In conservation, Japanese tissue is a magic material

Aug 1, 2017

Japanese tissue is one of the most versatile materials in the conservator’s arsenal. It comes in a variety of thicknesses, can easily be toned, and can be incredibly strong. Japanese tissue is made from a variety of vegetable fibers, including those from the mulberry tree. It is known for its long fibers, which increase strength and provide larger areas of contact for adhesion. Conservators use these properties to perform a variety of treatments, from backing tears in paper to fills for wooden artifacts. A recent treatment of an item from Historic New England collections used this very versatile material.

Cogswell’s Grant in Essex, Massachusetts, is known for its impressive array of American folk art, including the many boxes collected by former owner Nina Fletcher Little. The lid of this Shaker box was recently in need of repair due to a split in its side. The lid’s rim is made of a single piece of wood that was originally held in place with four small wooden pins and three copper nails. The lack of adhesive allowed the wood to flex and move as the relative humidity changed, preventing further damage. At some point, however, the wood flexed beyond its breaking point, creating the jagged break seen below.

At Historic New England’s conservation lab in Haverhill, Massachusetts, our conservators used Japanese tissue to stabilize the lid. First, we toned the tissue with water to match the interior of the lid. Then we used an easily reversible adhesive to apply the tissue like a Band Aid across the back of the break. Although the tissue is strong enough to keep the join together,  there was still a gap at the front that would not close. We filled this with more toned Japanese tissue and the same adhesive. While the fill creates a more cohesive surface, it also provides more strength to the join by connecting the two edges.

Read more about Historic New England’s conservation work.