Tag Archives: Carbon fiber rods

A Reflection: The Treatment of a Makonde Sculpture


Today’s post will discuss a fairly challenging treatment of a 7′ tall African sculpture. The sculpture is titled “A Reflection,” and was carved by the artist Tangawizi of the Makonde tribe in northeastern Mozambique sometime in the late 1960’ s-1970’s. “A Reflection” is made out of a single log of ebony that has been intricately carved and highly polished.


Before Treatment Overall

The Makonde are a group located on the plateau of Mueda in modern day Tanzania and Mozambique. These were some of the last tribes to be placed under European colonial control, coming under Portuguese rule in 1920. Prior to European contact, the Makonde made masks and other useful items.  Post-contact, the Makonde began creating prau-preto (ebony) sculptures for export to the Portuguese. The first subjects were the everyday activities of the Makonde; these became known as binadamu sculptures. Later, as woodcarving developed as a craft, styles expanded to include ujamaa or unity sculptures that depict families in a pole format, and shetani or spirit sculptures that are more abstract in their subject matter.


Before Treatment Detail

The Makonde sculpture that came to our studio is of the shetani genre. The work depicts a battle between a man and a tree spirit. The artist states that, ”the sharp pointed areas are a cunning feature as it does not reflect on the spirit but on what it wants us to believe; this spirit has a hidden agenda.”


Before Treatment Detail

The Makonde sculpture was broken into twelve sections with numerous other partial breaks, for a grand total of 31 breaks in need of joining.  What made the repair difficult was that the wood had become distorted upon breaking, and the broken sections were no longer in proper alignment.

Unusually, this sculpture came with annotated repair instructions from the gallery in Kenya where it was purchased.  The instructions suggest using a mix of ebony powder with a wood glue to rejoin the broken pieces. Our technician Katy modified this method to address the different kinds of breaks.  Common “wood glue” is strong, but is difficult to reverse and does not age that well, so it is not an ideal conservation adhesive.

For most of the breaks, Katy used a high-tack fish glue to join the broken sections. These breaks all had large surface areas with good contact at the break sites and were non-load bearing.  Fish glue is strong, reversible and easily re-treatable, making it an adhesive well-suited to this situation.


Treatment documentation photo view 1.Orange indicates fish glue joins, blue shows epoxy repairs, and red lines indicate pins inserted. 

A stronger adhesive was needed for some of the breaks, though.  These breaks were tricky because they were previously held under tension when the sculpture was whole, load-bearing, and have very little areas of contact. When the sculpture broke, the internal tensions were released and the somewhat flexible ebony underwent some distortion, or became “sprung” (a term usually used to describe this phenomenon when it applies to high-fired ceramics). In these cases, a two-part flexible epoxy adhesive bulked with ground ebony powder and pigments was used instead of the fish glue because it is stronger and more resilient.

Treatment documentation view 2--

Treatment documentation view 2. Orange indicates fish glue joins, blue for epoxy repairs, purple shows previous restorations, and red lines indicate pins inserted.

We had to come up with some creative clamping solutions. In some areas, cauls were needed to prevent the clamps from slipping on the smooth, rounded surfaces.

During treatment clamping of joinsIMG_0385


In addition to the epoxy, carbon fiber pins were inserted into some of the breaks (namely, in load-bearing, previously repaired and re-broken areas, where the broken sections had to be forced back into alignment) to further support the piece structurally.   The instructions suggest ebony dowels inserted to act as “screws” or “nails”; however, we felt that carbon fiber rods would be stronger, more flexible and less invasive since they required much smaller holes to be drilled, thus more appropriate for the narrow joins we were working with.


After Treatment Detail


Treatment documentation photo view 3. Orange indicates fish glue joins, blue for epoxy repairs, purple shows previous restorations, and red lines indicate pins inserted.

Treatment documentation view 3

The losses along the break lines were filled using a microcrystalline wax blend that was tinted with dry pigments to approximate the color and sheen on the surrounding areas.  The wax mixture was applied using a heated spatula.  Finally the entire surface was given a light coating of clear paste wax  for protection and unified gloss.


After Treatment Overall


Sources include:


Zachary Kingdon. A Host of Devils. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2013.


Rich, Vincent (2012) Carving a Life: The Political Economy of Woodcarver Livelihoods in Cabo
Delgado, Northern Mozambique. PhD Thesis, SOAS, University of London


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Hope for Hopi Kachinas Part II

This post is the second segment of our two-part spotlight on the Kachina dolls that came into our studio. This part will focus on the treatment of the Cumulus Cloud Maiden that was mentioned in our earlier post.

Before treatment photo showing a view of the front.

Before treatment photo showing a view of the front.

The Cloud Maiden came into our shop in several pieces.  Kachinas are prone to breaking because the cottonwood they are made from is very soft and fragile.  In this case, the figure had broken off from the base, and some of the feathers on the tunic and headdress had become detached.  The owner had saved several of the pieces but others were missing. After taking an inventory of what could be reattached and what had to be recreated, we set to work.

Before treatment photo showing a view of the back.

Before treatment photo showing a view of the back.

Before the breaks could be addressed, residual adhesive from a previous repair had to be removed.  The adhesive was first softened with water and then removed mechanically.  After the adhesive was reduced, the broken pieces were reattached to the Kachina. In order to stabilize and strengthen the  joins, small pins were inserted.  Carbon fiber rods were used to make the pins for the broken feathers. For small or lightweight broken elements, carbon fiber rods (made of epoxy reinforced with carbon fiber, see http://www.conservation-wiki.com/wiki/Carbon_Fiber)  are ideal because they have high tensile strength, so a thin (1.2 mm diameter) pin can provide plenty of support.  


Examples of carbon fiber rods.

By contrast, to reattach the Cloud Maiden to its base a bamboo pin was used to join the two sections together.  Wood was considered the preferred material to support this larger surface area break because it is not as hard as the carbon fiber.  A larger carbon fiber pin would be much stronger than the original material and could potentially damage the cottonwood if an impact occurred.

After treatment photo showing the front.

After treatment photo showing the front.

Once the broken pieces were adhered, our expert technician Katy took to recreating the lost feathers.  To do this she used two different techniques. For the feathers that were entirely missing she carved new ones out of balsa wood.  Although balsa is not the type of wood originally used by the artist, it has similar properties, is lightweight and easy to manipulate.  Once the she got the shape right, she set about toning the replacements using gouache.  The new feathers were then attached using carbon fiber pins and bulked fish glue.  The fish glue was bulked with cellulose powder to act as a gap filler where material had been crushed or lost at the break.

After treatment photo showing the back.

After treatment photo showing the back.

For feathers that had lost only their tips, Katy also used tiny carbon fiber pins, this time as posts onto which she could build up the feather shape.  To recreate the tips she used Modostuc and then inpainted the feathers with gouache.


Before treatment left and after treatment right, showing repaired and replica headdress feathers

The treatment was successful and the Cloud Maiden left looking fabulous.  A round of applause to Katy for her excellent work.

Post written by Allison King

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Filed under art conservation, Hopi Kachina