Just bring us the pieces, ma'am

The royal restorers, Plowden and Smith, relish a challenge, whether it's a shattered chandelier from Windsor Castle or a chocolate sculpture suffering from mould. John Windsor visited their workshop in Wandsworth.

Five years ago, as flames destroyed one fifth of Windsor Castle, an ornate Gothic-style gilt-bronze chandelier weighing a quarter of a ton plunged to the stone floor of the Chapel and burst into thousands of fragments. Burning roof timbers then crushed and melted it.

It is now miraculously resurrected. But few of the dignitaries at the Queen's opening of the rebuilt castle today will spare it more than a glance, massive though it is, and conspicuously re-hung in the Octagon Dining Room. That is what the Queen's restorers, Plowden and Smith, intended. They have toned down the glittering new gilt with dark lacquer so that it looks just as it did a century and a half ago - or just before the fire. Only the most observant will notice that it is now lit by electricity instead of gas.

When I saw it after it had been salvaged, its myriad shards - the remains of a central tower, eight sprigs and eight glass globes - were laid out in a corner of Plowden and Smith's workshop in Wandsworth. You could not have lifted any part of it and called it a chandelier.

The fragments had been delivered to the workshop in plastic maroon-coloured bakers' trays. "Very royal," observed Richard Rogers, 39, who masterminded the reconstruction. He had inspected the blackened pile after it had been swept up and dumped into the Royal mushroom sheds. The top and central column were never found. And there were bits mixed in that did not belong to it. Heads were shaken. It was considered a write-off.

Now, after 3,800 hours of jig-saw puzzling, sketch-making, and the casting, bolting and soldering of 450 new bits - all at a cost of pounds 100,000 - it is as if a film of its destruction has been re-run backwards. A replica would have taken less time. But that was not what the client ordered.

"I like a challenge," said Mr Rogers, a silversmithing and design graduate who has worked for Plowden and Smith for 18 years. It is a phrase often heard among the firm's 25 restorers. They have a world-class reputation and are used to being summoned to deal with the little challenges occasioned by wear and tear in the royal domain. The Crown Jewels need re-mounting? We'll be round in a trice. Buckingham Palace's ornamental cranes have developed rusty throats? They'll be as right as rain in days. But it was this one, the chandelier, that gave Mr Rogers nightmares. "It was probably the most difficult job I have had to assess - a heap of blackened bits, and we had only two snapshots to show where they should go. I kept dreaming that we shouldn't have stuck to our guns and promised it could be done. But we couldn't let it go, could we?"

Holders of the Royal Warrant tend to be shy about playing the royal card. When the late Anna Plowden, the company's co-founder, invited me to tour its premises, I was steered away from the chandelier. "We can't talk about that," she said.

She died of cancer in August, but lived long enough to see the chandelier - a cherished project of hers - screwed together ready for electro-gilding. She took particular pride in restoring fire damage. It was something of a hobby horse of hers. "After a fire, in the emotion of the moment, people often say `Let's chuck it out'. It's part of the initial panic. But fire damage is often not as bad as it looks."

We were standing beside somebody's great, great grandmother, gazing balefully from her gilt frame, the oil paint of her portrait stained the characteristic white from water damage by fire hoses. Chemical wizardry would restore granny's smile. The job was estimated to cost pounds 600 - or just over pounds 400 with a bit of luck and goodwill thrown in. The cost to the client is normally pounds 37.50 an hour. The owner had insured it only for its market value - not nearly enough to cover the cost of restoration. The Queen has benefited from such benevolent scrimshanking on costs. Plowden and Smith calculate that they will get no change out of their initial estimate of pounds 100,000. But it's a matter of pride.

In skilled hands (and it is surprising how many different skills the company employs under one roof: metalworking, pottery, carpentry, oil painting), a job may take much less time than a do-it-yourself meddler might imagine. Ken DaSilva-Hill, a 49-year-old former antique dealer who is the firm's decorative specialist, showed me a model of a Thirties schooner whose mast he had re-rigged in five hours.

You can spot trends in the antique market by noting the kind of gear that dealers have sent in for repair in the expectation of turning a profit. Those ghastly spelter (lead alloy) figures of shepherd boys and women archers, for example, would have been junked if damaged a decade ago. Preiss bronze and ivory figures, of course, now worth pounds 8,000-pounds 12,000, are well worth a pounds 500 splurge to replace a green onyx base. But is it worth spending pounds 60, the going rate, to remove a heat ring from that Liberty Georgian-style coffee table?

Some restorations demand the invention of new skills. An English powder horn of 1778 with an engraved inscription "St Louis, Mississippi", together with the name of an army captain - an heirloom with a story to tell - had been crushed. An inward-turning split ran across the word "captain". Piecing-in new cow-horn and re-engraving was unthinkable. Instead, Mr DaSilva-Hill fashioned a pair of wooden jaws, with an expansion screw, like a miniature car jack. He pushed it into the horn and cranked the turned-in edges back to the surface. Then he got out his epoxy glue. Time, not including cogitation: 10 hours.

Other restorations mean stepping into the shoes of the original maker. A 16th century silver mount had lost its lotus-shaped mother-of-pearl inner cup. The client's instruction: make a new one. It meant carving a wooden plug to fit the inside of the mount, cutting from it one of the 10 petal shapes to use as a template, then finding green snail shell with curves that fitted it and cutting all 10 to join accurately. Time: 80 hours. The bowl consumed a shell shop's last 13 green snail shells. Good mother-of pearl is increasingly hard to find - today's ocean pollution means that mollusc shells tend to be smaller and discoloured.

Mr DaSilva-Hill knows where to buy bright feathers for musical-box singing birds plucked by naughty children (trout fly makers) and has discovered a supplier of shagreen, the polished shark or ray skin that covered the barrels of Victorian microscopes. An importer of porcupine quills is also on his list: native American breast-plates are sometimes missing a few.

The new frontiers of restoration? Contemporary artworks. Artists are notoriously unscientific. For example, they have been known to use brass rivets in aluminium sculpture. Result: an electrolytic fizz and unsightly rust, requiring an eve-of-exhibition emergency call-out at pounds 50-pounds 60 an hour. Then there are the conceptual fantasies made from butter, lard, wax, chocolate and other artistic perishables. Remove mouldy bits, apply Milton sterilising agent, slap in the Dairy Crest or molten Yorkie and smooth to an invisible join. No-one need know.

Plowden and Smith, 190 St Ann's Hill, London SW18 (0181-874 4005).

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