Conservation workshop on Wooden objects and Structures

Day 1

After a hurried breakfast at the hotel we were rickshawed out to the headquarters of HIMSHACO, surrounded by a long, green approach way, bordered by Mangifera indica on both sides. A massive Ficus bengalansis, all twisted and ropey held court in the center of the lawn (I was corrected a bit later; It was a Ficus elastics; the tips of the leaves are pointed, in bengalansis it is rounded). The approach way curves slightly and opens out on a lovely old ground floor bunglow of stone and brick. I feel in love at first sight.


We were late, so a quick chai and then the session began. First up was Roberto, a CTS employee from Italy. We were introduced to the materials used in conservation. Everything was in white tubs with green lids and words like balcite and EPO were bandied about. To say I was lost was a bit of an understatement. The trouble deepened when I realised that I didn't even have an anchor to begin my quest for knowledge. How do ask questions when your first question is "huh?." As a person this was pissing off, but as a teacher I made a mental note to try to ground students, before starting off with a class.
We were then taken outdoors since the tubs were going to be opened and being some jolly nice and pleasant chemicals we didnt want to risk inhalation, poisioning and death!!! But on the upside it was lovely outdoors, green, clear and bracing.
Ofcourse we got into a pitched battle on conservation vs restoration and whether as "professionals" we as to be true to the materials used or true to the meaning, the function of the object. This is always a question to be asked, a lot can be learnt from original parts and pieces. But at the same time keeping an old piece or member might be dangerous to the structural integrity of the object or structure. And then there is the question of encouraging and inspiring the current generation which cannot be done with a broken down structure. No consensus was reached, nor is it possible to reach once in my opinion. But the discussion is essential.


Lunch was had on the lawns and then Anupam took over. Anupam being his ever practical self broke down conservation and restoration. Then went after the common problems seen in wooden structures and objects. For each problem there were a number of solutions and for each solution there was a material that could be used, finally I had my solid grounding and I began to understand and enjoy the session.

Day 2

Today was essentially practicals. herded outside at tables with masks and gloves. The conservators took over and I wish I could say I had the guts to slow them down. But I still learnt a lot from watching. Roberto threw in a couple of objects around which we could have some discussions. I'm going to avoid the finer points of each discussion. Suffice it to say that the heated argument from the previous day was repeated. We examined an old window, a mask, and a door jamb. Each with different problems ranging from dirt to water logging to termites and spongy wood.

It was a fun day discussing what treatments would and should be applied and the pros and cons of each. The day ended with a trip to the Pandey ji's Maggi point. (Maggie points I discovered dotted the highways of the area).

Day 3 Nainital and finally Vimal Kunj and Abhimanyu

Nainital is a fair distance from Ranibagh and we cabbed it up. A trip that MUST be made safe with Avil (for those of you with a queasy stomach).
I roomed with Glen, a restorer, conservator from Goa. His dad started a company that restores old altars in older churches and I was regaled with stories of these altars and their restorations, about how they are put together and taken apart and all the other hairy details.


Day 3, 4, 5 and 6 were similar for me. We were in a woodworkshop this was my element. Early on Anupam asked me to assist Abhimanyu with the class, a task I was most happy to perform. What else was I to do i any case? Over the 4 days, the participants learnt how to use various handtools; the saw, the chisel, the hand plane, mallets, clamps and quite a number more were introduced and every day an object was made. or atleast attempted. on Day 5 the power tools were brought into the mix; here they learnt the table saw, the miter saw, band saw, thicknesser and the drill press. The jigsaw and router were also introduced, but who uses those when the big machines are available. The participants were then left loose in the workshop and much innovation and engineering happened.


Ofcourse the workshop wasn't only about the tools. A lot of theory was also presented about wood and the way wood behaves, Joints and wood joinery and different types of wood.

Day 7:

On Day 7 we left Nainital, early and drove to Bhimtal to meet Padmashri Yashodhan Madhpal. The aim of the day was to examine his collection and the museum he had setup to display the hundreds of artifacts, paintings and other ethnographic objects which told a vast story about India as a whole and the Kumoan region in particular. 
The collection is vast and in a considerably good condition, but there is very poor curation. All of the objects are simply presented. Each is labelled, but as I find in every collection all across the world, nothing makes sense to me. There is no story to tie together the artifacts. According to me, even one well presented object or artifact with a gripping story will capture the imagination. And once captured, the imagination takes over a person's life. What more do you want from a museum!!
We walked around, noting problem areas, objects that might need a bit of help and generally tried to look like we knew what we were doing.
I bought a book on woodworking of the Kumaon region in which are descriptions of local trees and timber with scientific names. Also how these timbers are used and what their properties are. A very valuable find.

Day 8: Conservation Plan

The day was dedicated to creating a conservation plan. Each of us selected an item and were asked to create a conservation plan. First examine the object, take photographs, make sketches, note the problem areas etc. This is all part of the documentation. I clearly remember Anupam saying, "If the object is dirty, make sure to photograph the extent of the dirt too. Once the object is cleaned nobody is going to believe it was dirty in the first place."
The next step was to see how to clean up the object. I discovered that saliva was used for certain types of dirt. Synthetic saliva! no spit and clean jobs here please. I learnt how to make cotton swabs, terrible cotton swabs, but that will come with practice.

Day 9: Gilding

Anupam taught us how to gild wood. Silver and gold gilding. There is a whole process
  • smoothening the wood,
  • preparing the area to be gilded with a material like french chalk
  • applying red bole or black bole
  • soaking in fish glue
  • application of the gold or silver leaf

There is a lot more to this and I can safely say I sucked at gilding. My first attempt was an unmitigated disaster. I'm assuming one gets better with time. 

Most of the day was spent attempting to gild and various innovative strategies were developed.

Day 10: Exam and feedback

I hated Day 10. Nothing more need to be said.

All in all 10 lovely days. 15 awesome people. Some more awesome that others ofcourse. And some really good quality learnings. Stuff i could never have got elsewhere.


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