Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Giving New Life Through Restoration

QUESTION: For years I also collected antiquities. Now I have a particular passion of writing boxes or old English boxes. I enjoy to restore by myself. I beg to ask for an opinion. I attach here two photos. On the lid, at the corners, something is missing! Do you think the angles were made of brass? Or in wood ... or mother of pearl? I doubt it because the thickness is a lot (about 3 mm.) Then I had never seen the brass corners that did not go vertically.

ANSWER: The corners on your box would have been brass, so if you can find someone to make these for you, they should be easy to replace. Be sure to glue them with a strong glue. Box makers usually used brass on the corners of better boxes to protect them while traveling. Victorians took writing and other types of boxes along on long trips so that they could communicate to their friends and family back home. It’s not unusual to find boxes from this time period in poor condition. Restoring them is not as difficult as doing furniture but can be challenging.

Antique boxes acted as portable storage workhorses for past generations. They served a variety of purposes from document boxes in which to keep valuable papers to writing boxes for correspondence to dressing boxes for grooming while traveling to tea caddies for storing precious tea. Victorians, in particular, loved boxes and people from all classes used them.

Unfortunately, people handled boxes a lot, so most antique ones aren’t in the greatest shape. Some boxes may have sat on a table in front of a window in the sunlight and became faded over time while others suffered from neglect.

A good example is an Indian sadeli mosaic-covered writing box that outlived its usefulness. Someone decided that instead of tossing it out, they would give it to their children to play with. The children drew all over the beautiful mosaic with crayons and someone did a bad job of pasting a piece of chartreuse felt over the writing surface on the inside. Needless to say, this restoration wasn’t a walk in the park.

Unlike antique furniture made before 1830, many antique boxes will benefit greatly with even modest restoration. And since they’re not large, it doesn’t take a lot of materials or time to restore them.

Antique boxes are valuable because they’re antique and looking old isn’t bad. And while restoring a box may make it look better, it may reduce its historical value. Boxes from the 18th century should only be restored by a professional restoration expert. In most cases, they need to be conserved, that is the deterioration of the box should be halted. Restoration is a more radical solution and often includes refinishing the wood and replacing metal parts. So the question to be asked is whether the box is in bad enough shape to render it less valuable than its being restored?

While restoration usually begins with reviving the wood of the box’s body, it also takes in exterior decorations made of ivory, tortoiseshell, and mother-of-pearl. These materials are all fragile and should be checked for cracks, abrasions, and chips. Metal ornamentation may be missing, dented or creased, or it may just need polishing. Veneers and inlay are much more difficult to repair and may require professional assistance.

Antique boxes also contain small and sometimes specialized hinges and locks that must also be examined for repair, restoration, or replacement. Finding replacements can be a real challenge since many of these may have been made for a particular box.

But minor conservation can do wonders for an antique box. First, tighten any loose screws and gently tap in any loose nails. Repair loose joints with wood glue. Finally, clean the box with a soft lint-free cloth dampened with Murphy’s Oil Soap solution. Do a small area at a time and use another lint-free cloth to dry it. After letting the box dry thoroughly for 24 hours, give it two coats of Minwax past wax to protect the exterior. Follow the directions on the can.

Dust the interior of the box with a soft shaving brush. If the wood is bare, as with some inner areas of the box, switch to a solvent-based cleaner. Use a toothbrush or toothpick to clean out any crevices. If this has markedly improved the box’s appearance then it may be a good time to stop.

To read more articles on antiques, please visit my Web site.  And to stay up to the minute on antiques and collectibles, please join the other 18,000 readers by following my free online magazine, #TheAntiquesAlmanac. Learn more about the Victorians in the Winter 2018 Edition, "All Things Victorian," online now. 

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