Challenges of Conservation: The Mysore Album Cover Project

This late-nineteenth-century album cover, intricately carved in India, was crafted from fragrant sandalwood. When acquired, the outer section of the front edge was missing. This visual distraction kept most viewers’ eyes from being fully engaged in the artistry worked into the wooden cover.
My challenge was to make the album cover look more unified with a carved replacement for the missing section. On a “restoration difficulty” scale of 1 to 10, this was a 10!

Before conservation treatment. The entire outer section of the front edge, on right, was missing.

Challenge #1: Finding the Right Material
I hoped to use a plank of sandalwood for the replacement, but after an intense search, came up empty. Sandalwood was a very desirable wood in past centuries but is now very, very scarce. Instead I experimented with several hardwoods, finally selecting Koa wood from Hawai’i for its similar color, grain pattern, and ease of carving.

Challenge #2: Making the Template
Work began by carefully making cardstock templates. Using calipers to measure for each row and design series, I drew reference points and pattern lines to ultimately replicate the original designs of the existing album cover on the template. The designs were stretched or shrunk to fit the template and, finally, on the Koa wood itself.

During treatment. Calipers were used to compare the sandalwood original with the Koa wood replacement for accuracy.

Challenge #3: Tiny Tools for a Tiny Job
Next, I tried to purchase tools small enough to reproduce the tiny carvings, but was unsuccessful. I resorted to altering a few tools, including a mini scalpel blade, 1.5mm u-gouge, paring chisel, and 3mm gouge with skew chisel edge. I used a 7X magnification loupe as I worked row by row.

During treatment. The Koa wood replacement was carved with modified miniature tools.

Challenge #4: Finishing the Project
When the carving was complete, the Koa wood was cut to length with precision angles, and mortises to lock into the album cover. The next step was to apply a thin layer of shellac to seal the Koa wood surface. After drying, I applied a chestnut-toned water-base natural dye and watercolors onto the shellacked surface, toning to blend with the original album cover

After treatment. The carved Koa wood replacement was fit in place with mortises and toned to match.

Jean Neeman, Senior Conservation Technician

4 Responses to Challenges of Conservation: The Mysore Album Cover Project

  1. Nicole Bloomfield says:

    Incredible. I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been to carve all those little details – no mistakes allowed!

  2. jon Cornia says:

    Beautiful work! Very good match on the wood color. I am restoring and antique sandelwood carving, what is the best oil to use? I was thinking of sandelwood oil, as the wood is turning white.

  3. […] of Art, Wikimedia Commons. You can review some-more about a replacement of this square during Challenges of Conservation: The Mysore Album Cover Project, during LACMA’s […]

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