Can You Repair Broken or Chipped Dishware?

Fixing breaks, chinks, and cracks is possible, but it can get complicated.

We've all had a plate, bowl, mug, or vase slip from our hands and break into hundreds of pieces at least once in our lifetime. The quick fix is replace it or let it go, but what if the object in question is a family heirloom, gift, or child's work-of-art? It may be time to repair it yourself, or in cases where it's just too broken, hand it over to a professional. Ahead, Forrest Lesch-Middelton of FLM Ceramics summarizes key things you need to know about dishware repair, noting, that "if you don't crave 100-percent perfection, and fancy yourself rather handy, restoration can be quite a fun and welcoming challenge."

Sheldon Ceramics dishes
Ryan Liebe

Repairs to Tackle

When repairing a piece of dishware yourself, "assess what the object is worth to you and if you can live with (and learn from) the result," says Lesch-Middelton, adding that "DIY jobs are often the most fun to do—however, they can end in disaster, too." Of course, if you have all the pieces of your broken dish, a repair is possible, but you need to understand your materials before you get started. "Earthenware is often red, softer, and less glassy than stoneware, which is less durable and glassy than porcelain. The more glassy (vitrified) the clay is, the less absorbent; the breaks are often cleaner and involve fewer grainy bits and pieces," explains Lesch-Middelton.

Safety First

Always wear latex or nitrile gloves to protect your hands from the quick-setting adhesives you'll need to piece a plate back together. If you're working with regularly-utilized dishware, pick heat-resistant and food-safe sealants to increase your piece's longevity. Lesch-Middelton warns against using any "cyanoacrylates such as Super Glue, as they are not food-safe." And, when adhering pieces, work in a well-ventilated area, since some adhesives produce toxic fumes while drying. As you assemble, also watch for sharp edges (where the clay and glaze have been broken) to prevent cuts.

Prepping DIY Fixes

If you're a first-timer salvaging a valuable piece, practice first. "Grab a cheap ceramic cup or plate, something akin to what you will be attempting to repair, and break it a few times in ways that are similar to your more important piece," suggests Lesch-Middelton. Once equipped, start puzzling together the broken pieces on a clean surface. Keep a set of 2x reading glasses and painter's tape or string (these hold the pieces together as they dry) on hand, too. Then, use fine grit paper wrapped around a pencil eraser to sand back any exposed adhesive. Avoid using power tools, like sanders, which can damage the clay and glazed surface.

Beyond Repair

You can repair almost any dish piece to one degree or another, but knowing when items are beyond repair can be a very subjective matter, summarizes Lesch-Middelton. Especially because your repaired object, though strong, will never be as durable as it was prior to repair. "Seams, where the pieces were mended, will absorb moisture more readily and could develop bacterial growth that can weaken joints and be hard to clean," he explains.

When to Call a Pro

Like pottery and sculpture, restoration is a craft, and while restorers will be more willing to take on a risky job, many potters will not, says Lesch-Middelton, who typically rejects these inquiries. "Professional restorers are magicians and when it is an object of great importance, they are worth every penny," he says. To find a good restoration specialist, contact your local museum for a list of vetted professionals experienced in repairing artistically (and historically) significant pieces regardless of their condition. "I have heard stories of pots so broken that they took a year to repair, and have even seen pots broken into hundreds of pieces that were put back together as if they were never broken at all!" exclaims, Lesch-Middelton. "If a piece is of great value to you and you have the financial resources, contact a professional."

Beauty in Imperfection

Lesch-Middelton, an advocate of reusing and refurbishing ceramics, says, "We have collections of broken mugs that are now toothbrush and pencil holders and vases that no longer hold water, but can certainly hold dry flowers and curiosities." Worn-out and chipped plates can even moonlight as wall art. Since handmade pots are not plastic, you can keep and use them for their beauty, sentimentality, or new-found functionality—"like cats, they can, and should, have many lifetimes," says Lesch-Middelton, who finds "joy in the challenge of putting a broken piece back together (it excites my three-dimensionally oriented brain)," encourages ceramic owners to "never underestimate the use and beauty of a broken piece!"

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