Hey! Don’t do that!

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  • Posted by kindle

Florida Today’s title – “Antiques: Don’t do more harm than good when making a repair”

Over the years as a photographer, an artist, a collector and antique dealer I have seen some pretty egregious things happen to, well, things.

Okay, I know I am going to have to explain that one.

There are certain things that you just don’t do to some items. I operate under the basic philosophy that an item is only original once. That once you alter it a small amount, a large amount, or restore it completely, you have changed the essence of that item and in some cases you may have completely destroyed the value of the item.

I realize that there are exceptions to every rule. Museums frequently restore valuable paintings such as Rembrandt’s and they obviously retain their value, but those and similar restorations are done to preserve. Dust and light damage fine artworks, and many restorations are done to simply clean the artwork and preserve it, and now the trend is to only perform restorations that can be removed in the future.

Cars are another genre that have wild debates as just what constitutes value and restoration. Barn finds have been all the rage the last several years. So much so that some collectors even eschew washing 30 years of barn dust off the car.  I have seen cars go into museums exactly how they were found and they seem to hold their value. Weird.

Obviously changing the brake shoes on a 1957 Chevy isn’t going to ruin it’s value, but if you change out the original engine, in many collector’s eye you have done just that. To each their own. Sometimes the original paint even with a few blemishes will outvalue a perfectly restored specimen.

However the areas I want to talk to you about are much closer to home. Are there some things that I shouldn’t be doing to my items in a misguided attempt to repair or preserve them? The answer is yes.

Tape. Ugh. I hate tape. Especially cellophane tape. I hate having to use it. It’s sticky, obviously, and that is one of it’s strengths. However, it is also one of its detriments. Once you put it on, it’s nearly impossible to get off. Sometimes it sticks so much, you run the risk of damaging the surface you have put it on. If it’s paper or cardboard, forget it, it’s done. The second problem with tape if the residue. If you are indeed fortunate enough to get the tape off your item, you have to find a way to get rid of the residue, otherwise the items will stick to one another.

Another problem with most tape types is the PH or acid content. Acid in products will eventually cause damage to that item, unless you use an acid free tape. When you remove the tape and the area is a different color, that’s the acid damage. You can find acid free linen tape that can be used to tape a torn page (on the reverse) without causing further damage to the item.  In many instances, I would even go as far as scanning or photographing an item and making a reproduction to handle and then storing the original in a secure place so it is not damaged, or damaged further.

Also when storing papers, or artworks, make sure the document sleeves and/or photo storage boxes are also acid free. There are companies that specialize in these products. Newspapers are difficult to store long term simply because of the poor quality of the paper. They will naturally disintegrate given enough time due to the acid in the newsprint.

This brings us to photos. I am sure everyone remembers the old “Magnetic” photo albums. You lifted the clear cover sheet on each page and set you photo under it and then let the clear sheet back down. Magnetic. No, glue! Yes, that’s right it was glue, which is why after a few days or maybe years, you couldn’t get the photos out without ripping them. Horrible stuff especially with newsprint.

As a retired photographer I will let you in on a little secret. Photos fade away. Every photo you own, will eventually fade away into nothing. The silver in old photos slowly disappears and as time goes by the image will disappear. This is why I encourage getting your photos scanned. Once I scan your photo, I can in many instances use that digital image and fix damage without altering the original. Then the original can be stored safely.

I had a client once that every time they went on a trip, they placed all their important photos in their safety deposit box in case the house was destroyed while they were gone. Extreme, but they were images that could never be replaced. This was before digital photography but now all you have to do is scan them and they are preserved. (Just remember to make back-ups) This process also aids in sharing valuable photos with family members so you don’t have to exchange possession of great grandpa’s photo each Christmas.

As far as modern photos such as inkjet prints, they claim the inks are archival, and the papers are acid free, but no one has owned a digital print for 75 or 100 years yet, so the jury is still out on that one.

If you have to tape a photo to repair it, use archival tape and only from the back. Never use “scotch” tape on the front. Also, no writing on anything. A light pencil price on the flyleaf of a first edition can usually be erased clean off, but ink pens and markers are permanent, and in many cases even pencil will leave an impression on the paper.

Avoid anything that pierces or puts holes in anything. Once you drill a bit hole in the back of that antique bookcase to put your stereo cords thorough, you may have just ruined the value. You can’t just put the wood back into the hole when you get a new stereo stand.

However if you do need to fix a wooden item for sentimental reasons or to just keep using it, there are options.

As far as wood finishes go, there are filler sticks, stains, and all sorts of restoration tips and tricks out there to fill scratches, remove water marks and dings. Some work and some don’t. Some work with minimal overall harm, and some will make you decide you need to strip the item and paint it or it becomes yard sale fodder.

When using chemicals, you need to make sure you do your homework. You have to know what kind of wood you are dealing with and what type of finish is on the furniture. For example you try to stain over varnish or shellac, you may make things worse and you may not be happy with the results.

Always work in a small area and test first. Work in steps and layers. Go only as far as needed because sometimes too much is well, too much. You may go past the effect you were looking for. Again, you can strip and refinish the entire piece, but then you are into a project that will take many hours and you may not have the space or tools to tackle such a job. Again, depending on the scarcity and value of the item you may do more harm than good to its overall value. Sometimes all an item needs is a good cleaning but you have to use the right products and then something such as wicker can present a real challenge.

Glue. Again, you have to do some homework and use the correct type of glue. Super glue is sometimes not very super. Wood glue works on cardboard and paper. Remember, they are made from trees and I have used it many times successfully. Epoxy, Gorilla Glue, contact cement all have their place, but few are considered restoration tools. Small amounts are best, and clean any excess off.

Wood glue will stain if you get it in the wrong place and can prevent finished from penetrating areas. Make sure you follow the manufacturer’s instructions. If you accidentally super glue body parts together you may have a medical emergency or a great party story.

Sometimes though the repair, even though not aesthetically pleasing, is undertaken and accepted because the item being repaired is of such sentimental value, that simply having the item whole is more important than how it looks. In that case, whatever works, works. Just start slow and take your time.

Remember it’s only original once.

Published Florida Today – Sunday Edition 6/5/22