Wednesday, May 13, 2009


I start every day with 4 chocolate covered espresso beans and a neverending cup of coffee.

Despite that, today might be more of a tea day. Lori's mom will be coming in later this evening and a student from the Anna Templeton Centre is stopping by this morning. For their History of Craft course the students need to interview a craftsperson.

Tea is a pretty versatile drink and contains tannins, which make it great for antiquing artifact reproductions. It will turn most organic materials, especially the more porous ones like antler or whale bone, a warm yellow/orange/brown colour. Its a good match for naturally discoloured artifacts found in archaeological sites. If you scroll down to the previous post, you can see a good range of discoloured organic artifacts in the photo of the bear head amulets. Tea will also turn iron black, which is a useful trick for matching the look of wrought iron or iron that has been treated by conservators.

Most of the pieces that I antique are small enough to fit in a mug, so I just make a cup of tea and instead of adding milk or sugar I pop a harpoon head or knife handle into it. That's how I stained the top knife handle in Monday's post on Dorset Palaeoeskimo knives. Staining time varies from an hour or two to overnight. The density of the material and surface finish determines how quickly it will soak up the stain. A porous bone or rough antler surface will absorb more stain than dense bone or a highly polished surface. If I need to stain a larger object I'm allowed to use the glass lasanga pan. In a larger container I'll use more teabags.

One important thing I learned from tea is that you can't rush the drying stage. The porous materials that take well to tea can soak up a lot of water and take a long time to dry, especially in Newfoundland. I learned an embarrassing lesson when I shipped tea stained reproductions that felt dry to the touch but that arrived with mould growing on them. I can avoid that by letting the reproductions air dry more completely and wrapping them in a moisture wicking layer, rather than bubblewrap and plastic.

For more complex colour matching on artifacts I'll apply ochre and charcoal to the surface. The advantage of tea over those pigments is that its colourfast. You don't need any surface fixatifs or sealers to hold the colour in. With ochre and charcoal you need to seal the surface or it never stops coming off on your fingers and clothes.

Photo Credits: Tim Rast

Photo Captions:
Top: Elfshot reproductions of Maritime Archaic Indian barbed antler spears. The one on the left is natural antler and the one on the right has been tea stained. Approx. 7 1/2"
Middle, left: Iron chisel artifact from Ivvavik National Park, Yukon (top), Elfshot reproduction; tea stained black (bottom) Approx. 5 1/2"
Middle, right: Tea staining the barbed spear
Bottom: Whalebone brace from Ivvavik National Park (top), Elfshot reproduction; tea, red ochre, and charcoal stained to match (bottom) Approx. 9"


  1. What exactly is a whalebone "brace"? How does it function, what is its purpose?

  2. Its an Inuvialuit artifact that is identified as a "reinforcement" in the Parks Canada database. I'm not exactly sure why its identified that way, although one source I've seen suggests it may have been part of the dragging system attached to the float used to slow harpooned whales.

    It may not be correct to use "brace" and "reinforcement" interchangeably here, but within the context of the reproduction work we used both terms to refer to this object.

  3. Wow, who knew tea was a versatile beverage! Great looking reproduction work Tim.


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