Back to the future with antique restoration work

I’ve been mulling lately a return, at least occasionally, to the kind of work I was doing in Seattle before we moved to the farm in 2006. For 5 years I had a successful niche doing repair and restoration work on all kinds of antiques and art objects. It was successful partly because at the time, very few people in the area were doing repairs. If your antique chair needed refinishing, that service could be found. If the chair had a broken leg that needed repair, that was something else. I also learned to do gilding, so I did my share of picture-frame and mirror-frame restoration as well.


One of the reasons I found a niche was because I was able to take small jobs. Mostly these consisted of items that often had more sentimental value than monetary value. Having grown up in a house full of antiques (my dad’s parents were antique collectors and we inherited a lot over the years), I felt a connection to the stories of these things, even the most mundane and functional of pieces. Recently, I had the distinct privilege of repairing just such an article for Mariana Parks, an old friend of mine: A plaster statue, a replica of the famous Mannequin Pis of Brussels, Belgium, which had been broken for many years.

This is what the statue looked like before I started repairs. As you can see, the head is completely broken off the body (photo 1). Both legs were broken below the knee (photo 2), and the right leg was badly shattered at the back (photo 3). This kind of repair can be tricky because the plaster legs are hollow, which means there isn’t much surface area for gluing. There were a few loose pieces which I fitted in place, then I filled the right leg with plaster to make it as strong as possible.

Once all the gluing was done, I applied fresh plaster to all the repair areas. This had to be done in stages, as it’s usually better to apply several thin layers than one thick layer. This is the statue after plastering was done and most of the plaster has been shaped and sanded down (photo 4). Photo 5 shows detail of the plaster repairs to the legs.

Now comes the really fun (and very challenging) part: Painting to match the original finish. It’s easy to see that this finish consists of a base color of a bluish teal, washed over with a diluted Mars black. Using water-base paint to match the original, I spent quite a while getting the base color right; acrylic paints dry a little darker than their wet color. Photo 6 shows the statue after the base color has been applied; note the numerous little spots of this color, which indicate places where the original paint was chipped off, showing white plaster.

Next, I diluted some Mars black paint with a semi-gloss clear medium (to match the satiny original finish). Using an open-textured sea sponge and a dry paintbrush, it only took a few minutes to get the black wash over the repair areas and chips and blend them into the original finish. Finally a couple light coats of a satin-finish polyurethane completed the restoration job.

Sound tedious and time-consuming? Kind of. It has to be done in stages; glue has to dry, plaster has to set, etc. All told, this entire job took less than 2-1/2 hours to complete.

This was a Mother’s Day surprise for Mariana, contrived by her husband John Hamer. This is often the best part of the whole process: Seeing the reaction of someone who may have given up hope of having such a thing repaired. This statue is a Plaster of Paris replica; it may not have great monetary value, but Mariana had kept it all these years as a memento of a year spent in Brussels when she was young.

I have always loved being part of the process of restoring this kind of thing for people who will truly enjoy having it back in their lives. And I am looking forward to doing more of this kind of work as the year goes on.

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