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From faux porphyry to paraffin - your elite guide to restoration

How to Restore & Repair Practically Everything, Lorraine Johnson, McGraw Hill, 188pp., $19.95.

How to Restore & Repair Practically Everything is indeed an ambitious title, and like all books which make similar claims, this one is necessarily obliged to fall short of its promise. Thus this American edition of a critically-acclaimed British how-to-do-it guide must be evaluated in terms of its usefulness in those areas it does cover.

Overzealous title notwithstanding, the scope of this book is really limited to the realm of antiques and almost-antiques, and a fair portion of the repairs outlined seem to apply to situations encountered only by the British, and probably the well-heeled British, at that. (How much faux porphyry or antique papier m^ach'e is there on this side of the Atlantic -- and how much of that is in the hands of those who buy how-to books?)

The attractively-designed and illustrated volume is somewhat arbitrarily divided into fourteen chapters, within each one a number of articles describing various repair and restoration processes; neither the chapters nor their subsections are organized according to any fathomable order. It's often possible to get very lost, and the table of contents is no help, either: the chapter called "Cane, Rush, Raffia and Willow" in the table is actually titled "Basketry and Canework", while the phrase "Cane, Rush, Raffia and Willow" incorrectly appears in the folio lines for the chapter on bamboo furniture, some twenty pages away. There is also an occasional lack of translation between English English and American English: what, for instance, is ".880 ammonia"? It's apparently a necessity for making a fumed oak finish, but I haven't any idea what to ask for if I want to buy an equivalent chemical in Boston. And beware: when a Briton speaks of "paraffin" he's talking about kerosene, not the stuff we Americans use for sealing jelly glasses.

Each chapter has its own "consultant restorer", and each restorer's prejudices and peccadilloes are very evident, particularly in the inconsistent threshold at which the amateur is advised to give up and seek professional assistance in repairing items. The section on the immersion method for removing stains from old lithographs and etchings is enough to make any artist or antiquarian cringe, while in other chapters the reader is steered away from far more innocuous repairs.

Still, the individual articles within the chapters are well-written, and include clear, excellent illustrations. The section on basketry and canework, once one locates it, is especially well-detailed; I wish I had had the benefit of these illustrations during the summer I spent at Scout camp twelve years ago learning to make rush seats. Many of the processes (such as stenciling, leafing, d'ecoupage, and various methods of finishing wood) are equally applicable to new work as to repair. Each chapter opens with an interesting essay on the history of the items whose repair is described therein, admittedly with a heavy emphasis on the English contribution. The history of plastics manufacture is a particular standout.

A great deal of information is contained in this book, and clearly a lot of research and design work went into its making; it's a shame that lack of holistic editing spoils the overall impact. There are less lavish, more useful books for the person who has an old Windsor chair with a loose leg, but for the serious collector of antiques whose ivory carvings and lacquered tinware aren't looking their best, this may well be the best reference book on the market.

V. Michael Bove->