Mending with Egg and Brass
The end of the 19th century was a turning point where household repair practice and professionalised restoration was bifurcating. Leland’s 1896 Manual of Mending and Repairing boasts that it can teach us to mend clothes with wool from the hedgerow, seal a pot with cheese, bond wood with snails, and make money from doing so. In this workshop, I present a record of my own research practice, experimenting with Leland’s instructions for stitching ceramic back together with brass wire, gaining a haptic understanding of these repairs as a design practice.The end of the 19th century was a turning point where household repair practice and professionalised restoration was bifurcating. Leland’s 1896 Manual of Mending and Repairing boasts that it can teach us to mend clothes with wool from the hedgerow, seal a pot with cheese, bond wood with snails, and make money from doing so. In this workshop, I present a record of my own research practice, experimenting with Leland’s instructions for stitching ceramic back together with brass wire, gaining a haptic understanding of these repairs as a design practice.
An Introduction to Repair Design
The Process of Ceramic Lacing
- Some scrap ceramic sherds – I used a modern porcelain side plate, some plant pots, and some small pieces of tin glazed eathernware
- Brass wire, 0.64mm
-Plaster of Paris – Leland gives us a choice between ‘whiting, or finely powdered lime or plaster of Paris’ – I used the last as it was the safest to handle
-Bow drill with a thin bit – we have a choice between a ‘bore or hand drill’, and a bow drill seemed to work at a reasonable pace, while being slow enough that we can stop and assess our progress gradually
-Awl – this didn’t work for harder materials but was perfect for the softer plant pot I used
My first challenge when experimenting with this recipe is quantity and measurement; Leland is simply very unspecific about the materials and tools involved. We naturally have a host of questions, being too used perhaps to very prescriptive cooking recipes. What size of drill bit? How much egg white to how much plaster? What gauge of wire? Am I ‘sewing’ in a pattern? Roughly what space do we leave between the holes? How long might it take the wash to dry? How large (or small) a fracture is this suitable for?
The absence of these details could be put down to oversight. Their exclusion, however, seems deliberate:
‘It is needless to devote whole pages with illustrations, as M. RisPaquot has done, to show how to effect such mending. The holes are made with either a bore or hand drill, such as can be bought in every tool shop. If the reader will obtain one and experiment with it on any penny plate or broken fragment, he will soon master all the mystery.’
Details about quantities and measurements are eschewed – we are instead invited to develop our own knowledge, using what tools and materials we can obtain. It is with that in mind, the tools and materials I use, and the tools Leland and his other readers used are necessarily different. This is what I could obtain.
Mastering All the Mystery
Drilling through ceramic, at first glance, seem impossible given the brittleness of the material. We are advised however that ‘if the reader will obtain [a bore or hand drill] and experiment with it on any penny plate or broken fragment, he will soon master all the mystery’. My first step is then to experiment with the drill, building up some experience with some low stakes material.
I first got a sense of how the drill operated on a material it could easily bite into – the back of my notebook. Before long, it became possible to operate it with one hand, and steady the piece I was working on with the other. The necessity of keeping an eye on the string, and replacing it regularly became clear; if it wore through, the drill would spin out of control, and often break the piece being worked on. The string also has to be short enough to allow you to bounce up and down the drill’s axel, and long enough to allow a good stroke length.
To Make Small Holes
Once we have a sense of the drill, we can experiment with our ‘penny plate or broken fragment’. Leland recommends this technique for ‘crockery’ or porcelain, both very hard kinds of ware. We have examples, such as the earlier cited C.27-2008, of this technique being used for earthenware vessels too however. I took one piece of willow pattern plate scavenged from a field, several pieces of plant pot, and the sherds of a sideplate.
Starting with the willow pattern fragment, the need to start the holes with an awl quickly becomes evident – otherwise the drill piece just dances about on the glaze. Once through the surface, going was relatively easy. The sideplate, however, cost me several drill bits and quite some effort before I was even half way through. This might prompt questions about how this would be possible on hard ceramics with an even more rudimentary bit; was this process reserved for only very thin porcelains? Would a ‘sharpenable’ bit – a few accounts use ground knitting needles – work better?
For the purposes of demonstration, I settled on the plant pot, as it was abundant and I could drill a hole through the soft material in minutes. This wasn’t without its trials; I lost my original demonstration piece to a broken drill cord, an accident which the harder side plate may have survived.
Drill Along the Edges
Selecting the two sherds I wished to work with, I took lessons from my scrap experiments and marked two lines of holes with my awl. Leland is, as ever, non-prescriptive about the size or number of holes. In experimenting with my sherds, too close and the piece was made very fragile if the drill slipped. This had the second advantage of reducing the time spent drilling, reducing the risk of a slip in the first place.
At this point a problem presents itself – on exiting the ceramic, the drill bit tends to leave a large patch. What approaches can we take to achieving a neater result? A smaller drill bit reduced the size of the pit. However, the drill bit was more prone to bending, and so its alignment had to be checked more often. Supporting the back of the ceramic helped – I experimented with dripping bees wax on the back of the piece being worked on, to some effect. The most effective method I found was to take the depth of the hole with the awl, and finish by poking it through the thinned ceramic when it was at a point where it was almost through; drilling with too much abandon would only make things worse.
Other methods of dealing with the patch can no doubt be found by experimenting. Supporting the piece using a hard chock might have helped further, for instance. Leland affirms that supporting the piece is a skill in itself when mending a break. The small techniques and tricks to mending like this, acting and reacting to our own necessarily individual materials and tools, seems built in to the process of repair design embodied in Mending and Repairing.
Before fastening our drilled pieces together, we are advised to ‘wash the edges of the ware with white of egg in which a very little whiting, or finely powdered lime or plaster of Paris, has been mixed’. Quantities for this cement, which are provided liberally elsewhere, are again missing. I compensated for this by mixing gradually on a flat surface, so I could assess how the mix changed as I added more plaster. Very little plaster did not seem to mix well in the white, and dried on the edge of the fracture before I could put my brass lace in place.
I settled on a two part process; this thin wash initially, and a second, thicker ‘cement’, which doubled in filling in any gaps between my drill holes and the wire. Two coats of this second cement became necessary, as the fracture moved slightly in the process of setting and adjusting the wire. The excess was then washed off with a damp cloth.
This Solid Method of Sewing
With this prepared, we now fix the fragments with brass wire. Leland advises that the wire involved should be ‘half round, or flat on one side’ – presumably so as to sit flush with the edge of the ceramic. This is done by drawing the soft wire against an old blunt knife. I have attempted this, but reflecting it may work better on a thicker gauge of wire.
We can now experiment with sewing together our pieces. I soon found that owing to the stiffness of even this relatively thin wire, a coil or anything resembling a stitch produced too much friction to effectively be tightened down. Cutting short lengths and tying them into bands kept the force even across the fracture – running a stitch up and down stressed the join in odd ways. These could each then be tightened down with a pair of pliers, once they had been pressed flat against the ceramic.
When tightened down, the ceramic still had a certain amount of play. Here, adding a thicker egg white and plaster mix tightened the repair down nicely, securing the wire in the drill holes, and evening out the slight mismatch where the fracture fitted together. It seems that this approach compensated for my inexpert first attempt – smoothing an edge here, tightening up there.
I then proceeded to wash down the piece with a little water and let it dry overnight. I was left with this piece: