Traditional materials and approaches in the repair and restoration of colonial furniture

2018-11-11T19:43:18Z (GMT) by William Cottrell
Preprint from the New Zealand Conservators of Cultural Materials 2018 Conference.

When dealing with important historic man-made objects a very good case can be made for using like with like; that is, only materials available and used by the original maker. Our search for new approaches, the seemingly endless adoption of better technology, contextual sensitivity and interpretation, on occasion, might not align with traditional methods and original
intention. This paper examines the use of time-proven materials and techniques to restore severely damaged wooden objects.
In my specialist field of interest with colonial-made furniture often I encounter pieces that have undergone years of use, misuse and abuse. Most damaging is any intentional alteration for fashionsake or repurpose by generations of owners. Oftentimes it is more recently compounded by inept repairs and restorations for monetary benefit without any regard to historic significance. Redressing these ravages requires a three-stage approach: deconstruction and problem isolation, analysis, interpretation and information-gathering while considering the approach, and finally addressing each issue independently in the constructional process.
Piece by piece later interventions need to be undressed until only original parts that left the cabinetmaker’s workshop remain. Analysis of materials, species, hardware, tool marks, surface treatment and reference to period designs are considered to create a picture of the original cabinetmaker’s intentions and his customer’s preferences. We look back sometimes 160 or more years into the context of early European colonial life. We read of desires for current fashion and betterment, of beautiful native timbers hand-crafted into modern furnishings as outwardly visible signals of settler success. Comparison can be made with surviving contemporary furniture patterns used most often as guides so every piece requires individual interpretation.
In the museum context restoration does seem to conflict with conservation practice but significant losses do need to be addressed for both historical accuracy and audience perspective. It means putting back the original lost components without compromise so that the viewer understands the
piece as it would have appeared without the many subsequent interventions.
There is then a good argument for using identical materials for restitution as they behave in harmony to those they connect with, they age in sympathy, and they reflect the original appearance of the object. Furthermore, the identification and use of period hand tools originally employed to construct the piece again would seem appropriate. Finally this paper will discuss how this conservative and traditional approach has been successfully undertaken with a recently discovered and outstandingly important colonial-made sofa.