Conservation, MPF Conservation Internship

Medieval Portland: Photo documentation

I checked out a camera from the Portland State University VA office hoping to get some better shots of the poetry book. I was highly discouraged from using flash (for good reason), but if I made do with what I could.

Unfortunately, since I left, it looks like the damage has gotten slightly worse. The gold leaf on your right in the image is now lifting just a little bit!

I wanted to talk a little bit about photography in the art conservation field: I’ve had two different experiences with my two different internships. At Robert’s lab, we had a set-up which involved placing the object in a white tent and playing with lighting to get the best results. Below, you can see my first project which is against a white background with a color strip to fix the color balance when the photo is put in for editing.



I also was fortunate enough to order the second edition to “The AIC Guide to Digital Photography and Conservation Documentation” on sale for $20 from $60. I’ll hopefully be getting it sometime in the middle of November at the latest, and when I do, I’ll read it and post more information, but basically what I’ve learned from every conservator I’ve ever talk to is that documentation is the MOST IMPORTANT part of the conservation process. Sometimes, even more so than the actual treatment itself.

Everything you do has to be reversible in case future discoveries find more effect forms of conservation. This is why it’s important to document everything you do for future conservators to learn from, fix, and otherwise learn about what happened to the object.

Photos have to be taken BEFORE any treatments are made, and then several process photos are highly recommended to show other fieldworkers your work as well as proving to a potential client that you did indeed put the extensive work into the object that you did.



Conservation, MPF Conservation Internship

Imperial Monterey Session 2: Gunk Scraping!

In my past conservation projects, I learned that a crucial part about conservation may involve fixing past repairs, usually made by owners and sometimes fix-it shops. Weeks 2 and 3 of my internship at MPF Conservation were such a reminder of this fact.

During the second week, Katie and I went shopping for strapping leather at Oregon Leather for the Imperial Monterey Chair and a Stickley footstool. This was, I’m ashamed to say, my first time inside the shop.¬†Oregon Leather had a delightfully odd set up with half of the first floor consisting of shelves filled with boxes of leather working tools, decorations, accents, and countless other things. The second half ha more leather jackets in one place than I’ve ever seen. There were also random piles of animal horns, shells, bones, and tails.

As I stood looking at the ox horns, I thought how cool it would be to do a leather working project like Visigoth or other such Viking armor.

I really love being in stores like this. It really had my head buzzing with ideas for costumes and leather crafts.

But we weren’t there to make armor that my Viking ancestors may or may not have worn, we were there for furniture parts! ¬†We specifically needed Vegetable dyed grade A leather that was about 3 mm in depth. As much as we could, Katie and I tried to use as few hides as possible.

When purchasing leather, I learned that texture is a vital part of the selection process. When dying the leather, any textural imperfection such as stretch marks, bite marks, barb wire marks, and other such imperfections can exacerbate in the dying process. It’s no big deal for Monterey furniture; the blemishes give the leather more of a Wild West appearance. However, such blemishes for a Stickley footstool are undesireable¬†and this split of leather would be used for both.

Of course, there were only a few available hides, and none of them were exactly perfect. Still, we had to make do because the leather we were getting was not something that most other leather crafters here in Portland used terribly often. The next shipment would not have been for a very long while.

During both these sessions, my assignment involved taking the chair apart and turning it into rubble. (Okay, not real rubble, but all parts were disassembled to allow for reparation of tenons and regluing with hide glue.)  It was challenging because people in the past have either tried to enhance the adhesion process (poorly) or reinforce it with multiple unnecessary screws.

Like this one! What is up with this? I can’t… I can’t even…

I took apart the seat portion of the chair. It was a relatively simple task. I had to remove several screws and nails and take photographs as I took the chair apart.

… a CARPENTER¬†NAIL? Are you serious now? This was fun to remove, actually. ūüôā

I took apart the back on the third week. This was the much trickier task. A past repair was done to it which involved using what Mitchell inferred as an acrylic base craft glue.

Vinegar and Syringe

This was most fortunate because had it been an epoxy adhesive, I probably would have needed to use more toxic solvents. As it was, I only needed to use warm vinegar and inject it into the glue and screw holes using a 20mm needle syringe.





This is the chair’s back. I¬†labeled each piece.


For those of you unfamiliar with furniture terms, tenons and mortises are a type of joint that join furniture pieces together.  You can see an example, below.

Left: Mortis/Right: Tenon

When the back was taken apart, Mitchell and I took a look at the mortises. Mitchell believed the mortises were formed using Forstner bits. This was unusual for an Imperial Monterey-style item because Forstner bits were used by hand rather than manufactured by machine in Los Angeles, California.

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The rest of my day consisted of scraping out the gunk from the tenons and mortises.

After scraping out the gunk, the next steps involve cleaning glues and the finish on the various parts.  Ideally, my next step is woodworking which would involve finding compatible wood and rebuilding the badly damaged or rotted tenons; this is going to be delayed until Mitchell can fully supervise me.  Next week I will finish up cleaning, and begin to work the leather:  Stay tuned!

© Ashley West.  My blog posts may be reposted; please link back to AshleyWestArtBlog.  Photos are property of MPF Conservation.

Conservation, Funny Stuff, MPF Conservation Internship

Imperial Monterey Chair Session 1




My supervisors, Katie and Mitchell, were trained in the European style of conservation. European and American style conservation differ on some key elements.¬†Members of the AIC (Mitchell and I both are members) will occasionally get literature in the mail about the latest technologies being used to analyze historic antiquities. In contrast, European conservation is rich in learning traditional skills from many generations, usually in an apprenticed style of learning.¬† ¬†For example, Mitchell, from a very young age learned upholstery and leather reparation techniques from apprentice-trained journeymen craftsman.¬†MPF Conservation’s studio is very different from Robert Krueger’s lab.¬† While Robert had a perfectly air-controlled room with cabinets of various chemicals and beakers, the MPFC’s studio is built more like a workshop with a section of the room for leather, another section for woodworking, and another section for textile work that all combines in the middle where Mitchell’s working on restoring a Louis XVI sofa.¬† By their nature, various studios are different: furniture conservation, especially upholstery conservation, would be impossible in a air-controlled room because the cotton, feathers, and hair used are by their nature “messy.”¬† However, Kate’s finish studio is in another room and the HVAC system has been modified to be a clean room.

Over lunch, I had a discussion¬†with Katie and Mitchell which lead to a brief speculation on WHY one might choose to conserve an art piece. The answer should be easy, right? It’s to keep artwork around for future generations to enjoy. Well, it’s not always that simple.

An American conservator may have no problem taking out the original springs and stuffing in a chair cushion and filling it with ethafoam (Polyethylene foam) as long as they¬†preserve the frame and possibly the showcover if original,¬†but a European craftsman conservator may be appalled at that and protest that it’s best to keep as much of the original as possible. So, this begs the question. Why are you conserving said chair? Are you trying to make it presentable for a museum, or are you restoring it to use?

Mitchell had an interesting comment to say about upholstery conservation. He stated before that some members of the¬†AIC don’t view the preservation of upholstery as important because their understanding was that the upholstery has been removed anyway. In his experience, however, he found that upholsterers would simply add to the stuffing that’s inside, causing a time line to be viewed and analyzed.

I would challenge that the business of conservation is to preserve cultural history, which includes form and content, depending upon the object. The conservator has to know the true history of the object, and either alone or with the assistance of the owner/curator decide what is culturally significant.  MPFC believes the innards of upholstered objects are often an important part of their cultural significance.

Kate also went into extensive detail about the business end of running a conservation studio. She used her past experience as an architect to form the proper methods of billing and legal ramifications that come with owning such a business. She told me what to put into the fee when billing a client; the obvious time and materials and not-so-obvious consideration for when tools wear down and paints run out and things like that.

My goal for this internship WAS to restore a garage-sale Imperial Monterey-style chair for Kate’s personal collection using conservation techniques.¬†She recently informed me that due to task conflicts, I may not end up finishing this project.¬† Katie¬†wants to use it everyday. And boy, it’s¬†in bad shape. Kate and I walked through how to conduct initial client interviews (she was the client) and assess the pieces toward an estimate.¬† Both Kate and Mitchell also believe it is important to do enough research so that you understand styles and/or the history of the items you conserve.

Before I began treating it, I had to fully document the chair. This involved extensive photo documentation. I was instructed to photograph the chair from multiple angles.


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Then I had to take some close-up detailed shots. The extensive photography is important for multiple reasons. There’s the obvious “before and after” shots necessary, but it’s important to note any damages before any treatments are done because if there’s any unforeseen changes during the treatment, the photographs can be referenced to see if such damages were always there, or if that was a new development.


Now from some history.¬†True Monterey, or Mason Monterey, was started by Frank Mason, a set designer in Hollywood for the old Western movies. The idea was that he was supposed to make furniture for the movies that would have been used in the old Frontier days. While he was working on this, he met¬†Juan Duran Tinoco, AKA Juan Intenoche, was a cartoonist¬†who was born in Mexico, but grew up in Los Angeles. Frank hired Tinoco¬† to create the painted look of the furniture and called it “Monterey.”¬† The style grew in popularity and¬†movie stars helped increase its popularity!

The same chair I am working on from the Crater Lake Collection, used with permission by the NPS and MPF Conservation.

Other furniture companies started to pick up on Mason’s success and started their own lines of Monterey furniture as well.¬†¬†¬†Coronado, Del Rey, and Imperial were among the companies that followed Mason’s trend.¬† Sometimes, the same artists would work on both styles.

The chair I’m working on is Imperial Monterey¬†.¬†¬† The Imperial furniture line shown above and the chair I am working on was made in Los Angeles, California. The line was typically made of mahogany and characterized by heavy iron strapping, with a painted finish similar to Old Wood in the Mason line, using rottenstone as a grain filler.

During the assessment, when I turned it over, there was orange crusting at the bottom, somebody stuck chewing gum under the seat, and the leather strapping was suffering from leather rot, which leaves reddish residue and powders the leather.  This leather condition is unusable, and even had straps missing.  need to completely replace it.  I was scared to pack it around so much.

My next step is to excavate the chair, or “turn it into a pile of sticks” which is not far from the truth, in that I have to remove all leather, and then disassemble the chair in order to repair compromised joints in order to stabilize the frame.



There’s been several areas with epoxy from past “repairs,” and I came to find out later that there were a bunch of extra nails hammered into the chair that are interfering with a smooth restoration process that need replaced. ¬†I spent the first day of my internship removing the leather, but not before marking the areas where the new leather will have to be placed.


Remember when I said photography was important? Because, the second week, I had to take the entire chair apart turn it into rubble. While I did this, I took numerous shots of the process. This proves to a potentially skeptical client that you took the time to take the chair apart and diagnose everything about it. More will be elaborated on next post…