Restore Your Carvings

Monday 9 July 2018

A small carving of a man with a dog collar in a frock coat, resolutely striding out, used to stand in a corner of our family home. It was about 200mm (8in) high and as a child, I often wondered where this purposeful gent was walking. Perhaps it was this model which subconsciously started my interest in woodcarving.

Over the years I had forgotten this little piece and several house moves later I had no idea where it had gone. So I was delighted when it recently came to light. It had been tucked away in the corner of a garage and was in a bad way – on the surface at least. Photo 1 shows it as found. The finish had shrunk and blackened to congealed blobs in places, with creases full of old varnish. Some of the features, particularly the eyes, were virtually obliterated. But there was no evidence of rot or worm. Scratching a corner revealed a hard yellowy coloured wood. I suspected it was box (Buxus sempervirens) or perhaps a fruitwood – apple (Malus sylvestris) or pear (Pyrus communis).


As for its provenance, a relative now in her 90s, recalled it in her youth and thought it could have been a likeness of her grandfather who was a Methodist Minister in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire and who, she said, often walked from there to preach in nearby West Wycombe – this could perhaps explain the purposeful gait. This information placed the carving somewhere towards the end of the 19th Century and I thought that looked about right from the clothing.

Who carved it remained, and still remains, a mystery. Could it have been an apprentice piece – the family was in the furniture industry at the time, its centre being High Wycombe – or because he was preacher, could it have been a gift from an admiring member of the congregation?

Deciding to restore

Whatever the figure's precise history, I decided to restore it. When I told my local Carving Club many old hands shook their heads, advising against this, as it would, they said, detract from its value.

Well, I disagreed. I wanted to see what was under all that grime and dirt and it was clear that while charming in its own way, it probably had no real value. The body proportions were not quite right – the head was too big – and the pose, while striking, was hardly artistic.

For all that, it had some nice touches – the fine cut of the trousers and the unusual hat for starters. And it certainly had sentimental value for the family so I wanted it to look its best. I also had some experience of restoring old furniture and the same principles apply to the restoration of any wood, some key elements being: not to be afraid to carefully take things apart, not interfering with original features, and if possible to retain old patina.

Revealing detail

I began my work by taking off the worst of the crusty varnish – I did this by first painting on Liberon Wax and Polish Remover with a soft brush and left this for some minutes to soften. I then rubbed 0000 wire wool on the surface to remove the dirt and crust while trying to ensure I retained the patina underneath, that ancient deep glow that can be such an attractive feature of old pieces (see photo 2).

This approach worked effectively and some interesting features were revealed, such as the seams at the back of the frock coat, which had previously been completely obscured (see photo 3). Further careful work with the wire wool on the eyes brought another surprise – the delicately marked iris and pupils which really started to bring the figure to life (see photos 4-5).

I then needed to remove the dried-up varnish in the creases (see photo 6). This was harder to do as I could not get the wire wool into these corners. I found the best approach was to use the tip of a sharp narrow-ended carving knife as a scraper by holding it at right angles to the line of the crease and pulling it towards me, with the surface previously soaked for at least ten minutes with the Wax and Polish Remover (see photo 7).

Restoring the base

Photo 8 shows how the carving then looked. Work on the base was clearly required. The piece had been made from heartwood, and one radial �shake' was visible on the frock coat, which had probably extended to the base, half of which had broken off many years ago. Thankfully, both the feet of the parson, as well as his stout cane, were firmly fixed on the remaining part of the base and it was probably these three points of contact which had helped ensure that this had been securely retained, so I had a clear shape to remake the rest of the base.

In some previous restoration, the carving had been made stable by very crudely fixing the old broken base with a single screw to a larger piece of wood (see photos 9-10). I removed this (see photo 11) and set about getting a smooth, clean, straight surface – essential for a good join – to which to fix a new part. I used a small block plane to make the surface as near perfectly flat as possible (see photo 12).

Replacing timber

To complete the base I wanted to use a wood that was similar enough in colour to match the original, but also to be a little different as well so that it was clear that renovation in the early 21st Century had taken place – just in case it turned out after all to be a long lost work of historical importance! I therefore decided to use oak (Quercus robur) for the new half of the base, with the grain running in the same direction as the carving. I offered up a piece of timber, which was of the right depth but cut square. Pencilling in the circular shape (see photo 13), I then carved away the excess timber from the still separate piece of oak using a No.3 1in gouge (see photo 14). It was much easier to remove this excess wood before fixing. I then glued in the new piece with Titebond, clamping overnight (see photo 15) before finally shaping the convex base with a 1in flat gouge.

After further work with the Wax and Polish Remover, I stained the new part of the base with dark mahogany and this blended in nicely.


I then used Organoil Clear Finishing Oil over the whole piece – two coats, the first applied with 0000 wire wool and after this had dried, the second with a soft cloth. Finally, I buffed the piece to a dull shine with Liberon Black Bison Clear Paste Wax.

The final item now positively glows and has taken pride of place in our living room, as well as being a talking piece (see photos 16-19). I rather think this mystery clergyman is pleased with his new shine. Whether or not he was my great grandfather, I now imagine him walking in the English countryside, in the days before any cars existed, on his way to preach or, who knows, perhaps, to act as a model for the local Carving Club!