Elbow grease and artificial saliva: Boiserie panels being restored

Photo: Charissa Soriano/Burke Museum
Photo: Charissa Soriano/Burke Museum
May 17, 2019 | Lindsey Burns

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 woman gently cleans the boiserie panel with a cotton ball

Conservator Corine Landrieu removing a stain on the boiserie panels formally installed in the Burke Café.

A woman gently cleans the boiserie panel with a cotton ball

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.

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.”

“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.