Sunday, January 27, 2013

Conservation Preservation Restoration

A collector writes;
"I spent several years working as a sign painter and I currently do custom hand painted fire helmet shields. I am also a collector of fire memorabilia and recently I purchased an 1806 fire bucket. I did use a museum quality cleaner on the painted design and it cleaned off a good amount of the dirt but I want to clear (coat) the bucket to not only protect it from any further paint loss but to make the design on the bucket stand out.
What product do you recommend......Do you prefer Damar Varnish or Retouch Varnish? and do you coat then in paint or in paint then coat with retouch varnish.
When there is a significant design left on the bucket and it has become muted wouldn't it be better to just put a varnish on to protect it from any further paint loss?
Thank you, Mike Somma"

p.s. ....the bucket I sent you pictures of belonged to A. Ladd - Alexander Ladd from Portsmouth NH. Born May 9, 1784 ~ Died June 24, 1855 Alexander Ladd was an accomplished writer. He was elected to the State Legislature in 1826-27 and 1830, and held the city offices of Selectman, Fire Ward, and Justice of the Peace, President of United States Bank. On Christmas Eve 1806 (note the date on the bucket is 1806) there was a large fire in Portsmouth Mr. Ladd is credited with having saved items from his church (from the pastors sermon) ‘Our holy and beautiful house, where our fathers praised thee, is burned up with fire.’ Only a few of the pieces of church furniture were saved from the fire, and that by the personal effort of Alexander Ladd, one of the parishioners. The font, the communion silver, one of the Queen Caroline chairs, the books and a few other articles were all.” Alexander Ladd had a brother Henry who had the same buckets made for his home and were decorated the same way - This is the link to the auction photos of those buckets -

Note to readers: Leather fire bucket preservation is a huge topic, one that I cannot hope to answer fully in one blog entry alone. I would have everyone keep in mind that no one preservation/restoration treatment is applicable in every situation, each object will suffer it's own set of preservation issues that need to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. SML

Dear Mike,
   If the bucket is not sluffing material at the touch then my first advice is, "do nothing". It has survived 207 years without our help...the wrong treatment now could hasten it's decomposition. Not having physically examined the bucket I can't comment as to whether or not your cleaning was the right measure to take. I'm not sure what "museum quality cleaner" you used but I can say that the first attempt a professional conservator makes at cleaning a surface is not with a hydrocarbon based solvent. Professional cleaning is done by first testing a small, inconspicuous area with the least volatile of all solvents, distilled water... and no more than a damp Q-tip amount of water at that. If water does not yield appreciable results then the next step up the ladder of solvents is a mild enzymatic solution, namely, human spit. Our own saliva contains mild enzymes that are the first step in the digestion process of food and just so happens to work very well at breaking down common grime. These enzymes stop being active once the moisture has evaporated. This affords a great deal of control in would be a conservation catastrophe to use a solvent that didn't stop activating! No doubt this little trade secret will gross some readers out but to them I would say, even the Mona Lisa has at one time been covered in spit!

To answer your question as to what to apply to the paint now that it's been cleaned; Remember, anything done should be reversible. I would recommend nothing more than applying a micro crystalline wax. The beauty of this wax is that is reversible with an alcohol swab. Should someday this bucket be restored further and in-painting preformed, the conservator will have a simple task of removing the wax with no ill effects. The most easily obtained micro-crystalline wax available goes by the brand name, Renaissance Wax and should be available at any number of sources on line. There are simple instructions to follow on the can.

The best action to take in it's current state is to not handle it any more than is necessary, keep it away from places that experience fast temperature and humidity swings. The best place to keep it is in a cool dry place. Never position an artifact in a window where direct sunlight will hit the object. If you live in a home that has forced air heating and cooling system then take care not to set the object directly in the stream of forced or cold.

Leather, especially painted leather likes the same ideal environment that humans enjoy, not too dry, not to damp, not too hot or cold....aka, the Goldilocks spot!  It's the transition between expansion and contraction that effects the greatest damage to an object and the faster the transition the greater the damage. For example; Lets say you purchase a nice 200 year old painted fire bucket and it's come home with you from a Winter antiques show... Imagine the temperature that day is 10 degrees and the bucket is very cold by the time you get it home. You bring the bucket indoors to 70 degrees and right away you set it on your mantle. What is happening down at the microscopic level is huge stresses are taking place...things are popping and snapping inside the materials of the leather and paint like a microscopic earthquake. If this were to happen only once, the damage would be negligible, but were it to happen over and over again eventually this internal micro destruction will start showing up to the naked eye and the object will be forever compromised resulting in a premature demise. To minimise this sort of transitional atmospheric decomposition one should have the bucket boxed before leaving the antiques show and keep it boxed for a day or two when you arrive home. This 24 hours inside the box will allow a slow atmospheric change of temperature and humidity and will greatly lessen the stress upon the object.  It's very likely that the majority of paint loss and leather deterioration that has effected the bucket illustrated happened when this bucket was stored for many years in a barn, attic, or other such place where temperature and humidity made major swings rapidly on a daily basis.
  Were the leather or paint on your bucket rapidly sluffing off at the slightest touch then nothing short of encapsulating the bucket in a polymer would retard disintegration....but encapsulation should only be considered as the very last resort. Coating, encapsulating or applying "preservatives" to any artifact can drastically alter the appearance of an object and may be impossible to remove and worse, may cause more harm than good in the long run.
  The first law of conservation/preservation/restoration is whatever is applied should be reversible.  All things are in a state of decomposition, even restoration work deteriorates starting from the moment of application. In 10+/- years will the treatment remain stable? Will the polymer or wax or  in-painting applied today darken or change with time? Countless treasures have been lost or ruined over the years by the best intentions of dealers, collectors and even the mistakes of conservators. In my lifetime I have seen leather objects reduced to puddles of goo because the wrong solvent or "preservative" was applied by the well meaning with the best of intentions. I've also seen in-painting that was applied using non-reversible paints that were not only abominations to the eye but were also indelible.

  The most important contribution you have made to insure that this fire bucket will survive many generations to come is the research you've done reconnecting this object with it's human history. Were I a descendant of Alexander Ladd, I would treasure this humble dog eared fire bucket above all others!

In conclusion, I would add that leather fire buckets are in general very stable artifacts and the vast majority of early leather fire buckets I have examined are in very stable condition and with just a modicum of care will be here to be enjoyed for many generations to come. That modicum of care is: Not too hot, not too cold, not too damp, not too dry...and dusted off every so often...just like Goldilocks.

1 comment:

  1. Were the leather buckets stained or anything before painted? I have one that looks like it was painted red and black-but perhaps the black is the natural color of the leather? The inside of my bucket does not show any pitch-was pitch always or only sometimes used?