A to Z: Restoring Chinese wood carvings, wooden screens and carved architectural elements.

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When a Chinese traditional home is demolished to make way for the new, elements like antique window screens, carved panels & screens and other architectural elements are typically salvaged, to be reborn as decorative items in modern homes. Thinking about adding such a piece of history to your collection? 

Here’s a quick look at the restoration process  from start to finish.

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Before and after cleaning

1. Cleaning

A years of being exposed to rain, dust, smoke (and who knows what else), quite a lot of build up can occur, which must be carefully removed.

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Patina? Nope! That’s just years of disgusting dirt build up. Ewww.

While there are several methods used in cleaning, initial stages typically use water.  After the initial layer of dirt is washed away, depending on preferences (and just how “filthy” the piece actually is), this process may be repeated several times. The piece is then carefully cleaned with a rag or soft brush (depending on how delicate the piece is) often using a small quantity of a gentle cleaner such hand soap, a touch of dish washing liquid or even laundry detergent which is diluted in a bucket of water.

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Beautiful color emerges after removal of years of dirt build up.

2. Cleaning vs. Whitening (洗干净 vs. 漂白)

Depending on the piece, which typically means asking “is the piece a colored/lacquered piece or is it a “raw wood?” we may choose to either stick with cleaning ( Xǐ gānjìng 洗干净) or perhaps both clean and lighten the piece.

In Chinese, this process is often referred to as piāo bái   (漂白) which means “to lighten,” and details may emerge that were not evident under all the years of dirt.

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Removing years of dirt

3. Repairs to carvings

After cleaning, the next step is usually repairing some (or all depending on preference) damaged sections of the wood carving. Damage in some form, is not uncommon and can be the result of a number of different factors from normal wear and tear to damage during removal/transport to deliberate damage during the cultural revolution.


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Burn, loot and pillage! Destruction of antiques during China’s Cultural Revolution.

Delicate stone and wood carvings were often the target of such violence with priority given to figural scenes. Unlike flowers, animals or even mythical beasts, figural scenes typically depict specific narrative events or stories of historical figures. They became easy targets, often taking the brunt of the damage.


Click here to read more…


Typically this involves scraps of the same or similar wood which are cut and then pegged and glued over the damaged areas (a process we call Bǔ mùtou (补木头).  Once pegged and dried, the damaged sections can be carefully re-carved, sanded and detailed to match. Some people may prefer to re-carved/repair every minute detail. Others may choose to repair major damage only. Depending on the shape and structure of the carving, other repairs to joinery may be required as well.

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Repairing of damaged sections of carving
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4. Touch-ups

After repairing any damaged sections of the antique carving, the next step is color matching, known as Bǔ yánsè 补颜色.

If the piece is a raw wood color, either a bit of bleaching or cerusing (lime finishing) or even slight bit of stain will be needed to match the color of the material as close as possible. In some cases, a metal brush may be used on the material to “dig out” and age the wood grain a bit.

If the screen was painted, then replaced sections will need to be carefully hand painted to match the original color and style. In this case gold lacquer, red lacquer and a burgundy wood stain are used.

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Retouching the color

5. Framing if needed

This window panel’s frame was damaged when it was removed from its original location. A new frame is added and then carefully color matched to the tone of the screen. The new frame adds additional stability, enhances the sense of depth and provides a surface for installing mounting hardware without damaging the original material.

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A frame added to an antique window panel

6. Display in the home!

The final and most rewarding step… Some people chose to simply hang them on the wall, where as others go with mounting them on stands and/or in frames.

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Display in the home
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7. Learn More:

Books about Chinese screens, windows and carvings

Classical Chinese Doors and Windows:

This is the definitive text on Chinese architectural doors and windows written by Ma Wei Du, one of the most famous collectors in mainland China. Stunning photographs with explanations on what motifs or stories are depicted.

If not found on Amazon, can also be found here on Abebooks

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Classical Chinese Doors and Windows: Ma Wei Du

A Grammar of Chinese Lattice, Volume 1 of 2

An influential text; nearly 2500 patterns of lattice from ancient Chinese windows, including the history of development and classification of designs. Worth having in your collection. Also a classic which was first written in 1937.

Again, can also be found here on Abebooks

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A Grammar of Chinese Lattice

Folk Woodcarving:

This is a domestic Chinese softcover which is quite decent for the money. Its essentially compiled from Chinese publications. They have a similar publication on stone and brick carving as well. Usually Chinese publications will have images previously unseen in the average English book on Chinese Antiques.


Living Heritage: Vernacular Environment in China

You can’t not look at architecture when considering the role of wood carvings in China. While this is not a book specifically focused on wood carvings it is a good book to get a sense of how and where carvings where integrated into home and other structures. Lots of discussions on architecture of which screens are typically a part of.

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Living Heritage: Vernacular Environment in China

China’s Dongyang Wood Carving (Chinese Edition):

The two authors of this book traveled across the Zhejiang Province and recorded the Dongyang style wood carvings in old houses. Lots of great picture although text is only in Chinese.

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China’s Dongyang Wood Carving (Chinese Edition):

For more books about Chinese carvings, see this list here (Where can I find good books on Chinese wood carvings, screens and architectural elements?) or visit our Bookstore

Enjoy!

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