The Environment Matters, Even for Conservators

With technology and science in conservation evolving so quickly, sometimes it’s difficult to imagine that frequently the best solution for a project comes from nature itself.

The sun, our planet’s life-giver, emits UV rays that are invaluable in restoration. Here are three examples where the natural material yields the best result.

1) MOLD MITIGATION

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Darkness and moisture are mold’s best friends. In fact, when a client’s artworks have been exposed to water, the first thing we recommend is getting the item outside if it’s a sunny day. One mold spores form they are impossible to remove, but dryness and UV light can help stop mold from developing further.

2) LIFTING YELLOW IN PLASTICS

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A well-known technique in vintage toy restoration is using a combination of hydrogen peroxide and UV light to lift yellowing in white plastics. Although effective, this treatment is best left to professionals as improper use of these materials can also alter and lift tangential colors.

3) GLASS ADHESIVE

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There is a type of adhesive which is formulated to cure with UV light. The maker Swarovski frequently applies this thin glue to attach many of its fine crystal components. The advantage of such an adhesive is that it does not yellow like many glues, but the strength of the bond is sometimes weak, especially with a surface as smooth and non-porous as glass.

Enhancing the Damage: Part 2

Across the history of Art Restoration, there have been methods that have fallen out of favor. Whether it be for practical changes, changes in technology or changes in taste, there are many things that leave current collections and conservators scratching their heads. One of the most interesting lies in the method of plate stapling, also known as riveting.

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Plate stapling became popular in the 18th century, but examples of it have been seen as early as the first century AD.  The process included assembling the broken pieces, fitting together as precisely as possible, and holding them tightly with twine. Before the advent of the dremel and diamond drill bit so popular for glasswork, “professional menders” would loop a diamond tipped piece around a string and pull back and forth to create pinhole sized holes along the joins. A thin, rigid wire would then be cut and hammered to form a small staple.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe staple was then heated, to make malleable, and inserted into the pinholes from the outside. When the staples cooled, they shrunk slightly in size, causing them to pull the pieces together, creating the perfect amount of tension.

This practice was not in any way thought to be invisible, but instead, showcased and highlighted the repair work. However, since the pieces were held together with only tension, they were often unstable as usable pieces. However, this did not decrease the practice, as it is fairly commonplace for the time period. Pieces repaired could range in value, as women, blacksmiths, and members of the royal court alike would take to the practice of repair.

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However, with the advent of modern adhesives and conservational practices, which can make most porcelain repair almost undetectable, plate stapling became less common in the 20th century. It has only been in recent years, like anything else, that it has come back into style. Over the past few years, there has been a recent appreciation for this fascinating method, as it exposes our past limitations and highlights the strides of the modern era. The pieces are now highly collectible and can be found in some of the most prestigious private and museum collections.

Tools of the Conservator

     When thinking about art restoration, the process can be a little intimidating. The tools, materials and the processes are typically reserved for the conservator and the people behind the scenes. You may be surprised that many of the tools a conservator uses on an everyday basis are common household items.  However, there are also many specialized items that you may have never heard of! Here will will let you in on a few inside secrets, typically only reserved for the conservator the their piece.


Common Items:  

Toothbrush

You know that toothbrush you should be using twice a day?

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A conservator will often use this several times a day, depending on the project. A soft bristle toothbrush can be used in almost all mediums in art restoration. The soft bristles are malleable enough to lightly brush surface debris off of various painting surfaces and canvas textures, without disturbing the delicate paint film. A medium bristle toothbrush can be used for various things, but it is especially handy when buffing or polishing metal. Often, with deep grooves or more ornate pieces, a smaller, more delicate tool is needed to ensure all crevices are addressed. Toothbrushes are the perfect accessory for getting in those hard to reach places. Similarly, a hard bristle brush can be used on concrete or marble sculptures to remove debris and grime from deeper, more porous details.

 

Medical Tape

Porcelain riggingOh, the wonders of tape we use throughout the day! Everyday the conservators use many different types of tape, each used with careful consideration of the project and its materials. In the world of conservation, temporary support and “rigging” is key to keeping fragile joins together, while adhesive has the appropriate time to cure.  The conservator will first assess the exterior finish of the piece, ensuring the strength of the tape is appropriate to keep the pieces together, without stripping any delicate paint or applique from the exterior. With the tape, along with carefully constructed blocks, buckets, supports, the conservator will create a rigged support, allow the adhesive to cure (sometimes up to 7 days!), and then carefully remove all of the support, to arrive at the finished piece.

Hot Glue

HOT GLUE WILL NOT WORK TO RECONSTRUCT YOUR PIECE. I repeat. HOT GLUE WILL NOT WORK TO RECONSTRUCT YOUR PIECE!Please do not use hot glue to try and put your piece back together. It will not work, you can potentially burn yourself, and the glue will glob all over the place. However, much like tape, hot glue can be a wonderful support system for a conservational adhesive that will work at the joins of the piece! Hot glue can be used to stretch across the join, creating tension while reinforcing the pieces. Once cured, the hot glue can be easily removed with a solvent (our little secret 😉 ) , and the piece is unaffected. I wouldn’t suggest trying this at home, as every object is tested for solvent sensitivity, to ensure all surface coatings are stable enough for hot glue.

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Cotton swabs

Art conservators and restoration shops are the unspoken hero of the q-tip industry. Hundreds of q-tips can be used on a single painting. Scratch that, several q-tips can be used to clean just one square inch of paint film! Loosely packed cotton q-tips are the perfect tool for dispersing customized solvent, while gently absorbing a discolored varnish layer. Similarly, cotton balls can be used across any medium to gently disperse a cleaning solution, while simultaneously picking up the grimy discoloration.


Specialized Tools: 

Japanese paper

Unless you are really crafty at home, I doubt you have this in your craft closet! Japanese paper is a highly specialized paper that can be used in many areas of conservation. Made from the Kozo plant, its fibers are thin, semi-transparent and  remarkably strong. Traditionally, it has been used in paper restoration, due to its delicacy combined with strength. However, modern conservators use it across the board of restoration. It can be used to face a painting during the relining process, create transition for a tear or even as a structural layer under a delicate mache piece.

Mica Powder and Powdered Pigments

Powdered pigment

For convenience’s sake, most amateur artists are exposed to paint in tubes. This is typically acrylic paint, and while acrylic paints are amazing and are often used, they can occasionally limit the conservator’s palette. This is where the use of mica powder and powdered pigments come in. Mica powder is a finely ground silicate mineral, which, once ground, can be used to mix with a consolidate, adhesive or different medium and used as a makeshift paint. Due to its iridescence,  it is often used for touch ins to metal or to imitate a glazed, iridescent finish. In a more general sense, powdered pigments play a large role in allowing the conservator to expand his color palette. Using raw pigment, which is typically created from ground common and semiprecious stone, the conservator is not limited by the tube, and can work from the ground up in creating the perfect mixture to color match their final touch in.

Acryloid B-72

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I dare you to find a conservator that does not have this in their tool bag. I hate to say all purpose, but acryloid is one of those special restoration secrets that can not be denied. While it is very useful, it does have very specific uses, which should be carefully done by a professional with respect to the materials they are working with. It can be used on lifting paint film, whether it be on a canvas, plaster sculpture or piece of furniture. It will gently wick under the lifting paint and reinforce it to the original substrate. This can ensure the existing material does not continue to fall off the piece, leaving blank areas and unsightly   Also, acryloid can be used as a medium to mix pigment, creating a durable, stable and completely customized painting material.


Now that you know a little more about the materials we use, you have a little insight into the world of the conservator! However, we do see enough home jobs that we insist you not try difficult restoration process at home. Our conservators study for years to be able to use those household tools 😉