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!
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.
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.
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
Jean Neeman, Senior Conservation Technician