Cracked Wood: Problem, or No Problem?

The other day, we came across a lovely writing box. We’ve seen all kinds, and sometimes we take them on, sometimes we don’t. But this one was nearly perfect. Around two hundred years old, and made for the aristocracy: solid rosewood case, mahogany interior; mother-of-pearl inlay and pewter stringing; ebony moulding along the perimeter of the lid; the obligatory secret compartments. And very little work required. We snapped it up, and within a week it is sitting for sale at one of Toronto’s most exclusive writing equipment boutiques.

But one thing that came up when I discussed it with Peter, the shop’s owner, was: “what about the crack in the bottom. Does that concern you?”

I gave a quick negative reply, got distracted, and moved on. But something stuck in the back of my mind. Why, exactly, would a crack in the wood not of concern? A crack in furniture is usually a problem. A crack in a window is always a problem. You fix problems, at least to make them look better. Why, exactly, is this crack not a concern? Why did I—almost instinctively—dismiss it?

So I sat down and sent Peter an email with a good explanation. The one I should have given him at once. The one any customer buying a museum-quality heirloom writing box, fully restored, should have. And because it addresses so well the issues of conservation vs. cosmetic repair, I thought I would share the answer with everyone.

The short answer is: no, the crack is not a concern. Here is the long answer:

Wood still has life in it, even after it has been cut for years: it swells and shrinks with fluctuations in humidity, and nothing will prevent this. So, the important thing is to make sure that the movement is not causing damage.

In the case of a box like this, it was constructed with no allowance for wood movement. As a result, cracks often appear, especially in large, flat pieces like tops and bottoms which have been glued solidly along the entire edge lengths. A crack will appear along the weakest point in the grain, and follow the grain. And certain woods (mahogany, ebony) are more prone to cracking than others.

Once the crack has appeared, and especially if it has been there for years, the movement has generally done it’s job: released pressure at extremes of humidity. From that point forward, the gap will shrink or grow only in a repetitive way, like breathing. We know where it is. And we know how it will behave.

As a conservator, one asks: does this crack i) cause further damage? ii) impact the object’s use? And: if we take steps to repair it, will the results be worse than if we leave it?

In the case of this particular box, the crack is relatively small (about 1/8″ wide; nothing likely to be stored in that portion of the box will fall through it), discreet (in the bottom panel, with a piece of cloth glued to the bottom), and relatively stable.

To repair it, we would have to completely disassemble half of the box, and glue the crack shut. Because the stress point changes with relative humidity, we would be transferring the stresses to another unknown point or points, which would only become evident over time, probably as a surprise to the owner. (As a side note, when one sees horrific cracking in antiques, it is usually either shoddy construction in the first place, or bad repair work done by the ignorant.)

Thus, the crack is a concern, but a most minor one.

As a postscript: thinking about repair in this way is often what differentiates the conservator from the casual or amateur repairer.

It is a source of great irony to us that many antique dealers won’t bother to clean dust and dirt from their pieces, citing the all-powerful “patina”. Yet those same dealers will happily squish Gorilla Glue into a wobbly joint or crazy glue a crack down for the sake of making something seem in better condition than it really is; efforts with more lasting negative consequences than a good dusting would ever have!

True conservation is a combination of things:

  • First, it is thought before action: What am I doing? Why am I doing it? Is it a good idea? Have I seen the results of this treatment before, or have my colleagues?
  • Second, it is a constant dance of cost vs. benefit—not in financial terms, but in the ethical sense: Does this truly need to be done? Why? Will the piece degrade if I don’t? Will it’s use be impacted negatively if I don’t? (Remember, display is a use, but so is using an item as the original maker intended.)
  • Third, it is skill & technique. Knowledge of original materials. Knowledge of the latest practices and methods. Balance between these two. Skill with tools. And, above all, patience and an eye for detail. Some of these can grow with time and experience, others must be cultivated, or come along with the right personality.
  • And finally, it is something motivated by more than money, or even the need to search for treasures. It is motivated by a deep respect for the pieces you work with, the people who made them, used them, and will one day continue caring for them. The man (it was almost certainly a man, although part of me hopes that a few daughters hung out in the back room of the shop, too) who carefully made the hidden mitered-dovetails that no one would ever see; the great Lord who carried his correspondence—in his trusty writing box—in the carriage from the town house to the country house; two hundred years of caretakers, who kept a box like this inside, clean and dry. If they could see the way a good conservator approaches the work, it should be worthy of a good nod of approval.

It is important work, this. It is a rare work. But it is good, and it needs to go on.

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