Tag Archives: Conservation

In the Studio: Restoring an Ebonized Elephant Table

Vintage mahogany table with elephant base, before and after treatment.

Vintage mahogany table with elephant base, before and after treatment.

Recently we received a call from a new client with a furniture problem. She had inherited a table with a base carved in the form of an elephant. The finish was black and badly damaged. I went up to meet the lady, her table and, it turns out, her dog Sadie.

Sadie has no idea how all those scratches got there.

Sadie has no idea how all those scratches got there.

Sadie is a charming young dog with good taste in furniture. She adopted the elephant table as her own with visible consequences. She even chewed the tail off the back of the elephant. Now, we TreasureTrackers are highly dog-friendly so this was not shocking. Sadie helped me examine the table, I took some photos, then I took the table back to Center Art Studio for treatment.

When I inspected the table closely, I found some surprises. First, I noticed that the eyes and tusks were actually ivory even though they were now black. I also saw strange drips in the black finish under the top. Clearly someone had painted over the ebonized mahogany to “restore” the black. Remember that “ebonizing” is not the same as painting wood black to resemble ebony. Proper ebonizing is done with black or brown-black stain (nowadays we use aniline dye – I get good results with Solar-Lux by H. Behlen). This produces a thin but strongly colored finish that allows some sense of the wood grain to show through. I determined to remove the black housepaint with solvent to expose the wood, allowing me to then recreate a proper ebonized look.

Left: after removing black housepaint. Arrows show ivory details. Right: the black aniline dye is applied, yet the mahogany shows through slightly.

Left: after removing black housepaint. Arrows show ivory details. Right: the black aniline dye is applied, yet the mahogany shows through slightly.

For the top coat I chose amber shellac, applied with a brush. The first coat was very thin, to soak deeply into the wood. The final coat was applied more thickly, then lightly sanded. Then paste wax applied with steel wool and buffed with old rags, and I was ready to return Sadie’s table.

Sadie was out, but the family cat took a test drive.

Sadie was out, but Baby took a test drive.

As it turned out, Sadie was out but the family cats, Baby and Angel, took advantage of her absence and inspected my work.

Happily scratches in an ebonized finish are easily touched up with a Q-tip and some aniline dye (available at a paint store). Some people use black shoe polish, but I recommend trying to find the dye (or contacting us!).

I may see this table again.

In the Studio with: Godzilla

Alligator lamp - I call him Godzilla - before and aftere treatment.

Alligator lamp - I call him Godzilla - before and after treatment.

Every week is different at the studio, and the end of summer usually brings some crazy projects. But a baby alligator lamp? Really?

This piece of vintage taxidermy came in with lots of problems. One leg was coming off, the coconut shell was peeling, various parts were missing, and it was leaking sawdust. Happily I have had similar things through the studio (like a diorama of a roadside saloon with 23 stuffed animals – voles, squirrels, etc. – dancing and drinking at the bar!). So I knew how to make strong but simple repairs without getting carried away.

I started by taking some Jade glue, thinning it a little with water, and painting it into all the areas where the sawdust was leaking. Jade is a great adhesive –  like a conservator’s version of Elmer’s – that won’t yellow and is easily reversible. In this case the Jade worked to hold the sawdust in place and stop it from leaking. I also used Jade to glue down pieces of alligator hide that were lifting up or flaking. Jade is a very good consolidant. I use it often on the edges of a canvas where it is meets the stretcher and is worn and flaking.

Broken leg: before, during and after repair.

Broken leg: before, during and after repair.

The taxidermist used a metal armature to give the alligator form. I used Devcon 5-minute Epoxy mixed with wood dust to cement the broken leg back in place. First I cleaned the exposed metal with a little acetone to insure a good joint. Then I filled the gaps on either side of the break with epoxy and brought the pieces into position. After five minutes the epoxy hardened and the leg was strong again. I used another epoxy product, plumber’s epoxy, to fill gaps and make the missing parts. Plumber’s epoxy (available in most hardware stores) is a two-part putty that hardens in about ten minutes. This gives you time to model shapes (like alligator toes). Finally I used Japanese mulberry paper and Jade glue to cover joints and parts made from epoxy. After the repairs were finished I inpainted where needed with Gamblin conservation colors.

Now the little guy is free to run through the streets of Manhattan like a Japanese movie from the 1950s (see picture). Have a great Labor Day and check back soon for our next post.

Happy End of Summer from the TreasureTrackers!

Happy End of Summer from the TreasureTrackers!

In the Studio: Restoring a Chinese Painting

Damaged area of Chinese painting on silk, before and after inpainting.

Damaged area of Chinese painting on silk, before and after inpainting.

A good antique Chinese scroll painting, now framed, in my studio for treatment.

A good antique Chinese scroll painting, now framed, in my studio for treatment.

After chasing Iliana around the fields of Madison-Bouckville I was ready to return to my work tables at Center Art Studio. A comfy chair, air conditioning, and a view of Times Square (if you lean out of the window a little bit). Best of all, some great old things to work on and enjoy.

Today I’m working on an antique Chinese painting on silk, originally a scroll. It is a beautiful thing, about six feet tall, but sadly it suffered extensive abrasion in the bottom 10 – 12 inches. The image is classic Chinese painting: a beautiful pavilion in a rocky landscape with a sailboat in the upper distance and a bridge over a stream in the foreground (the most damaged area). The palette is subtle, dominated by an amber light, with details in muted greens, reds, and brown-black. This painting shows the Chinese way of showing perspective – so different from traditional Western painting. The different parts of this scene seem to exist in one plane, then in no rational space at all, shifting as I look at it.

My job today is to inpaint the abrasions where the color is lost at the bottom. Inpainting is like retouching, with the added connotation of only adding paint where the original is missing (retouching within the damaged area rather than painting over it). I am using Gamblin conservation colors with a#6 Kolinsky sable brush (this one is the da Vinci Restauro series, which I really like).  If you are looking for supplies and have trouble finding things I mention, start with the Talas website. They have just about everything and years of experience as well.

Inpainting - adding color only within the damaged area, leaving all original color untouched.

Inpainting - adding color only within the damaged area, leaving all original color untouched.

If you do the inpainting right, the painting will look much better after treatment but the extent of damage will still be clearly visible under close examination, like with a UV lamp. We use UV, or blacklight, flashlights to check paintings when we are thinking about buying them or preparing treatment proposals. Restorations show up clearly. Often the restorer added much more paint than needed, causing a painting to look worse than it is. But I digress – UV in the field and in the studio will be the subject of a future post.

After a few hours I was pretty happy with the progress. I’ll head home, then come in tomorrow morning and see how it looks with fresh eyes.

Hard at work. Maybe next time I'll try to inpaint my gray hair.

Hard at work. Maybe next time I'll try to inpaint my gray hair.