China and Ceramics: Assessing The Damage

It is a simple fact of antique collecting that if you want an item in perfect shape you’re going to pay top dollar for it. Many people just beginning to collect are driven to distraction and sometimes to abandoning their desire to acquire antiques of any kind, ceramics in particular because the only pieces they can afford are chipped, stained or otherwise damaged.

But passing on that beautiful set of plates just because some show a little damage might be a mistake. With a little patience and a little hard work a bargain priced and slightly damaged piece of china can be repaired and its value increased.

Some damaged ceramics are easy to repair while others require skills far beyond the ken of most collectors and should be left to professionals. The rest of this article will be dedicated to revealing to fledgling collectors some of the more common forms of damage and how to assess the difficulty to repair them.

One of the most common forms of damage and one of the simplest to repair are stains. Stains usually caused by organic materials that can be easily bleached away using a mixture of hydrogen peroxide and distilled water.

Distilled water should always be used to clean stains on ceramics to avoid leaving mineral deposits that can be more damaging than the stain you?re trying to remove.

You want the solution to be just strong enough to remove the stain. Start with a tiny amount of peroxide to test on the stain. If necessary increase the amount of peroxide until you start to see results. Ammonia can be substituted for peroxide but be careful and start with just a few drops in a quart of water.

If the piece being cleaned is gilded you want to be especially careful. Peroxide and other bleaching agents can seriously harm delicate gilding and greatly reduce the value of your piece.

Sometimes a piece of china will have a fine white powder on its surface that just won?t wipe off. It will cause the surface of the china to feel gritty and you might even be able to see the powder on your fingers after handling the piece. This powder is salt that has become embedded in the surface of the piece and will require soaking to remove.

Simply fill a plastic container with water, once again use distilled, and place the ceramic piece in the container. Keep a tight lid on the container to prevent other impurities from getting into the mix. Leave the piece in the water changing it daily until the powdery residue is gone. It is important to remember to change the water as it will become salty and its ability to remove salt from the china will decease proportionately.

One flaw often found in china purchased at garage sales or in junk shops is badly mended breaks. While these look terrible and people often mistakenly believe that they ruin a piece this isn?t always true. A break straight across the surface of a plate or cup can be easily mended and be rendered nearly invisible with a careful restoration.

When deciding if a previously broken piece is worth your time examine it closely. Hold the piece up to a bright light to look for other cracks; where there is one there is often others. If the glue holding the two pieces together has browned with age there is a good chance that it is bound with animal based glue, which softens easily in heated water. However, brown glue might also mean that shellac has been used to attach the broken pieces. Shellac may or may not dissolve in water and only experimentation will tell for sure.

To test and possibly dissolve the glue, place the piece into a bowl several times larger than the piece being worked with. Don?t simply pour boiling water over your piece as this might well cause it to crack or break. Start with just enough warm water to cover the piece and then slowly add hotter and hotter water.

Once the glue has softened a stiff brush can be used to remove the excess glue. Once the two pieces come apart use your brush to carefully clean the now exposed edges. After you are done cleaning the edges, check to see how well the two edges fit together while making sure every sign of residual glue is gone.

Take a tiny amount of acetone to wipe the edges of the break to remove any oil, dust or fingerprints, all of which will prevent your china from bonding perfectly.

Epoxy resin is probably the best form of adhesive to use to repair your china. It is easily acquired at most craft stores. Normally it comes in two tubes and must be combined together to form an adhesive. Warming the tubes slightly to encourage it to flow evenly and avoid clumps interfering with your work.

Have a tape dispenser handy for holding the pieces together while the glue dries. You may even want to go ahead and attach several pieces of tape to one side of the break just to be ready. Use a craft knife or similar tool to apply small amounts of the epoxy to the break. Try not to allow the glue to seep over the edges of the break.

Carefully but quickly bring the two edges together. Gently move the edges until a perfect fit is achieved. Stretch the tape as tightly as you can before affixing it to the second piece. Carefully wipe the break line with rubbing alcohol to remove excess glue. After the piece has set,  remove the tape and use rubbing alcohol to clean the glue from beneath it.

If hot water does not dissolve the original repair glue the piece has probably been glued with modern epoxy or some kind of rubber cement. If so, you will need to dissolve it with an acetone coated cloth or cotton swab. Otherwise the steps are identical.

There are many other simple repairs you can do yourself and we will touch on them in future articles. The thing to take away from all this is:  just because a piece is damaged you shouldn?t think it is worthless. In fact, it could be a bargain and the beginning of a very satisfying new hobby.

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Silas Finch is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Collectible Antiques Etc. He can be reached at Content and Solutions.

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