What to do (or not!) if you break a valuable ceramic

A guest post by ceramic conservation and restoration specialist Harriet Sylvester of Hythe Conservation

It’s easy to panic when accidents happen, but breaking a precious pottery vase, a porcelain figurine or a ceramic pot needn’t be a disaster if you follow these steps

Remain calm in the event of breakage

In the event of accidental damage…keep calm…PEL and Conservators are on hand to assist! It’s easy to panic when you have just knocked a prized ceramic or sentimental decorative object from its shelf, or perhaps an artwork which has unfortunately dropped off its hook, but the first step is to keep calm and photograph the scene. If you have ‘Accidental Damage’ or ‘Contents Insurance’, photographs prove valuable evidence for an insurer towards your claim for repair. It is advisable to create a file of purchase receipts, valuations and photographs of all items in your possession to make any future claims less stressful. At worst, in the event of fire or theft, they act as a memory point for whole house contents.

Image of a broken ceramic

Image of a bin bag/dustpan and brush

Leave the brush and dustpan in the cupboard

With regards to ceramic items, it is also recommended not to head straight for the dustpan and brush. Even if cracked or chipped, objects may still be of some value and worth the investment of a professional repair. Auction houses can advise clients by supplying an appraisal and valuation report, so don’t in haste throw away something that could still carry some value. Even the very smallest fragments that could get caught in a coarse brush may still be usable, so proceed with caution and care.

Search thoroughly

Become your inner detective and reach for a high-quality bright torch to look under pieces of furniture and across the entire expanse of the room in search of any fragments which have scattered from the source of the accident. We can supply you with the products necessary to come to the aid of an event of accidental damage and to help securely package your items. Small shards less than 1cm and powdered material can be placed into transparent ziplock bags to prevent them becoming lost. You may not have those to hand, so pop any pieces into a tupperware container or sealed bag or any clean uncontaminated container that will not be unintentionally disposed of. Pieces can still be identified and located back to the object during a repair. A conservator’s preference would be to use as much of the original material as possible, so even if you think it’s too small, keep it anyway.

Image of torch/broken ceramic

Don’t attempt to repair - sorry, but it’s not worth the risk

Even with very simple breaks, it is always best to leave any repair to a trained professional rather than trying to fix it yourself, particularly on rare or valued items. Conservators are commonly faced with removing previous repairs where well-intentioned persons have used unsuitable ‘off the shelf’ adhesives and materials which have subsequently deteriorated, yellowed or caused staining. The materials which conservators use have been appropriately selected and their properties tested (for example using the ‘Oddy test’) which are deemed to be ‘conservation-grade’. Materials are then suitably chosen for the type of ceramic or object in need of repair. It’s a complex match of chemical compatibility that cannot be simply answered in a blog post. But if you want a repair that looks great, and will continue to look great, it’s best to speak to a conservator.

Image of a superglue tube

What happens when the incorrect adhesive has been used

I once repaired a Royal Winton Kew Chintz Porcelain Music Box, it had been previously innocently glued together. As the photos below identify, the ‘superglue’ was not an appropriate material to use, had not been applied in a controlled manner, had been smeared across the surface and excess had seeped out between the joins. As you can see, over time this had subsequently discolored and became rather disfiguring to the object and no longer looked its best for its owner. These ‘superglue’ repairs can also fail with little warning, the repair is no longer a repair, more a ‘house of cards’. Failed glue has the potential for the item to fall apart which could cause further impact damage to the object, and risk fragments being lost. Here you can see the difference in the photos between repairs using; incorrect methods and materials, to the work undertaken by a conservator using the correct materials.

Aged superglue repair and conservator's repair comparison

How to pack your broken item for a conservator

Image of someone wearing gloves, holding a conservation tray lined with tissue/plastazote

Even if transporting your object to a conservation studio for repair is short term, the broken object should still be suitably supported and protected. Initially when accidents occur, a conservation tray, which are available in a range of sizes, can be covered with Plastazote foam pads and rings, lined with acid-free tissue to help protect and support the object. These prepared trays are ideal to gather and contain all broken fragments. Gloves can be worn to protect the hands from sharp edges and to prevent natural oils and grease being deposited onto the surface of the object.

In order to transport your items, an appropriately sized rigid storage box or dedicated tray storage would protect and contain the object and fragments against any external forces that it may encounter during transit. Carefully wrap items and individual fragments in acid-free tissue paper. This will act as a barrier against additional robust packaging materials. Acid-free tissue paper ‘puffs’ can be made to cushion and surround delicate areas of the object.

Image of Acid free tissue paper puffs

Layers of bubble wrap can be used to surround the item and give further protection within the storage boxes. Face the ‘bubbles’ on the outside when wrapping as these can leave a ‘honeycomb’ imprint on some surfaces of objects or artwork. Ideally, fill the voids using eco-friendly materials. Being mindful of the environment, it is always best to reduce, re-use and recycle where possible. Businesses are encouraged to use eco-friendly packaging material in parcels which can be re-used as void fill material when packing objects for transport. Boxes should be sealed using packaging tape and have clear warning signs and handing instructions for its contents e.g. ‘Fragile’,‘Full’ ‘Heavy’ or ‘This Way Up’ Clearly label the box with your name and contents. When packed in this way, even if you are unable to initiate a repair immediately, your item is protected from any further damage and ready for when you are able to send/deliver it.

It is always best to make prior contact with a conservator prior to delivery in order to understand their individual process of initiating the repair. Insurance claims may require an estimate of cost prior to commencement of work. You can find a list of conservators on our useful links page here.

Using these approaches above for packaging, the safest method to deliver a broken object is in person to a conservation studio. Sending fragile items by post is rather too risky and best avoided i.e. further damage could be caused in transit, the parcel could be lost or even stolen.. Instead, opt to send via a professional shipping company or courier. However, check whether insurance should be sought to cover compensation, as couriers may not be covered if further damage to ceramic or glass items is incurred during transit. Photograph the object, the interior packaging material and the outside of the box before passing onto these providers and before it leaves your hands! This will act as evidence if a compensation claim is required.

Once your broken item is with a conservator you can take a deep breath and look forward to the repair to be completed, knowing you’ve done everything possible to keep it looking as best as it can for years to come.

> | View all PEL products here

We use cookies for essential functions and optimisation of this website. Please see our Privacy Policy for more information. Click to ‘OK’, or continue browsing to accept all cookies.