Restoring St. Francis's Head


st.francis' broken head
This image shows poor St. Francis's head. Over the years the weather has taken its toll and his head came apart. I have been commissioned to restore him back to his original splendor.

This is my second so-called religious project. Several years ago I was commissioned to restore an altar in a very old Catholic mission church just prior to its 150th Anniversary. I am hoping that this project will be much less complicated.


The piece I am about to descirbe (in some detail) is a very old wooden statue that has graced the backyard of my client for many years. St. Francis has been exposed to the heat, the cold and the humdity for many years. And, as durable as one would expect him to be, one day his head just fell off his body.

And that is how this all began.

Preparing All the Surfaces

The first order of business in any restoraton project is to remove all of the old glue and grime as best you can. This is necessary in order to determine how all of the broken surfaces will fit back together - if at all.

After years of expansion and contraction wood will warp to such a degree that if broken, the probability is high that it will not fit back together very well. With all of the glue removed and all the broken members dry-fitted back together, I will have a better understanding of what it will take to repair this piece.

st.francis' brokena head
This image shows all the glue, as it originally was, on the top of St. Francis's face.
st.francis' broken head
This image shows the same piece as Image 2, but with all of the glue removed.

Dry Fitting All the members

In restoration work, I refer to dry-fitting as my crystal ball because it always reveals how much work lies ahead to repair the piece. I use surgical tubing to hold all of the pieces together because it is impossiblle to hold several broken pieces together with clamps especially pieces that have non-linear surfaces. Surgical tubing is simple to use: Just wrap it around the pieces and tie together snugly. Done! This is shown in the next two images.

st.francis' broken head
This image shows St. Francis's head dry-fitted together with surgical tubing.

st.francis' broken head
Image 5
This image shows the rear view St. Francis' head dry-fitted. Notice the large gap on the right-most diagonal edge.

It is clear by looking at Image 5 (above), that I am going to have some difficult work ahead of me to bond all of the broken pieces back together as they once were. What is not clear from all of this, is that when I glue the right-side member - which is broken in half, I will not know how that new joint will affect the remainder of the joinery. My gut suspicion is that the new joint will make the remaining joinery more problematic.

The non-woodworker may be going 'Huh!' when I say that the new joint could make the remainder of the joints worse. I will explain. As noted earlier, wood has an inherent tendency to distort over time especially if it is continually subjected to the elements. Wood expands when humidity is high and contracts in the dryer months. That said, if a distorted member breaks and it remains exposed to the elements it will continue to distort on its own because it is no longer constrained by its former joinery. So when one of these broken member's are glued back together it will reveal how much it has distorted in relation to the original remaining members.

Glue Alone Will Not Suffice

After close examination of the piece I quickly realized that this piece had undergone numerous repairs. This could mean several things, but only really served to underscore what I was already thinking: Glue alone was not going to hold this piece together based on all of the obvious repairs now exposed.

It really all comes down to the following: Broken edges exposed to the elements are not going to bond back together seamlessly because the entire bonding surfaces do not make perfect contact along the entire seam. Period! That said, I now have several options before me.

Option One
I could simply glue the broken member's back together as best I could and hope for the best. That is the epitome of shoddy workmanship and does not fit my work ethic. Next!

Option Two
I could plane down the joining surfaces so they would fit very snugly and then bond them together. That would certainly be a great idea save for two things: The exterior of the boards has developed a wonderful patina over the years which has revealed the grain of the wood, so having a perfectly flat bond really does not matter in this case. Secondly, planing the edges understanably requires the removal of wood from the edge surface. This means that the width of both boards will be reduced. Further, this guarantees that these narrower boards are going to have an adverse affect on the remaining joinery. While this would result in a strong bond, we still have one more option to consider.

Option Three
This option IMO is the best solution. In this case, I leave the glue surfaces as they are which means that the newly bonded seam will have somewhat of a gap and this will work in our favor because it will match the original patina of the board. However, I will use plate joinery along the edge surface to strengthen the bond. The next image shows how this works.

st.francis' broken head
Image 6
This image shows the seam in question with three #10 plates in their approximate locations above the seam. The plates will fit between the two broken members and will align and strengthen the glue bond.

When seeing a freshly bonded board that has an obvious gap in its seam any knowledgable wood craftsman would suspect a weak bond and rightly so. (A superior bond has no gaps along its entire length.) However, if the bond seam incorporates plate joinery then the bond can be assumed to be a strong and reliable bond. Let's take a look at how this is done.

Because of the shape of the members, I must first devise a way to hold each member in place while at the same time allowing the plate joiner to rest on the member to make its cut.

The next few images will make this clear, but before we begin - we must be absolutely sure that there are no nails or screws hidden in the edges. These could damage the blade, the member or me. A rare earth magnet can quickly find these when run along the edges.

st.francis' broken head
Image 7
This image shows a nail found buried in the edge of one of the members. Most of these nails are not visible, so I use a strong rare-earth magnet to locate them.

st.francis' broken head

Image 8 shows the rig used to elevate the member and hold it securely in place so the plate joiner can make each cut. Two cuts have already been made and can be seen in the edge.

st.francis' broken head

Image 9 shows the three plates in place after the cuts have been made. The tape is placed on both edges and marked appropriately so that the cuts will match on both members.

The next image shows the two members bonded together using aforementioned plate joinery and Gorilla glue.

st.francis' broken head

Image 10 shows the formerly broken board on the right side of St. Francis's head now bonded back together again.

Newly bonded seam with red arrow pointer

Image 11 depicts how the two boards aligned when glued together using plate joinery. The arrow indicates the glue joint.

Looking at the above image its clear to see that the two boards bonded back together in nearly the same plane such as the board originally was. I will admit to 'encouraging' that by clamping both ends of the glue line which helped align them together.

Newly bonded seam with red arrow pointer

Image 12 shows the gaping seam which is at the left rear of St. Francis' head. This is a great example of wood distortion due to age and exposure to the elements.

Just as I suspected earlier, the gap shown above (on the right front) is going to be problematic to repair.

For the sake of clarity - the board on the right side is loose. The front facing board, the left side board and the rear member (the face of St. Francis) are all now bonded together.

Attaching the lower facial Adornment

This is the piece that goes beneath St. Francis's chin. It can be seen at the bottom of the first image above.

Newly bonded seam with red arrow pointer

Image 13 depicts the area beneath the carved face.

As can be seen in the image above the area beneath the carved face needs to be sanded to prep it for bonding. Normally, a light sanding is all that will be needed after all remaining glue residue is removed. The wood is obviously quite weathered so it does not take much sanding get a flat surface that will mate nicely to the ornament.

Newly bonded seam with red arrow pointer

Image 14 shows that the ornament is too long and needs to be trimmed.

The image above clearly shows that the ornament is too long. It will have to be trimmed evenly from both sides in order for it to fit evenly proportioned beneath the chin.

Newly bonded seam with red arrow pointer

Image 15 shows that the ornament has been trimmed correctly.

Okay, the ornament is fitted and ready to be bonded in place. We've flatted both glue surfaces to give us a tight bonding surface.

Newly bonded seam with red arrow pointer

Image 16 shows the ornament bonded in place.

Sand? What sand?

As seen above, several spring clamps are used to hold the ornament during the glue up. A major problem in holding non-linear pieces in place is due to the angle of the clamp against the curved surface. This usually causes the loose piece to slide out of place. My solution to this is to sprinkle sand on opposite ends of the glue surface. The when the clamps are applied they force the members together trapping the sand between them. The coarseness of the sand prevents the loose piece from sliding out of alignment.

Newly bonded seam with red arrow pointer

Image 17 shows the ornament bonded securely in place.

The ornament is bonded with its lower surface flush with the face board as shown in Image 15 above.

Unwarping A Warped Board

Our next challenge is to try and figure out how we are going to straighten out the warped rear member. (If you take a look at Image 12 above and look towards the bottom you will see the bowing of the back member.) As you can see in the next image, this back member is bowed inward quite a bit. My not-so-simple solution is to make the board sufficiently 'flexible' so that I can straighten it out. Once the board is flat I will bond a flat piece of 1/2-inch plywood to it and that will keep it flat.

Why bother to flatten this board?

Now to be clear, let me explain why I am going to straighten this board out. If this board were to split after the repairs I am currently making I would expect to get a not-so-nice call from my client. The call could go one of two ways: She could call to say that the board broke and could I fix it? Or she could ask: Why didn't you fix this board while you were repairing the piece in the first place?

I could go into a long exposition, but I'll spare you. The bottom line is this: The RIGHT thing to do is make this repair now and spare your client the added expense of another repair (that you could have prevented!!) later on. This is a perfect example on how you take good care of your clients. Do it right the first time. Period.

Newly bonded seam with red arrow pointer

Image 18 clearly shows the warped rear member. This warp is going to have to be straightened out before we can proceed with our restoration.

But first ...

Before we straighten this board out we have one small chore to do. Lets take a look at the next image.

Newly bonded seam with red arrow pointer

Image 19 shows that we need to cut along the red line to straighten the edge.

I want to slice off the strip of wood so that I can add a triangular piece of wood to fill the void between the back member and the left-side member. There are several ways that we could do this, but the best way is the way that will leave the edge dead flat. That reduces our options down to just one that is feasible - the table saw. Now because this board is not flat, we're going to have to put our thinking cap on. Let's take a look at the next image.

Newly bonded seam with red arrow pointer

Image 20 shows how we set up the table saw to do its magic for us.

As seen above we have laid the board with the missing corner that we want to trim on the table saw sled. (A table saw sled sits over the table saw and runs on metal guides that are below the sled and parallel to the blade.) The next problem is figuring out just were the blade will actually make its cut. To solve this problem we simply clamp a thin straight board to the blade and extend it over the workpiece to be trimmed. Now, all that is left to do is to align the board beneath the wood strip, remove the strip, power the saw back up and make our cut. Right? Wrong! Remember we are working with weathered stock that is warped this way and that. Let's take a look at the next image to see what I'm talking about shall we?

he red arrow shows a large gap at the rear of the board

Image 21 shows the red arrow pointing out the large gap at the rear of the board.

In short, we need to either eliminate the gap if we can, or make the gap uniform along the entire edge of the board before we make our cut. The best solution is to raise the front edge of the board as shown in the next image.

The above image shows a piece of wedged wood used to adjust the board

Image 22 shows a piece of wedged wood used to adjust the board.

Actually, what I used was half of an old clothes pin. Its wedged shape was the perfect solution to our gap problem because we could raise or lower the board by moving the wedge until the gap was uniform front-to-rear.

Here you see that I have taped the wedge in place

Image 23 shows the wedge taped in place. The tape insures that the wedge will not move while the cut is being made.

The cut is made

Image 24 shows the fresh table-saw cut.

Looking at the image above it is obvious that the gap was uniform, front-to-rear. This means that the cut surface is not skewed at an odd angle along the edge. Our goal was to have our cut as near to perpendicular to the board as was humanly possible and I think we did just that.

What is not so obvious is that I accidently cut through several nails in the process. If you look closely at the freshly cut edge you will see the nails. This is very hard on table saw blades, but that was my fault for just making a visual inspection of the board edge before I set the piece up to cut. I should have run a strong magnet along the edge befoe I began. Doing so would have revealed the nails and prevented the unnecessary wear on my table-saw blade.

In case you're wondering about the weight, it is used to keep the piece fixed during the cut. It also serves to keep the board from rocking during the cut. Yes, I could have used my hand, but for a cut this crucial I prefer a hands-off approach so any hand movement on my part during the cut will not influence the end result.

Now we we must flatten the board

Okay, now our board is finally ready to be 'relaxed'. So just how are we going to flatten this board? If the member were loose it would be a simple matter to run the interior side over the table saw blade to make shallow kerfs (cuts) which would enable the board to flex. But - the board is not loose so we have to go to Plan B. Plan B is to do this the old-fashioned-way: We make the kerfs by hand using a hand saw. In this case, this is the only choice we have.

The cut is made

Image 25 shows the back member with several hand-cut kerfs along its length. These kerfs will allow the board to relax sufficiently so that it can be forced flat and not break in the process.

The cut is made

Image 26 shows the plywood clamped to the back member. Ouch! In truth, while we had to jump through a lot of hoops to get here, the fix was rather straighforward.

The cut is made

Image 27 shows the plywood bonded to the now flat rear member. Once the glue has cured, we'll trim the plywood and we'll be ready to move on.

The cut is made

Image 28 shows the trimming along the top edge of the plywood. Trimming is a slow process, but if done carefully it saves a lot of work later on.

The cut is made

Image 29 shows the opening that we will have to fill with a matching board.

Filling in the gap

Now we have to figure out how we're going to attach a matching piece of wood to fill the triangular gap with. But first, we have to find an old weathered board that will closely match the existing member.

Searching for the perfect old board

This is always easier said than done, so we need to look around for an old weathered piece of wood that will match the grain of our piece.

The cut is made

Image 30 shows an old board that might just work. Lucky for us a neighbor had the perfect rustic piece we needed laying out in his woodpile.

To be continued ....