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Tuesday 22 November 2016

Repairing damaged African sculptures, made from wood which has been made to look like ebony

Occasionally I'm asked to repair or restore a damaged sculpture. They have needed repair due to a range of reasons, ranging from wear-and-tear to having been knocked over by someone's mother-in-law!

These two racing male cheetahs, 90 cm (3 feet) long, were carved in Tanzania and had been damaged in transit to the UK. Although the wood looks superficially similar to ebony, it is actually another kind of timber (probably Ironwood [Olea capensis] or Bleedwood [Pterocarpus angolensis]) that has had a dark stain and then black shoe polish applied. This darkening really brings out the form of the sculpture, as it reduces the visual impact of the timber's grain. 

Since both of these are a fairly widespread and common trees in Tanzania, I must admit to being happy that a different wood has been used to make this sculpture instead of ebony. Genuine African ebony trees (Diospyros crassiflora) are not native to this area, as well as being much scarcer and threatened by over-exploitation, so it was good to see a Tanzanian sculptor using what I believe to be local timber.

The tail of one cheetah was almost completely broken off and there were a couple of other nasty breaks as well. 

I really enjoy studying the sculptures to be repaired to see how they have been made by the carver who created them, so that the repair can echo their work as closely as possible.  

Some might be surprised to find out that these cheetahs were constructed from at least ten different pieces of wood, carefully jointed and then held together by nails. This actually has more than one benefit. It means that the carver wastes less timber than if the whole sculpture was carved from a single piece of wood. It also means that the grain runs along each leg and tail, so making them stronger and less likely to break across the grain.

The joins between pieces of wood were also filled with some kind of pitch or resin, which has been modelled in places to follow the shape of the carving. It was interesting to see this, as I've found the technique used in other sculptures from East Africa too.

To repair the piece, I carefully fixed the broken pieces together, with an internal supporting rod if necessary, then filled the remaining gaps with a paste made from wood dust mixed into a resin compound. 

This was left overnight and then any remaining holes or gaps filled with the same mixture. When it was all filled and set, the repair was very carefully sanded smooth and then polished with black wax polish.

It's quite a time-consuming and fiddly job, as the resin must set fully between each application. After the work was finished though, it was great to finally see the sculpture restored back to its former glory. The sense of movement and energy is very well portrayed, which I think is one of the hardest things to get across when removing material to shape a carving.

You may also like to see this previous commission to repair a damaged sculpture by the renowned Zambian sculptor, Friday Tembo. The owners were personal friends of Mr. Tembo, who had since passed away, so this repair was even more important to them. When it arrived at my workshop, the piece looked like this:

It shows a shaman in the act of transforming between the form of a fish and that of a man. The repair took a while, but it was interesting to use this process to study in more depth how this unusual artwork had been made and the techniques that had been used.

Again there was a real sense of satisfaction in restoring the piece, which was heightened by knowing who the sculptor was and how important this sculpture was to its owners.


  1. What beautiful sculptures - you just want to touch the wood. I love the cheetahs' funny 'frown' lines...
    Regarding comments on blogs (ie lack of...) How about changing the settings on the comment section? Removing the moderation option makes it easier to leave remarks, especially when potential feedback folk are probably being infuriated by those photo tests to prove they're not robots. Enough to deter anyone, I reckon! You can always bin any nasties, if necessary.

  2. Thanks for the feedback. I've always been a bit concerned about the spam and advertising just going straight out there, as I can't check the site all the time. Please excuse my ignorance, but if I turn off the moderation option, would I have any notification that a comment has been placed on an older post? Some of the stuff that has been binned in the past really wasn't what I'd like people seeing on here and it wasn't necessarily robots placing it I believe.

    1. Hi Alistair
      I have a couple of African carvings requiring repair. Please email if of interest

  3. Beach-Combing Magpie25 November 2016 at 05:18

    Yes, I wondered about that, but you seem to receive an email, just as you do under the moderation option at present, and then can take it from there. Well, worth a try and after all, you can always go back to the old way if you have to. Quite a number of people seem to do it without the moderation safety net. Any inappropriate spam and ads would be seen as precisely that.

  4. True, I'll give a go and see what happens...

  5. Hi Alistair, is there any chance I could contact you about repairing one small ironwood sculpture? I live in the US, but would be willing to pay and ship. I can’t for the life of me find any services that can repair, but I might just not be looking hard enough.

    1. Hi, Yes, I'd certainly be interested in chatting about repairing your sculpture for you. If you go to my website, there is a contact page there that will tell you my email address and we can talk more about it that way. All the best, Alistair

  6. Dear Mr Park, I have an ebony carving of a warthog with his tail up from Kenya that has two broken legs. I would love to send him to you for repair. I live in California but I’ve been searching for a craftsman like yourself to restore my treasure. Will you repair my friend?

  7. Hello, yes I can! I've replied by email and look forward to hearing from you. All the best, Alistair