Issue Three T.O.C. - “Resurrecting the Derelict: Hard Choices in the Conservation of a Chest”

This is the final installment of our Issue Three table of contents announcement series. Check out the full T.O.C. here. (You can click on any of the article titles to read about them.)

“Resurrecting the Derelict: Hard Choices in the Conservation of a Chest” by Joshua Klein

No one wants to be guilty of destroying an antique. What if we ruin exactly what is so special about a piece? What if it ends up on Antiques Roadshow someday? Will we be berated for ham-handed restoration? This legitimate fear rises up especially when our projects do not go according to plan. Often, furniture conservators set out on their treatments with a grand vision of a phoenix-from-the-ashes resurrection only to be faced with hurdles and inevitable compromises. Even after all the examination and solvent testing, many projects are more complex than the original examination suggested.


How does a conservator decide the “right” thing to do when faced with stubborn finishes or other complex problems? What do they do if they just can’t physically achieve the ideal outcome? Anyone who has thoughtfully undertaken the restoration of an antique knows that the answers to these questions are not obvious. There are always many factors to consider when deciding treatments.

This summer, I undertook a conservation project that I knew was going to have a lot of real world complexity. The chest was covered in many layers of goopy paint, original elements were missing or cut out, and other parts were added on. Although the chest was derelict, I could see beneath it the beauty of a handmade late 18th-/early 19th-century New England chest over drawers. As is, it was headed for a dumpster. Restored, it could live on for another few hundreds years.


This article is not a show-off piece for my portfolio. As I proceeded, I encountered complicated problems with removing layers of paint to get to the lowermost indigo blue. This forced me to tack another direction in the treatment which brought to light the importance of understanding the different values we place on artifacts.


Although I walk through one particular treatment from beginning to end, I’ve written this piece to teach others how to do the hard work of assessing the “right” thing to do for any restoration project they take on. Most of the hand skills required in this work are well within reach of the average woodworker but it’s the decision making and thought process that sets an excellent conservator apart from a hack.


In the end, we want beautiful results but we also want to be able to sleep at night.  The only way we can be sure we won’t have guilty consciences is to learn to think carefully. Think of this article as a conservation 101 lab. This hands-on experience gives context to the statements like “What’s it worth?” and “bringing the piece back to life”.

- Joshua


Check out the full table of contents to see what’s coming. Mike and I are excited about all this and are confident that fans of our first two issues will be delighted with this next installment. Pre-orders for Issue Three open in one week on August 1st at 12:00 am (Eastern time). We will soon be blogging about pre-ordering details relating to subscriptions, brown paper wrapping now offered only for pre-orders, the packing party information, and a special giveaway for the first slew of orders. Stay tuned.


Would you like email notifications of our daily blog posts? Sign up below...