OLD GOLF CLUBS: THEIR RESTORATION AND CLEANING
Old hickory shaft golf clubs are often found in a sorry state, rusty and tattered, in sheds, garages and at auctions and clearance sales. The collector or dealer is usually faced with the need to restore them to some semblance of their original condition, but there is no clear consensus on how far this restoration should go. In this article I discuss the problem and suggest some guidelines to work by.
Most old golf clubs are found after years of neglect spent in sheds, garages, attics or "under the house". While some may be in good condition, many are in a lamentable state: head corroded, spattered with paint, the shaft grimy and cracked, and the grip (if any) in tatters. Some of these clubs may be eminently collectible and just about anything is saleable, but the condition in which they are found often detracts seriously from their value. It takes skill, time and money to restore them, and it may not be cost effective for most dealers to do anything but the most rudimentary cleaning. This has a lot to do with profit margins.
It is widely thought that old hickory shaft golf clubs are scarce and therefore valuable. Most are found in a poor condition and therefore look very old, but in most cases they are just neglected. Some clubs made before 1900 do indeed command high prices, but golf became a worldwide passion in the present century and many millions of clubs were made with hickory shafts between 1900 and the mid 1930's. As a result, most of the clubs one finds are neither rare nor valuable, even when in good condition.
However, as the passion for golf shows no sign of abating, there is a market for most hickory shaft clubs in reasonable condition. There are many potential buyers of old clubs, who, while not collectors in the strict sense, may well be entranced by finding an old hickory shaft club attractively presented. This puts some pressure on the dealer to undertake some form of restoration, to achieve the potential value of the club.
Many clubs are damaged by well meaning attempts to restore them. There is nothing worse than having to "un-restore" an item that has been clumsily restored. More than once I have had to remove superglue or epoxy used to re-fix grips to shafts. Taking off an old grip and replacing it with a modern one is also a bad move. And the inclination to heavily buff or sand-blast a club head, or worse still, chrome plate it, ruins any value the item might have to the collector. The perpetrators of such acts are often amateurs, lacking skills and information on what is appropriate by way of restoration.
To restore or not to restore, that is the question
Given the risk of damaging an old club, the question to ask is how much and what sort of restoration is necessary or appropriate? As a collector or a dealer, you need to decide what to do with the clubs after rescuing them from the shed or junk shop. Do you just keep them in the condition you found them, preserve them from further decay, clean them up but not otherwise modify them, or do you restore them, and if so, to what extent?
In the case of dealers, the answer is often dictated by economics. With very few exceptions, hickory shaft clubs currently sell for between $5 and $50 in reasonable condition. It is simply not cost effective to do anything more than give the item a quick clean up and affix loose parts. Collectors are prepared to spend more time restoring items, but they often have differing views on what should be done, so it is always much safer for a dealer to minimise the work put into restoring a club, if it is likely to have appeal to the collector.
Sources of information
Where do we turn for guidance on restoration? Books on restoring antiques don't say much about old golf clubs. There is only one book devoted entirely to restoring golf clubs, "Antique Golf Clubs - Their Restoration and Preservation" by Bob Kunz1. Kunz takes the view that a club should be fully restored, to as near new as possible, unless it is what he terms a "show club". His views on restoration may be excessive for some collectors, although he is obviously a craftsman. To be fair, his book tends to focus on restoration of clubs that might be used occasionally for golf, rather than "collect and display" clubs.
Alick Watt2, in his book "Collecting Old Golfing Clubs" takes a much more conservative view, verging on the "leave well alone" end of the spectrum. Watt directs his attention to very old clubs as well as more recent ones, so this conservatism is probably warranted.
The Olmans3,4 in their books "Encyclopaedia of Golf Collectibles" and "Olman's Guide to Golf Antiques", suggest that judicious abrasion of club head corrosion with fine abrasive paper is the right thing to do, to reveal the original markings on the club that are hidden by the corrosion. They take an intermediate position between Watt and Kunz, and one which I also personally favour.
Lessons from other types of Antique
What other information is available? Golf clubs are not yet considered among the main stream by writers of books on general antiques, even if Sotheby's are selling some items at high prices, so there are no generally agreed rules to follow. The problem of restoration faces dealers and collectors of any antique, so a guide for the would-be golf club restorer is to look at what is done with other antiques.
There are two classes of antiques that might provide a guide on restoring golf clubs. First there are the "main stream" antiques: furniture, china, silver and gold ornaments and jewellery, and paintings. Then there are what might be called "techno-antiques", or products of earlier technologies. These include vintage motor cars, gramophones, valve radios, typewriters and sewing machines, clocks, cameras, guns, and scientific instruments. Golf clubs fit best in the second category.
For all antiques some form of restoration is the norm. For antique furniture, cleaning and nurturing the surface of wood or leather is usual, to restore some of the original beauty and to protect against further deterioration. The patina of age is retained as it is considered an aesthetically desirable feature in older items. Only when there has been extensive deterioration or damage is major restoration normally undertaken. In restoring furniture it is important to avoid removing the distinction between a genuine piece and a modern reproduction. The patina generally provides most of this distinction. The patina cannot easily be faked, so apart from the aesthetics, it is also a good indicator of a genuine antique.
The convention for restoring the metal parts on items of antique furniture suggests what might be appropriate for golf club restoration. Ferules around table legs, and hinges, knobs and handles on cabinets etc are cleaned of corrosion and polished, but without making them look like modern replacements. The aim is to make it look as if the piece has been cleaned and maintained throughout its life, but that the metal parts are original.
Techno-antiques present a different situation to antique furniture. They don't make reproductions of HMV gramophones or Model-T Fords, so a perfectly restored original is completely acceptable. There is no doubting its provenance, regardless of how well restored it is. Techno-antiques also differ from main stream antiques in that owners have discarded them after replacing them by later technology products. As a consequence their condition is usually poorer than for conventional items of the same age, making restoration more desirable.
Restoring younger techno-items to their original condition is more usual than for older items. Indeed age may be the determining factor in whether an object should be restored to original condition. However, there are certain practices that have emerged for different types of antique item.
It is a rule to return vintage cars to original condition. This sometimes involves major restoration, renovation or even replacement of leather, wood, metal parts and paintwork. The object is to re-create the original. The same is true for vintage radios and gramophones. Restorers try to use original parts, but modern replica parts are acceptable when the originals are not available. Metal work is restored, parts re-plated, fabric and wooden surfaces are restored to new condition, decayed elements (rubber, leather, fabric) are replaced, rust removed and paintwork repainted.
In the case of gramophones, certain original elements are considered important, such as the transfer trade marks, the inscriptions and details on the metal work. However, full re-plating of nickel or chrome plated parts is quite usual where these have corroded or peeled off. The aim is to restore the unit to its original function and to its original appearance as far as possible. Really old items such as the "His Master's Voice Dog" variety, dating from 1900 or earlier, would normally only be restored as much as necessary, with corrosion of metal work removed and wood surfaces renovated.
Likewise it is acceptable to remove corrosion on old guns, such as the American Civil War pieces that turn up occasionally in Australia. The objective here is to return them to a "fully maintained" appearance, while not removing the patina if at all possible. I believe the same approach is entirely appropriate with golf clubs.
Paintings are an example of antiques where restoration has always been acceptable and desirable, regardless of age.
Which parts are important?
A consideration in restoring an antique is to decide which parts are critical to its value. In the case of a golf club, the head is most important, followed by the grip and shaft. If you are going to restore a club, it is vital to make the right decision on how to restore the head. Cleaning the shaft and fixing up the grip are likely to be less contentious and less likely to cause dispute among collectors.
How far to go?
In any restoration, there are two extremes one can follow. One is to do as little as possible - the "minimalist" approach -, the other is to do a complete job. To some extent the type and age of the antique determine where in that spectrum the right choice lies.
Deciding this for a golf club is partly a practical matter and partly a question of fashion. It seems that the minimalist approach is the current fashion: do as little to them as possible. But the point here is that it is just fashion, and there's no "holy writ" about the practice.
Golf club collectors seem to have adopted the minimalist approach. There are two possible reasons for this. The first is that the practice for really old golf clubs in overseas collections is to leave them as they are. They look old because they are old. The second is that many collectors are uncertain how to restore a club without damaging it.
The first reason does not justify the same practice with more modern clubs (post 1900). The second is perfectly understandable. Minimising restoration is probably a good idea where a collector does not have the skills necessary to do the job properly. For example, the last thing to do with an old rusted golf club is to subject it to sandblasting or a heavy buffing with a coarse wire buffing wheel. This gets rid of the rust but puts in peril the detail on the face and back of the club. The details can never be brought back.
A case against the "minimalist" approach
Is the "minimalist" approach necessary for old golf clubs, or would it be better to undertake some form of preservation, cleaning or restoration? Some may disagree, but I believe that to leave the head of an old golf club in "as is" condition, or to do very little to it, is not to obtain the maximum aesthetic pleasure from the item. In fact it often hides details that might otherwise be viewed and enjoyed. It may also make the difference between knowing the provenance of a club and having no idea.
A club whose head is dark with rust could be over a hundred years old or it could date from the 1930s, but have been allowed to rust away in moist coastal air. Even a careful inspection for markings won't necessarily tell you what you've got.
The benefits of restoration
Part of the joy of owning an antique is to recover some of its original beauty, while maintaining the antique appearance. The rich yellow colour and grain of the hickory shaft and the details of the Cleek Maker's mark are both important aesthetic elements in an old golf club. Leaving a club with its head black and rusted, its shaft grimy and its grip in tatters, in the same condition as when it "came out of the shed" is to miss out on these joys. Maybe the thrill of collecting is there, but the aesthetics of the original club as a work of the club-maker's art is definitely not.
I think that the case for restoring golf clubs can be justified in three sentences, as follows. There is nothing particularly attractive about corrosion. It is not the result, like the patina on antique furniture, of many years of use, but rather the result of many years of neglect. A working club, like a working firearm, is not allowed to rust.
Another way in which the corrosion on a club head differs from the patina on furniture is that with a bit of skill, it can be faked. In other words, you can make an iron club look any way you want it to. The extent or appearance of corrosion is not a useful means of identifying a genuine article, unlike patina on antique furniture. Identifying and dating golf clubs requires a detailed knowledge of club shape, inscriptions and trade marks. This is part of the fun of collecting clubs. Many clubs with trademarks, logos and inscriptions stamped by hand were not fully or well impressed into the metal of the head. Many have been cleaned with abrasive cloth by caddies in years past, wearing away the cleek marks. With corrosion over the years, these marks become even more indistinct. Leaving the club head covered with rust can often hide what remains of the details needed to identify its age and origins. This is perhaps the strongest argument for proper restoration.
I conclude that there are certain guidelines that can be applied to restoring old golf clubs. Those that follow are derived from my personal experience in restoring/cleaning some hundreds of clubs. While I take responsibility for them they are nonetheless based on discussions with specialist dealers and other collectors, particularly Leon Rowbell and Harold Crosling in Melbourne, and the published views of Alick Watt, Bob Kunz, the Olmans and David Stirk and Ian Henderson.
The guidelines describe a "maximum restoration" case and should be applied with more caution, the older the club. I suggest that they only be adopted fully for clubs less than eighty or ninety years old. Clubs older than this should be kept closer to "as-is" condition, with action taken only to remove the worst of the corrosion, prevent further deterioration, clean the shaft and re-fix the grip if loose.
The following are presented as a guide and as the basis for debate:
(b) Grip and shaft
Finally, all antique restoration is a matter of choice and aesthetics. The fashions that dictate these change over the years. The best guide is to treat the club in a sensitive way. The art of the club maker should be revealed, but without attempting to portray the club as "just off the showroom floor". The restored item should be a source of education and pleasure for future generations of collectors as well. Our restoration efforts will be judged by them, and our mistakes harshly judged.
Bob Kunz, Antique Golf Clubs - Their Restoration
and Preservation, The Golfworks, Newark Ohio, 1990
Copyright © 1993 David C Nicholls