Elbow grease and artificial saliva: Boiserie panels being restored

May 15, 2019
Lindsey Burns
Conservator Corine Landrieu removing a stain on the boiserie panels formally installed in the Burke Café.

Conservator Corine Landrieu removing a stain on the boiserie panels formally installed in the Burke Café.
Photo: Charissa Soriano/Burke Museum

 

Corine Landrieu is set up in what is likely one of Seattle’s most regal operating rooms.

Her patient is a 300-year-old waxed pine panel—or boiserie—and she’s dabbing at what looks like a long smudge of “white out” in the center of the panel’s dark wood.

It’s the first layer of resin and epoxy used to fill in cracks and wood losses that have accumulated in the 300-year-old wood of the boiserie paneling that formerly lined the walls of the Burke Museum café. She and her four-person team have been working since March to clean and restore the boiserie panels to get them ready for display in the new Burke.

When asked how she manages to make filler placed today look like it’s been there for the past three hundred years, she just smiles and shrugs her shoulders, “We’re all artists here. That’s what we do.”

A close-up of a conservator's hand holding a paintbrush as they use acrylic paint to repair the wooden panel.

The team uses acrylic paint finished with Renaissance Wax to draw and blend in missing sections of the wood.
Photo: Charissa Soriano/Burke Museum

A close up of the wood paneling with a portion in the center filled with white resin and epoxy before it is painted and repaired.

A hole in the wood filled with resin and epoxy and before it is painted to blend in with the original wood.
Photo: Charissa Soriano/Burke Museum

A section of the panel with a hole that has been completely filled-in and painted to blend with the original wood. Can you spot where the hole was?
Photo: Charissa Soriano/Burke Museum

 

Cleaning with Artificial Saliva
Originally created around 1720 in France, the waxed pine paneling—or boiseries—lined the music room of the home of D.E. Frederick (owners of the Frederick & Nelson department store in downtown Seattle) in the Highlands neighborhood of Seattle. The set was donated to the University of Washington in 1968 and installed in the Burke Museum café in 1975 as part of its permanent collection.

Until now, the boiserie set has not been conserved. In fact, recent rules prevented the wood from being altered in any way. That means no tape, no nails, just decades of pen marks, accidental coffee spills, and water stains from dirty Seattle rainboots scuffing the portion of the panels closest to the floor.

“Some of them come in and they're really filthy,” said Corine. “So the first thing we do is vacuum the panels thoroughly. And then after that we clean the entire panel with artificial saliva.”

Artificial saliva?

“It’s a chemical gel that mimics the enzymes in saliva,” she said. Similar to how saliva cleans your mouth without damaging your teeth, artificial saliva is used to break down the grime on the panels without damaging the wood.

“We go over the entire panels with cotton balls and saliva one small section at a time,” Corine explained. “We clean a section then rinse with cotton swabs and distilled water to remove any residue from the saliva or grime. Then we dry it and move on to the next patch.”

This is not a quick and easy process.

“In the beginning it took five of us three full days to do the cleaning plus the repairs to one panel, but now we are going faster,” she said.

With nine panels complete, Corine and her team will be working into the summer to clean and repair all 21 panels to be displayed in the new Burke Museum when it opens in October. The panels will be installed in the Cascade Room, a free, public area adjacent to the museum lobby, where visitors can reflect, relax and discover the history of Washington’s oldest public museum. 

Speaking through craftsmanship
As a professional object and sculpture conservator, no two projects Corine works on are the same.

“You can see the toolmarks [of the original sculptor] and I really love that,” she said. “If you move your head in the right way you can see the [raised areas] are carved in the body of the wood that the panels are made of, they are not glued on. It’s remarkable how they did this.”

Toolmarks created by the original sculptor visible in the flat portions of the wood around the raised decoration.
Photo: Charissa Soriano/Burke Museum

 

“When I see these toolmarks, I appreciate the talent that went into this,” she said. “It is kind of like the wood is talking, in a way. It’s still so present. You can see the relationship between the wood and the person who carved this.”

By the time Corine and her team are finished, their own voices will be added to the paneling, ensuring that the wood remains speaking to those who view it for generations to come.

Once fully cleaned and repaired, the boiserie paneling will be installed in the Cascade Room of the New Burke.
Photo: Charissa Soriano/Burke Museum

 
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