pioneering etched mirror and glass designs, working for the Hagemann Mirror Company. Using passionate and "cutting edge" ideas, Peter brought curves, colors and techniques together in a way the world had never seen. He loved them, and named his creations accordingly.

Much to Radin's dismay, many of his mirror designs were too intricate for production at that time, so a new "canvas" was necessary. One can only imagine where Radin's mind raced as he decided frames would be his medium of expression. The phrase "A kid in a candy store" comes to mind when describing the artists and photographers who found and came to appreciate how his frames would complement their masterpieces. His designs combined elements from the great eras, movements, and styles before him. Radin did not follow the geographic and period "rules" in framing, only using them as guidelines and starting points to complete the request at hand.   Radin's unique frame finishes were a perfect complement to portraiture by flattering the subject and bringing out the richness of flesh tones. Soon, his frame designs surrounded prominent portraits of former presidents, governors and statesmen .

Over the last 30 years of Radin's life, glaucoma gradually took his sight. As this sight diminished, his "vision" pressed on, from his palette jumped glorious Van Gogh yellows, Spanish reds, Aqua teals, and Auto greens. In the same way that Beethoven's loss of hearing increased the dramatic intensity of his final symphonies, Peter Radin achieved an equal measure of inspiration through the loud and vibrant use of color. Radin died April 1st, 2001at the age of 92. Amazingly, he continued working until January of that year. Today, his daughter, Carol, and several superior craftsmen work together to continue the "Old World" tradition of creating beautiful custom picture frames.

CASTNER, A DIGNIFIED COMPLIMENT TO ANY MASTERPIECE

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