Re-purposing a Box—Part 1

One of the things we enjoy about restoration and conservation is that sometimes you come into an artifact that is sad and forlorn; whether it be due to damage, humility, or other reasons, there is no reason to conserve it, and it just isn’t sensible to do a full restoration. However, that doesn’t mean that such an item is beyond hope. And that is where the fun begins! The box we feature here is just such a case, and is an excellent candidate for showcasing how to re-purpose what was once a beautiful and functional piece.

A Sad and Forlorn Box
A small and forlorn box…
A Sad and Forlorn Box
…with a shallow tray…
A Sad and Forlorn Box
…and a storage space beneath.

In the world of material culture professionals, re-purposing is a last resort. An artifact must have no historical significance in and of itself. It must not be usable within an existing collection, or there must be other, better quality, examples already held.

“Re-purposing” is often antique-dealer double-speak for a shoddy attempt at making a piece of junk sell-able. When done with care, skill, and high-quality materials, however, re-purposing can take something in poor condition and make it beautiful and useful again.

We came across this small box at an antique market this spring. Typical of such boxes produced in the late 1800s, it was once used for holding either jewellery, sewing, or both. However, it had no immediate cultural context: no owner’s name was evident, and it had been removed from wherever it had originally been kept, never to return. Sadly, as is also typical, it was in rough shape. The interior fittings were in terrible condition. The glue was crumbling, the velvet was coming off and was permeated with the smell of mouse pee.

We have, then, decided to take this somewhat forlorn box, and make it anew. It’s bones are good: quarter-sawn oak, joined with splined mitres at the corners. The hardware is the original sensible, solid brass, and in excellent condition. The interior tray is in beautiful shape. The only big question is, what should it become? Jewellery and sewing boxes abound, even in this 21st century. However, it’s size is perfect for something harder to find: a fountain pen & stationery storage box.

Over the next few weeks we will post a diary of the restoration/re-purposing of this box, including details of our techniques, and what materials we are using. Hopefully you will find it interesting, at the very least. At the most, we hope that someone else can use these methods to repair, restore—or even resurrect anew—something sad and forlorn that they have found or inherited.

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