Conservation of an antique model clipper

Sam Matthews is currently studying for the Graduate Diploma Conservation Studies specialising in Furniture and Related Objects, having previously completed the Foundation Degree Arts – Furniture programme.

As part of his studies, Sam was assigned the treatment of a model clipper, brought into the furniture workshop back in February 2020 by a private client. The clipper ship model was in fairly poor condition, including missing part of its mast and riggings, so posed plenty of treatment options for Sam to consider.

The model had been passed down through the generations of a local family and was rediscovered in the family attic following a bereavement. It is thought to have been made in 1900 by the client’s Great, Great Grandfather, Fredrick Charles Martyn (born 1850) who was part of the Royal Navy.

It was originally constructed using materials including spruce, pine, mahogany, and boxwood, in addition to brass, copper and Hemp.

Clipper ships were built for speed with three masts and a large sail area, thought to be named for the way they were able to clip swiftly through waves.

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Condition

The model clipper was in a rather poor condition when it was brought in. Whilst the hull was intact, the masts and rigging required additional attention.

To better understand the condition of the object, Sam looked at it in three areas:

  • the damage to its construction
  • the damage to the decoration
  • the damage to the surface

The first kind of damage was assessed in the clipper’s construction; this included the masts being broken out from the keel, and the upper fore, main and mizzen masts being missing.

The second area of damage was in the clipper’s decoration, which included broken hooks and loops, missing rigging and broken masts.

The final type of damage was assessed on the surface of the clipper, and included flaking paint finishes to the lifeboats, decking and hull, as well as discolouration and dirt.

The Clipper's condition when received - front view.
The Clipper's condition when received - front view.
The Clipper's condition when received - side view.
The Clipper's condition when received - side view.
The Clipper's condition when received - decking view.
The Clipper's condition when received - decking view.
The Clipper's condition when received - close up of one of the broken masts.
The Clipper's condition when received - close up of one of the broken masts.

Treatment

Following discussion with the client, who requested a sensitive approach to the restoration, a treatment plan was agreed.

The first course of action was to build a bespoke frame for the model to sit in to secure its safety whilst the cleaning and conservation work was undertaken.

Then it was time for the treatment to begin.

Using the miniature lathe, new masts were turned out of reclaimed antique pine, replacing the missing masts. Mast tops were subsequently made, and then the spars were re-attached to the masts in a longer-lasting format. The lower and upper mast brackets were made and fitted, ensuring the masts would be structurally secure. The masts were subsequently re-attached and secured to the keel; with the new masts colour matched to the surviving masts.

The missing railing pegs were replaced, as were the missing mouldings around the deck hatch.

The broken bowsprit was replaced and strengthened with a blued steel rod inserted, ready for the rigging to be attached.

New rigging tackle was made using hemp string; replacing the missing tackle.

The paint work was then consolidated, and any losses filled. Finally, the decking was cleaned and protected, and then once cleaned, the lifeboats were re-mounted.

Continuing care

To ensure the longevity of the model clipper, Sam advised the client that it should be kept out of direct sunlight, within a case to avoid over-handling, which could compromise the model’s condition.

"I feel very lucky to be able to gain valuable experience working on such interesting projects at West Dean College. After seeing the quality of the course, and objects that were available to be worked on, I knew it was the place for me. I've enjoyed every second working on my projects and being a part of West Dean College, and I look forward to the future with the skills I have learnt in my time here." 

Sam Matthews - Graduate Diploma Conservation Studies, specialising in Furniture and Related Objects