Medieval map tables – painting the map

Whilst I was working on these at my studio gallery many people asked about the process of making them. This is for you.

Old maps convey a sense of love of a place, love of the map itself. They make me want to go there, even if it is only for a little bit of time travel. To make a map table, start with a sturdy surface. I used a selection of kitchen benchtop offcuts. I had to buy a whole sheet when I steel wrapped the benchtops at the Pip, and there were several pieces going spare. Make it easy, use an existing piece of furniture! No need to make anything at all.material3Prepare your surface with gesso, I used 5-6 coats, rubbed down finely with sandpaper. Do not use undercoat, MUST be gesso. This is because I am going to paint with a watery colour, which will not take to a plastic surface. Gesso dries with a wonderful ability to take paint. It is what it’s for! I recommend priming a scrap  for you to try your brushwork and colours on. A word of caution: I ran out of my ordinary gesso half way through and had to get some from a non-art dealer, student/craft type of brand. This is NOT gesso, despite what it says on the tin. I bought Montmartre as there was no choice unless I wanted to drive 40 mins. Their brushes are fine but honestly, the gesso remains sticky, feels like plastic, does not rub down as it should, doesn’t take the paint or even texters. No. I have now to sand everything back and start again. A pain as I have spent literally hours on prepwork and sketching, thinking it would turn out fine in the end. Just no. I am crying inside with frustration. Sigh.

Choose a map. Look for high definition images online. There are some in national library archives, antique map dealers, museums. You might not be able to fit in the whole thing, select a section and grid it up. I do 10×10 cm grids on the table top, and use a calculator to work out how big the squares have to be on the map itself. I don’t tweak landmass, but I move ships and text sometimes to make them fit in the design.

Use a VERY LIGHT pencil mark for your gridding and sketching. This is because your eraser, if overworked, will not only leave dirty smudges which you can’t remove on the gesso but it will also leave a film which makes it hard for the watercolour to take. I can barely see my marks, they are so light. Like this:


Just as well I have started to fill in the landmass of Iapan because I can’t see the pencil at all on the picture. Well, that’s the point, I guess. I use fine permanent markers. It is excellent if your hand is a bit shaky, makes a natural looking coast line! I do the coast and rivers first, then I freehand all the places and detail.

When all the lines are in place, erase the pencil, then use a weak black wash to darken all the rivers and contours, shade any trees, sails, mountains, and put a general superweak wash on the bodies of water like this. A note here, I use acrylic black, and everything else in watercolour. If you are going to use watercolour for the black, do it last or it will dirty the other colours as they touch it.



I like to colour in the outside border too at this stage.


And here is a portion of northern Europe. But what’s going on with Scandinavia? Clearly not too well charted in the 1500s. I colour in using Winsor and Newton watercolours. You could also use very weak acrylic tubes, but your paint has to be so weak and watery that your black lines are still as clear when you are done. Practise on the scrap board. Since you are painting on gesso and not on paper you will find it doesn’t bleed. Work fast as it dries quickly. Have a tissue handy to blot if too wet.


Here’s the Riviera. If you can see enough detail, you will note my favourite, Prouuuuence. Well, more ”u”s than strictly necessary anyway but I didn’t make it up, I promise. Sometimes, a ”v” is a ”u”.  I stick with the colour scheme of each map, inventing nothing. However! The mapmakers didn’t colour in the maps themselves. They would go to different people who didn’t always colour in the same way. Really, use any colour you like. There were written instructions for the colouring, for instance the instructions for Iceland said that WHITE bears were sitting on icefloes, yet some maps have BROWN bears. They thought it was a mistake. There are no white bears, surely? Who ever heard of white bears? That’s plain silly.


Here’s the coast of Tuscany, complete with ships firing cannons at each other. As you do! Note Pifa just up the river. Spellings have changed a bit.

japanChina, Korea, Japan. Or rather, Iaponiae insvlae…

An important thing is to mould the landscape using shade, it really brings it to life. You can add transparent layer over transparent layer, just let the first layer dry a bit.  It you go outside the lines a bit, it won’t matter at all as the originals did too. Go with it.


I don’t use a ruler apart from the outside edges and the grids. I know, makes things uneven. Yet… It also leaves things very lively looking. Do what you like. Many old maps have creatures in it. This one has a monkey without ears (looks like a sloth, but Ortelius had maybe never seen a real monkey) and a snail, amongst other things. The dragon/lion/hoofed animal in the forground has caught a blue scaly fish. Or maybe they are just close friends? Here is a part of Greece:

greece There’s a lot of islands in the Greek archipelago. Really. A lot.

greece2When you are done painting, you will need to seal the surface.

british channel2I varnished the English Channel only to find I managed to smudge the marker lines slightly.

The varnish can dissolve marker if you brush with any level of enthusiasm. Be careful! For a table top, I do three coats of varnish in as many days. Lightly sand with fine paper when you are done. If it is to hang on the wall, a light spray coat of varnish will be enough. In order to create a barrier between the painting and the varnish, for the next ones I sprayed a varnish on before painting the liquid varnish on, no smudges this time… Polyurethane varnish will yellow a bit over time, which will look great.

For Tuscany I also put some goldleaf in the most elaborate part. This is not as fiddly as it looks. You need to paint Goldsize (a special glue for metal leaf work) with a brush everywhere you want the metal, wait until sticky, lay on a leaf and pat it down, then brush with a dry soft brush and it will all disappear wherever you haven’t painted the goldsize. If you use metal leaf, you must varnish with oil based product, not water.




Map coffee table



I like the current coffee table in the living room, but being round, is not the best shape for the space. Also, I find I am scrabbling around with a tiny paper map every time I check in guests, to show them where things are. The solution is to get a longer table and a map of the area in one go! Here is how I made mine. The only material which isn’t recycled is the trims around the table edges. The top is what I cut out of the kitchen counter for the sink, and all the wood is the old lean-to floor (which was badly rotted and needed replacing, but I have cut off all the bad bits). Here is a piece of the wood, before trimming.coffeetable9First I trimmed, painted and put three coats of varnish the table top, then I cut and sanded all the wood. I will have a crossed over leg, a little like a picnic bench, and I need to make a join to make the legs sit flush. I set the circular saw to half depth and ran it over the wood several times. A handsaw works too. To work out good sizes and heights for any furniture I make, I use the IKEA catalogue. It tells you exactly the dimensions and proportions of anything you can think of. A perfect design accompaniment. Also can answer visual questions like ”how do you support a chair leg?” I wouldn’t be without it.



Chisel out the joins. You can make it easy for yourself and simply use two bolts and overlap the legs instead but I think this looks better, less ”picnicky”. When you have checked that the two halves fit into each other, use some woodglue and nails or screws to get it together. I am using clouts, which is a nail with large flat head for the visual effect. There is no need at all to use five, as I have done, but it forms a pattern. My nails reach almost all the way through both layers. Check that you don’t use too long nails (or too short…).

coffeetable49 coffeetable19



Now I need to attach the top and bottom wood to the crosses. Because I am using hardwood, I have to predrill everything. I also have to make sure the screws will countersink. If you are doing that, use a large drillbit to make a short hole and check by holding the screw in the wrong way. If the head fits, you are ready to screw it in.


Attach top and bottom.


Time for the trim on the table top. Because I am using a composite material for the benchtops, nails won’t take to it very well. I am using a construction adhesive, the nails will only hold it temporarily. This brings me to a great trick I have. It is magic. Usually, when you use a tube of building glue or any other tube product, you will lose some or the whole tube between uses if you don’t use it all up very quickly. I have a remedy! Keep the tube you just finished, unscrew the nozzle and jam the next tube straight in it. You will find it acts as a perfect lid, matching product with product airlessly. It will still go off but much much slower.




Screw the crosses to the table top.



I also added two bracing planks, cut at 45 degrees. This makes the structure free from wobbles.


All done!