Chai Kai – the art of structural repairs

拆开 (Chāi kāi) essentially means to “take apart” and people often don’t realize that when you restore a piece of Chinese antique furniture, usually in addition to  carefully cleaning it, it also usually must be taken apart and entirely refitted back together. Since Chinese furniture rarely uses nails, and instead uses a complex system of pegs and joints, the item can be completely disassembled, with the pieces spread out over the workshop floor.

parts and pieces of an antique table disassembled and deconstructed
Parts and pieces of an antique table disassembled, deconstructed and spread out across the workshop floor.

This serves a few different purposes. First and foremost, it allows the carpenter to tighten/re-peg the joinery. This in turn stabilizes the entire structure, as joints may gradually become loose over the  years due to changes in climate, shrinkage in the wood and/or excess handling.

disassembling exposes the joinery and like a complex puzzle must be put back together in the exact same manner.
Disassembling exposes the joinery and much like a complex puzzle, it must be put back together in the exact same fashion without missing any pieces. These days, in addition to materials and other costs, the carpentry work itself is in fact a huge part of the restoration cost as Chinese carpenters are now rightly seen as skilled craftsmen and thus are paid as such. One can easily understand why!

At the same time, gaps, larger cracks, splits or shrinkages that have developed over time can also be eliminated. Refitting the pieces back together, allows these gaps can be closed, (though at the same time essentially also reducing the piece in overall size though only by a few millimeters).

After refitting and clamping , the gap between the boards will be reduced.
After refitting and clamping, the gap between the boards on the face of this table will be eliminated.

Even in the case of genuine  antiques, its not uncommon for them to have had varying amounts of work done to them over the years (regardless of whether those repairs occurred over hundred years ago or thirty years ago). Then there are also outright fakes as well as part old-part new pieces reassembled or repaired using other antique components/spare parts. Sometimes this is not so obvious even to the trained eye.  However, when the piece is taken apart, areas that have been replaced or repaired will  become much more obvious and easy to spot.

While not so apparent at first, once taken apart and all pieces exposed, it becomes clear one of the aprons has been replaced.
While not so apparent at first, once taken apart, it becomes clear one of the aprons on this table has been replaced. With the joints now clearly exposed, differences in wood, color and construction become much more apparent.

Cleaning, (often involving a careful wet sanding) is another  important step and I cannot imagine when customers tell me they would like to take the piece home “as is.” 

dirt built up on antique furniture
Who wants a few hundred years of farm dirt, chicken sh_t and “who knows what else” sitting in their living room!

Final steps usually involve stain or lacquer and almost always some amount of wax – always applied 100% by hand.

waxing antique furniture
Applying wax requires lots of elbow grease!

And finally, in the end, the piece is completely reassembled and ready to go. Often the end buyer has no clue as to the hours of skilled work put into bringing these pieces back to life! No excuses anymore though! 😉

From start to finish
From start to finish. It looks the same.. but different.. but the same.. but different.. 😉

2 Replies to “Chai Kai – the art of structural repairs”

  1. nicolai de Dobrynine says:

    I need specialist to see table chinese not fake , maybe last century, to sell.

  2. That’s really amazing post. You have briefly described the ways to create a new thing from these antique furniture’s. That means i have some old furniture through which i can make a new one if i follow these steps. Wonderful !! But for that i need a carpenter. Yes thanks for sharing this great post.

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