Letters, I get letters.
Well these days, they’re mostly emails. And as a writer, any type of correspondence is something I look forward to. It means someone out there is reading what I’m writing.
Sometimes the comments are positive: “I really like what you said about …”
Sometimes they’re not: “You know nothing about …”
Most often, they’re questions. Let’s say my latest article was all about “widgets.” The questions would then follow a familiar path:
a) “Read your article. Here’s a photo. Is this a widget?”
b) “Read your article. Here’s a photo of my widget. What’s it worth?”
c) “Read your article. Here’s a photo of my prize widget. Wanna buy it?”
My answers are often, predictably (and unfortunately) pretty much the same:
b) The same as all the other widgets.
c) I’d love to, but where would I put it? (My closets are already bulging with widgets.)
But the questions I most look forward to are those dealing with the care and repair of the things that people collect. Those questions force me to put on my thinking cap, dig into my research, and come up with the (hopefully correct) answers. People treasure their collectibles and want to do them proud. I’m flattered they think I might be the person to help them achieve that goal.
What To Do? What To Do?
The most common strains I find running through repair questions are “Could I?” “Should I?” and “How can I?”
“Could I?” is the easiest to answer. With enough Super Glue or Scotch Tape, you could repair practically anything. You just might not be happy with how it turns out. That’s where “Should I?” enters in.
Before getting yourself into a sticky situation, consider all the ramifications. Ever peruse those “homes for sale” ads in the newspapers? Sure you do, even if you have no intention of buying. You’ll see ads for executive retreats – secluded, lavish surroundings (translation: “very pricey”). Then there are family-friendly homes in a “bustling neighborhood” (in other words, there’s a daycare operation on either side of you, a grade school across the street, and the freeway is just beyond your back yard). And of course, there are the great fixer-uppers (code for: “Well? You get what you pay for!”).
When assessing the repair feasibility of various collectibles, I look to the realtors’ lingo.
If the price you paid for an item years back still makes you gasp, you’ll probably opt for the gold standard: professional repair. Such talented craftspeople can often be found through advertisements in antique publications (like this one). Professional restoration is an invaluable resource for collectors with veritably irreplaceable items in need of resuscitation. A talented technician will not only restore the integrity and strength of your piece with a bonding material that won’t re-break, but will also expertly match the colors of the surrounding area so that the repair is nearly invisible. The blue-and-clear cased glass vase shown was snapped at the stem. Professional restoration made the repair almost undetectable. Was it worth the cost? Each collector must decide if the value of a piece outweighs its repair charge. In this case, the answer was a resounding “yes!”
On to those family-friendly collectibles. These are items that were either purchased in a less-than-perfect state or somehow got that way once they were in your possession.
Paper goods are collectibles to be treasured, as they celebrate a particularly hefty slice of American life. They’re also “ephemeral” and meant to last for only a short time: their intrinsic materials were not particularly durable. Daily use also means such paper items are now difficult to find in mint condition – but a few tatters can add to their appeal and authenticity. Two specific types of paper goods prompted recent inquiries:
“There are a few tears. Should I tape them?”
When it comes to tears, the answer is “it depends.” If you’ve acquired the music just so you can play it, then go right ahead. It will make your piano-playing life a lot easier. If you are collecting the piece for display, more consideration is needed. You can carefully tape the tear on the reverse side of the illustration. (Never use glue, which will bleed through.) Or, you can keep hunting for an un-torn copy. (They do exist – plenty of sheet music, stored for years in piano benches or music cabinets, remains in relatively pristine shape.)
“There’s a signature on the cover. Should I try and erase it?”
For those sheet music covers bearing the proudly scrawled signatures of their original owners, never try to erase them. You’ll end up erasing the cover ink as well (I speak from unhappy experience). Besides that, the autographs of those “Trudies” and “Verla Jeans” who were the first to enjoy these songs, lend a certain charm. Avoid, however, music with a signature encroaching on the cover’s central image, as well as covers with crumbling edges or water spots. These fall in the realtor’s “great-fixer-upper” category. They aren’t, and you can’t.
“Should I only collect cards that are in mint condition and unsigned?”
In my opinion: “nope.” Signed and dated cards, especially those with hand-written personal messages, add a human dimension to greeting card collecting and offer a glimpse into the everyday lives of their long-ago authors. Here’s one from the 1940s:
“Hope your birthday is the happiest. Kind of on pins and needles here. Expect Jimmy’s division was in that invasion of Okinawa. Got a letter from him Saturday. He is so good to write me. Couldn’t make it if he didn’t. I love and miss him so much.”
Even after the passage of so many years, sentiments like those still tug at the heartstrings.
Among the display options for loose cards: binders with clear archival pocket pages or individual frames. Should you run across cards glued into scrapbooks, enjoy these as found, without attempting to remove them. Any attempt to dissolve the glue will also, in all probability, dissolve the delicate, aged paper.
Oh No! I Dropped It In The Sink!
Collectors of ceramics and porcelain know that all those intricate nooks and crannies make these items inveterate dust gatherers. In answer to the oft-asked, “How should I clean them?” let common sense rule.
First off, don’t place them under a torrent of water in an unpadded sink. You’re just asking for trouble. Towels in the sink, a gentle stream of water, and, if needed, liquid soap, should do the trick. (Particular care should be taken in cleaning “cold-painted” items, where color was added after the piece had been fired.)
Hands down, the best (and safest) choice for ceramic cleaning is a spray-on dirt dissolver (my favorite: “Sparkle Plenty”) followed by a light water rinse. Grime melts away and good looks return.
But if you did go for that unpadded sink, and the result was a nick, a crack, or––even worse––a beheading or an amputation, the anguished query is of course: “What do I do now?”
First off, relax. Regardless of the level of care given a collection, some breakage is eventually bound to occur. Once this happens, you must decide what to do with the broken item – attempt to repair it, or leave it “as is”.
Most collectors will settle for “as is” if the nicks or cracks aren’t overtly obvious. As for complete breaks, since we’re still in the family-friendly category, (i.e, the value does not justify professional restoration), a light application of quick-bonding gel glue followed by a deft use of colored chalk at the break line can often make a clean break undetectable, or at least bearable. (If professional restoration is a future possibility, use a non-permanent glue.)
Collectors who’ve yet to break a ceramic (lucky you!) have another concern: “How do I keep my treasures from ‘traveling’?”
Glad you asked. Day-to-day vibrations in a house can cause pieces to move around on a surface. Those movements can be so minor from one day to the next that they’re not noticed until a piece has moved to a spot where it’s soon likely to fall off. Tacky wax to the rescue! This removable adhesive bonds a figurine to the desired surface; several dabs, and it’s firmly situated. Once set, the object can be gently dusted in place (“Swiffers” at the ready!) rather than moved each time cleaning is called for. A steadying hand while dusting provides added security.
Glassware: Shattered Dreams
“I dropped a glass vase. It broke. Can I fix it myself?”
We’re now in the do-it-yourself equivalent of the doctor who shakes his head and somberly intones, “there’s nothing we can do.” If you grab for the glue, keep this in mind: it’s glass. It’s transparent. When glued, the fault line in the glass will almost always show, unless obscured by a surface design. While decreasing the object’s value, this might not detract from your everyday enjoyment.
But if it does, and if the value warrants it, go for professional restoration.
As for that other perennial question, “How do I clean glass?” that’s an easy one: window cleaner. After all, this is glass. A good bet: a cleaner with ammonia which doesn’t leave streaks. Use a soft cloth, nothing abrasive, and don’t scrub. And of course, the dirt-dissolver sprays mentioned previously work wonders with glass, too.
A final caution: don’t use the dishwasher. Colors will fade. Surface decoration will deteriorate. Your glassware may break. You won’t be happy.
And always remember: if it breaks, it breaks. Even experienced professionals have broken a bit of glass now and then. As fused glass artist Frances Higgins once told me, “We keep some around to remind us.”
A beheaded Ucagco Boy Angel planter after an at-home repair, leaving the crackline barely visible. At right: Reverse of Ucagco Boy Angel, showing barely visible hairline crack after repair.
Coming To Grips
Some things in life are always going to be less than perfect. When it comes to what you collect, if you can accept that fact of life without grinding your teeth down to the gumline, then why not? In Japan, they call this state of mind wabi-sabi: honoring the imperfect. So the hairline crack on the neck of that ceramic angel is still slightly visible. Can you live with that, and happily accept the piece with its minor imperfection? OK then. That’s wabi-sabi.
Of course, there’s also the Japanese practice of kintsugi, wherein cracked pottery is repaired with liquid gold. But then, there are exceptions to every rule.
Photo Associate: Hank Kuhlmann
Donald-Brian Johnson is the co-author of numerous Schiffer books on design and collectibles. He’s broken more than a few items in his time, utilizing the techniques outlined to repair them. Please address inquiries (or additional fix-it tips) to email@example.com