BCD 2018

111 C AT H E D R A L COMMU N C I AT I O N S C E L E B R AT I N G T W E N T Y F I V E Y E A R S O F T H E B U I L D I N G CO N S E R VAT I O N D I R E C TO R Y 1 9 9 3 – 2 0 1 8 METAL, WOOD & GLASS 3.3 CLEANING and RESTORING FINE ARCHITECTURAL JOINERY VINCENT REED B RITAIN IS famed for its historic buildings and boasts some of the finest examples of architectural joinery. However, there is a notable lack of understanding around the treatment of period interior woodwork, including the correct method of cleaning and the appropriate finish. Conservators are often faced with the challenge of rectifying significant damage caused by misguided attempts to restore historic woodwork. The main causes are the misuse of modern sanding techniques and caustic chemical strippers which are designed to remove the surface as quickly as possible. Often their use results in a new surface which is devoid of character and stripped of any historic value. In the worst cases the client is left with an unsightly mess. PRINCIPLES If you are lucky enough to be the owner of a cherished and valuable piece of antique furniture, you might think twice about asking a local tradesperson to use a belt sander to refinish the surface. So why should this be any different for staircases, panelling, windows, doors or original timber floors? Whether finely carved and decorated as a focal point of beauty, or simpler products of artisan craftsmanship, these architectural features embody a moment in history and contribute to a building’s status and character. The only way to authentically conserve and restore traditional architectural joinery is to use traditional techniques. A sympathetic approach to restoration is the key to responsible conservation, and conservation of the original patina and finish is the key to sympathetic restoration. This is not simply for aesthetic reasons. Patina gives a good indication of the age of the wood and is a significant aspect of its history, helping to tell the story of the whole building. Built up over centuries by human touch, natural wear and polishing, patina should be cherished not least because the wood often acquires a beautiful, warm sheen and feels silky to the touch. Sympathetic restoration techniques, using traditional methods to reinstate the correct finish and to revive and wax wood are the best way to restore and clean joinery. This may be a painstaking process but the results speak for themselves. It is often helpful to compare joinery with antiques. Imagine the year is 1700 and picture a new walnut chair of a dark, rich, reddish-brown colouring with intricate carved detailing. The chair sits to the side of a fire by a window. Over its lifetime it is used every day, dusted with a soft rag and perhaps waxed every few years. Today that same chair would be faded from exposure to sunlight, leaving beautiful soft honeyed hues with a slightly brown tinge from the fireside smoke. The carvings would be worn in places and the clean lines would be softened by an accumulation of centuries of dirt and wax. Dents from hob-nailed boots on the feet and rails would have left marks, darkened by built- up dirt and wax. The presence of dents and scratches can be a promising sign that the original surface or finish has survived. The older these marks are, the darker their colour as a result of the build- up of dirt. These battle scars add a valued third dimension of texture and colour to a piece and set it apart from more recent or refinished examples. Even missing or broken sections of moulding or carved detail are prized over restored examples. The damaged area will have worn with age, allowing the valuable, sought-after patination to develop. PATINATION TAKES PRECEDENCE Although some are easier to remove than others, when removing any finish there is a risk that the original colour and underlying patination will be damaged or lost. For example, a shellac-based finish can be carefully lifted without damaging the original patina by using alcohol to gradually dissolve the shellac. However, an oil-based finish would require a harsher varnish remover. These tend to be aggressive, more difficult to control and can easily result in the loss of patina. Where a modern finish has been applied, and the original finish and patina removed entirely, the only option is to strip the modern finish back to expose the bare wood and then to apply the most appropriate finish. Ultimately, patination should always take precedence. If there is a risk of damaging the original patination, the existing finish should be conserved to protect the underlying character. CLEANING When cleaning back a surface using the correct method, a restorer can feel with their 17th-century oak floor before restoration (below right) and after (above): no sanding was required (All photos: Vincent Reed)