In Chinese eyes authentic traditional Chinese furniture is characterised by ‘jing qi shen’, which translates as precision, the flow of energy and spirit. At Humble House gallery’s workshop in Beijing we believe we have created an environment where the work on every piece of furniture nurtures this tradition.

The work is a synthesis of conservation and restoration that requires experience, skill and patience. Following are the main steps in the process using a couple of different types of furniture to illustrate the detail. These processes apply to every furniture type and usually consist of:

  • marking up, disassembly and cleaning;
  • assessment, repairs and realigning; and
  • reassembly and finishing.

Marking up and disassembly

Marking the location of the members in reference to its structure is the first step so that the piece can be later reassembled correctly. As the joints are interlocking it is essential to decide where to start disassembly.

Marking the position of the members of a stool

A disassembled large cabinet

Cleaning the joints and internal shelves and linings

Once joints become loose in the structure they become an ideal place to gather fine dust and tiny insects. Without proper cleaning the joints will not come together precisely to restore the strength of the structure. Meanwhile the tricky corners of internal shelves are easy to clean when they are free from the structure.

Cleaning the tongue with a wire brush

Cleaned internal shelves and panels

 Assessing and repairing the damaged areas

It is critical to examine each member and repair cracks and damage.

Repair a split on a frame member with animal hide glue

Clamp the repaired area

Adding back the shrunk portions of panels

When timber seasons over a long period of time it shrinks. This is most obvious on panels, such as the seat of a stool or a tabletop. Once this happens it leads to a gap between the panel and the frame. To close the gap we add a strip of matching old timber to the panel and reshape the tongue so it sits snugly in the groove of the corresponding frame but is not glued to it. The panel is then free to expand and contract according to the environment.

Adding a new section (see left of frame) to a shrunk panel

Shaping the tongue on the added section (see top of frame)

Repairing drawer linings, tracks and shelves

The drawer tracks and linings and shelves typically need more frequent work, as they were the most used areas. Where possible we preserve or repair these internal parts but in cases where they are missing, damaged beyond repair or otherwise in a condition that means they cannot perform their intended function, then the part is replaced.

Adding a section to a shrunken drawer lining

A repaired cabinet foot

Repairing the feet

Most traditional Chinese homes had stone or earth floors that were often damp, especially in the colder months. This damp has the potential to rot the end of the feet (most commonly the back feet).

Simply trimming off the rotted ends will result in the loss of the overall proportion of the piece. Our approach is to rebuild the foot maintaining to its original dimensions. It is important to use a method that locks the replaced foot to the leg.

Realign the timber if distortion has occurred

It is very common for antique furniture to have bent frame members and bowed or warped panels. Only when the piece is fully disassembled can a part be realigned. Depending on the thickness, the timber needs to be dampened or thoroughly soaked before being clamped to straighten it. The hot sun is a good source of heat to help the process. This is a slow job and sometimes takes months to get a satisfactory result. But it is essential to the overall integrity of the piece.

Realigning timber by clamping in the heat of the sun

Realigning plank in a pressure stand

Restringing the palm base and cane mat

Some chairs and beds had a seat or mattress using a base of palm string and a top of fine cane. This was very comfortable to sit or sleep on especially in the hot and humid summer months as this material could breathe.

Re-threading both the palm and cane strands into corresponding holes on the frame of the chair or bed is a highly skilled and time-consuming task. Each strand must be secured individually into each hole in a certain order with the right degree of tension and secured with bamboo pins.

Stringing the palm base

Stringing the cane base

Reassembling the piece

Once the joints have been examined and repaired, the timbers fully aligned and any shrinkage compensated for, then the piece can be reassembled. Each member will interlock again, leaving no gaps between the structural frame and its inset panels.

Reassembled stool

Reassembled cabinet

Metal fittings

The metal fittings on Chinese furniture are not structural elements, but they serve decorative and practical purposes. The designs and styles of the metal fittings differ according to their origin and periods.

In the workshop we have collected samples of brass fittings from different periods and regions to provide references to the missing bits. Often there are indentations on the furniture to suggest the shape and size of the original brass work. All repairs and replacements are hand-made to the original style and thickness.

Samples of brass fittings

Replacements for lost fittings

Treating finished surfaces

A manual non-chemical cleaning with fine sand paper (400 and 600 grades) and steel wool (0000 grade only) removes the layers of grime that have accumulated over a long period of time, without damaging the remaining lacquer or paintings.

Replaced timber parts are carefully matched to the colour of the original surrounding timber. It is not possible to reproduce the patina that comes with time and use.

Cleaning tools and fine furniture wax

Cleaning a carved door panel

Applying wax

A neutral coloured quality furniture wax is used to protect and nourish the timber as a final finish on the exterior of the furniture. The furniture is now healthy and strong again to serve generations into the future.

Stool receiving final waxing