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Stone Sculpture Repair

On a few occasions I've been asked to repair sculptures made by others. Mostly those jobs have been simple "glue it back together" things without any complications. In mid 2008, however, I accepted a chance to repair something a bit more complicated.

The sculpture in question had been shipped to someone here in the US from Vietnam, and it had broken somewhere during shipping. As you can see from the photos below, it's a stylized fisherman, and when it arrived here the base had snapped off at both ankles. Given what I saw, there was probably an error in the way the work was secured in the shipping crate, and a bump or twist moved the base while the torso and legs were held firmly in place.

You can click on the pictures below to see a larger version that makes it easier to understand what was going on. Use your browser's back button to come back to this page after viewing a larger picture.

Sculpture arrives on my carving table Arrival At My Studio: Here we see the sculpture in my studio. I'm sorry to say that I wasn't smart enough to take pictures of it at the client's home before we uncrated it and while we moved it into my truck. And, in fact, I missed several other opportunities to photograph it as well.

The sculpture itself probably weighs somewhere between 300 and 500 pounds in total, stands a bit under four feet tall, and the hat is probably 20 inches or so in diameter. I've got it resting on numerous sandbags to keep the hat from touching the table top. In the background you can see part of the engine hoist I used to move it around, and the heavy shelves I keep much of my stone on in my studio.

Sculpture base The Broken Base: This is the base that broke off. It probably weighs something like 70 or 80 pounds all by itself.

This break was a problem in several interesting ways. First, since we don't know when it happened, and it was probably transported for some time and distance after it broke, the broken surfaces rested upon - and ground against - each other after the break occurred. That makes the fit less exact. In addition, we couldn't find any of the small chips from around the outer edges of the breaks that might have been put back in. There were two large chips that we saved, but the none of the small chips we found would fit anywhere I could find. It's possible the ones I needed fell off somewhere during shipping.

Mechanically, this break is also a challenge because of the angles involved. Many breaks can use a straight piece of steel rod to reinforce them, but since this requires two rods and they'd point in different directions, they couldn't be straight or it would be impossible to fit it together. Instead I had to bend the rods so they were straight as they went into the ankles and feet in the base.

Broken ankles Ankle View: This shows the broken ankles from the bottom. Despite the unknown amount of time spent in transit after the breaks, they are actually relatively clean. As mentioned above, some small chips are missing, and the fit isn't quite perfect, but it turned not to be too bad in the end.
Drilling The Base Drilling The Base: Always start with the easy side. This shows that I've been drilling the holes in the feet and ankles to hold the pins. Actually, I'm midway through the process here, as I can see from the picture that the hole around the pin is still a bit tight to my taste. The epoxy I will use to glue things together is stronger than the stone, and I know there will be challenges with the fit anyway, so I will enlarge the holes on the bottom to give me plenty of extra room.

The position of the hole in the right foot (as seen in the picture) is critical too, as the very back of the foot isn't resting on the base. Thus the hole has to be towards the toes to avoid having the pin show out the bottom of the foot.

Drilling is accomplished with masonry drill bits. I start small - 3/16 inch - and work my way up through the sizes to what I need. That way I put less stress on the stone and drill bits during the work. I'm using 3/8" threaded steel rod in this case, and I think I drilled to 1/2" or more on the bottom (here) and 7/8" in the legs.

As it turns out, this sculpture is made of a fairly soft marble, and drilling wasn't all that difficult.

Drilling The Legs Drilling The Legs:

I'm about to start drilling the legs. Note that I've strapped the sculpture down to the table top now. Can't have it move (or fall!) on me while I'm doing this.

Legs drilled, transferring to ankles Magic: This picture shows some of the magic - if you want to call it that - involved in the repair. Once you've got the holes drilled in one side of the work, how do you drill a matching hole in the other side?

My technique involves lightweight paper, tracing paper if I've got it. I put a piece over the drilled surface, tape it down and outline the hole and the edges of the work. In addition, I poke a hole through the paper as close to dead center of the drilled hole as I can. Next I take these pieces of paper to the other portion of the sculpture, line them up based on the outline I've drawn, tape them down, and use an awl to mark the center of the hole for drilling. That gets me pretty darn close to a perfect transfer, and it's easy to use this scheme for drilling bases as well.

Note, also, the metal rod sticking out of one leg. It's already been cut to length and bent to the approximate angle needed so that the portion that sticks out is parallel to the other rod. That's what makes it possible to assemble the pieces.

Gluing Gluing: Here we see the actual piece while the epoxy is curing. With the help of a friend, I lifted the sculpture off the carving table using the engine hoist, padded it heavily, turned it vertically, and lifted it over the base.

I used a stiff epoxy putty to hold the pins in position in the legs, and a two ton, long cure, liquid epoxy to hold the pins in the base and the broken surfaces together. The engine hoist is just there out of paranoia now; the straps are just barely loose. The sculpture is actually standing on its own.

I should mention that we did a couple of test fittings to be sure things would work, that the holes were really aligned, and that the pins were bent at the proper angles. This repair was complex enough that tweaks were needed, but nothing major.

The sculpture sat like this for a full 24 hours to let the epoxy cure to full strength before I removed the straps and took off most of the padding.

Spill Prevention Spill Prevention: I used quite a bit of epoxy in this job, as I had only one chance to get it right. (Other repair or base mount work can be easier, and if you're short on glue you can simply pull it apart and add more before the epoxy sets. For obvious reasons I didn't want to do that in this case.) As a result, I covered the base with paper and electrical tape so any excess epoxy wouldn't bind to the sculpture and could be removed easily. I was a pretty good estimator, though. Not much epoxy actually overflowed.

For the curious - or the critical professional - I know there are epoxies specially made for stone that can be colored to match, but in this case they weren't needed. The stone varied in color a bit and it already had dark lines in it in various places, so the epoxy joint wasn't going to show all that much in any case. Even the tendency of standard epoxies to yellow with age works in our favor here, given the color of the stone.

Once this cured completely I glued in the two large chips we had, and touched up the breaks with a bit of polyurethane, since the original stone had been sealed with some kind of glossy sealer.

Installed At Home Installed At Home: Here's another place where I missed photo opportunities. I transported the stone to my studio on its back, but it went home upright, in its shipping crate, and very securely strapped down.

The engine hoist got it on and off the truck, and a hand truck got it into the house. I'd felted the bottom of the base while working on it as well, to keep it from scratching floors, and with a handful of family helpers we got it positioned where the client wanted it. The fishing pole and fish were installed, and the job was done.

This turned out to be a fair bit more work than I originally anticipated, and its completion was delayed by a local event - the Summit Fire, which burned just 6 or 8 miles away from my studio. But it is done now, and the client is happy with the work. Unless someone points it out or you're making a very close examination of the stone, you probably won't notice it was broken.

If you have a stone sculpture in need of repair, live in the Bay Area, and are interested in talking with me about getting it fixed, please use the "Contact" button above to get in touch.