If the sound of breaking china—a much-loved cup, saucer, or plate—makes you immediately fear how much it will cost to replace it, then you have help at hand, beyond the usual dustpan and brush.
Follow our experts’ tips for seamless porcelain repair or embrace the Japanese art of “kintsugi” to create “new” pottery.
A big fan of making and repairing is Emma Bradshaw, who has made ceramic conservation her business at Bradshaw Ceramic Restoration in Newport, Essex.
It handles up to 300 projects a year, from a £5 broken Queen Elizabeth II Silver Jubilee mug or £20 favorite vase to £10,000 hand-painted plates by artist Grayson Perry.
She says if pottery chips or breaks, there’s no need to just throw it in the trash.
Expert help: Journalist Toby Walne visited ceramics restorer Emma Bradshaw (pictured together), who handles up to 300 projects a year in her studio in Essex.
Bradshaw says the price of a favorite piece of pottery is often less important than its sentimental value.
One of his favorite memories is of a director who arrived with a shopping bag full of broken pottery (up to 50 pieces) that used to be a five-inch vase but had accidentally fallen off a window sill.
She says: ‘His wife, who had died a couple of years before, had done it. The restoration bill for this pottery was £1,000, but she cried with gratitude because she believed this piece could never be repaired.’
Bradshaw says there has been a growing trend of people coming to fix DIY repairs carried out during the Covid lockdown.
Ornate pieces, including plates and cups kept in display cases, are going out of style.
But there is a growing trend of early and mid-20th century vases made in simple, clean styles, from artisan potters like Lucie Rie to makers like Moorcroft, that customers want to restore.
‘Ceramics with sentimental or monetary value can usually be repaired. Anyone can try it if they’re confident, although they should also be aware that it requires a certain level of skill and not just a squirt of super glue.’
If the items are regularly used as cookware (and could be used to hold hot liquids or washed in the dishwasher), they should be replaced.
The best glue for ceramics is usually a two-in-one epoxy, not a superglue, because it provides a firmer hold and allows you at least four minutes to make sure the pieces are properly aligned rather than rushing to do it in seconds.
Pottery restorer Lakeside Pottery recommends a brand such as PC-Clear which can be purchased from a website such as Amazon for £9. Does not yellow over time.
Ms Bradshaw says: “Most people put on too much glue at first, so you may want to practice on other pieces of pottery first.”
It’s a skill that has taken me 30 years to perfect.’ Often add a powdered color pigment to match the color of the glue to that of the ceramic at this stage. They can be purchased from an art store, such as Jackson’s, for around £2.
Patience and a good eye are required when mixing, and a toothpick can be used as a tool to apply the glue.
Toby puts the finishing touches on his repaired bowl. Color powder pigment can be used to match the color of the glue to the ceramic.
You can speed up the drying process by placing the pottery about four inches from a 60-watt lamp, according to Lakeside Pottery.
You may also want to hold the pieces together while you dry using £3 painter’s tape, depending on the size of the object.
For larger chips or cracks, also consider a professional filler, such as a PC-11 epoxy paste (£8). Another is Milliput epoxy putty (£5) which comes in a variety of colors and can also be mixed with powdered color pigments to match the tone of the ceramic.
After at least 24 hours you can gently sand the treated area. Coarse grit sandpaper would scratch any glaze. Rub with a wet-dry 400-grit sandpaper moistened with water, followed by a softer 2000-grit paper. They can be purchased at Halfords for £1 a sheet.
If you have decoration on the piece, combine it using modeling paints, such as Humbrol pots £1.25. To mix with a ceramic glaze, a £7 clear glaze from an art store can provide the finishing touch.
How to undo a failed fix
One of the biggest challenges a professional like Ms. Bradshaw faces is undoing previous DIY repair attempts. Excessive application of glue is the main culprit.
Mrs Bradshaw says: ‘A mistake of mine is undoing the damage caused by a previous solution. It can take twice as much time and cost as a repair from scratch.’
A typical repair charge from a professional like Ms Bradshaw starts at £120, but can be £200 or more.
The first task is to put the ceramic in hot distilled water (about 60 degrees Celsius) because this warms the old glue so that it softens and is easier to remove. You can buy distilled water from a pharmacy for around £6.
Then you must carefully separate the broken pieces and remove the old glue. A scalpel knife tool for £5 can scrape off any remaining glue.
Nutty: If items are regularly used as kitchen utensils, and could be used to hold hot liquids or placed in a dishwasher, they should be replaced.
Next, use acetone, a clear nail polish remover, and rub along the broken edges to dissolve any remaining dirt with cotton swabs. Boots sells 50ml of acetone for £3.
You can also rub the sides of broken ceramic even if you haven’t previously glued it to ensure the piece is clean and ready for a professional repair.
There are many online YouTube tutorials that can help, including the one from Lakeside Pottery, which suggests wiping down surfaces with a clean cloth moistened with about 90 percent alcohol. These antiseptic alcohol solutions can be purchased for £7.
Bradshaw says a simple chip or crack can turn a £1,000 vase into something worth a fifth of its value, perhaps £200. Try to repair it yourself and it may be only worth £50.
With a major professional restoration, you may not be able to restore it to its former glory, but you could still preserve a piece of pottery worth between £600 and £700.
The Japanese art of ‘kintsugi’ (pronounced ‘kindsugee’) involves transforming an old broken pot, plate or cup into a work of art.
Breaks, cracks and chips are shown as a virtue and not as defects to hide. The Japanese term roughly translates to “unite with gold.”
You don’t need to melt the family jewels, just use a glue that resembles the precious metal, or perhaps silver, if you prefer.
You can buy kits from as little as £30, like at the Design Museum in London.
These packs include glue, putty, gold dust, a paintbrush, and bamboo mixing sticks, and can be used with up to ten broken pots, so you can practice on old trash first.
As with any repair, it is for decorative purposes only, so cups for hot drinks and plates and bowls that could be thrown into the dishwasher are not suitable for kintsugi.
The good news is that you don’t have to worry about making mistakes; after all, this is art. But YouTube channels, like Traditional Kintsugi Tutorial, provide a fun way to learn more about celebrating old broken pots.
The glue traditionally used is mugi urushi, usually a mixture of flour and tree sap. It follows the Japanese concept of ‘wabi-sabi’ which encompasses all of nature and finds beauty in imperfection.
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