How To: Repair a silver comb set

February 15, 2012

Q. I have a silver comb, brush and mirror set. The tortoiseshell teeth have fallen out of the comb. (I’m not sure if they’re real tortoiseshell or plastic.) Also, the silver needs polishing. Whom can I trust with a repair?

Rockville

A. The answer depends partly on whether you’re trying to preserve the original material or want a comb you can use.

Natural tortoiseshell, now legally sold only as part of an antique, was always considered a luxury product. So inventors were busy trying to duplicate its properties long before conservationists won a ban on international trade in the real thing. The first synthetic tortoiseshell items came out in the 1870s, according to a primer on eBay that explains how to tell the difference between natural and synthetic versions. (One clue: Can you find a line showing the tortoiseshell was made in a mold?)

Real tortoiseshell is naturally thermoplastic, which means it can be softened by heat, then shaped and even fused. But thermal welding of tortoiseshell is “pretty much the definition of working without a net on a high wire suspended over a pool of piranhas,” according to Donald Williams, who invented his own variation on artificial tortoiseshell in 2002 and works as a furniture conservator at the Smithsonian Institution Museum Support Center in Suitland.

The temperature needed to weld is only a little lower than the temperature that ruins the material, so Williams has never dared to try fusing an antique. Instead, like most conservators, he’d go with the safer approach: gluing the parts back together, even though the repaired comb probably wouldn’t be strong enough to use. Or if the teeth were originally glued in, they might just need to be reset.

If you hire a conservator, expect to pay around $100 an hour, sometimes more. That gets you an evaluation, a solution that’s probably reversible, and documentation of what was done. The American Institute for Conservation offers a “find a conservator” service on its Web site, www.conservation-us.org. You can tailor the search to include only specialists near you who work with metal and shell. One close by is Constance Stromberg of Stromberg Conservation in Bethesda (301-263-9298). Williams also does private conservation work and can be contacted at artisan_dcw@msn.com.

Or, you can contact a silversmith, where the total bill might be $100, assuming the metal just needs polishing, not repair. Silversmiths typically take out the old comb and install a new, faux one (strong enough to use), and, of course, they make the silver look great. One local company that works on comb and mirror sets made of tortoiseshell and silver is Creative Metalworks in Kensington (301-933-1500, www.creativemetalworks.com) .

Have a problem in your home? Send questions to localliving@washpost.com . Put “How To” in the subject line, tell us where you live and try to include a photo.

The Checklist Read Jeanne Huber’s roundup of home-improvement tasks you should tackle in February.

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