Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Roundhouse Objects Conservation - Nov. 27, 2012

November 27, 2012

Metal Objects Cleaning

Metal objects are challenging to clean.  There are several examples as part of the railway roundhouse collection that I can prepare for long term storage and display.  Two of them at least at first appear particularly difficult but in the end are not so hard to do.  In this post I will show you how this can be done.  There are two steps to this process: 1) cleaning and 2) preventive maintenance.  I will concentrate on the cleaning in this post and discuss the second step in a later post.  The metal objects all have some corrosion products (rust) in various degrees.  When I say difficult I mean that they are heavily corroded.  Why clean them at all?  It is to reveal any markings such as makers marks, copyright marks, registration numbers and so on.  All of which will help us to date them and determine how they were made and used.

Keep in mind that I will avoid the use of chemicals in the cleaning process and prefer to use mechanical means.  Therefore, the tools I use in cleaning these are as follows:
  • brushes: usually a toothbrush with stiff bristles for removing dust and smaller material,
  • picks: usually toothpicks and shish-kabob sticks for scraping (to avoid scratching),
  • scalpel: usually used to pry off loose material

Padlock - before cleaning
Padlock - after cleaning, closeup

The object on the left is a padlock used by the railroad. We know from other examples in much better shape that there is usually embossed lettering on the key hole cover which runs vertically down the centre of the main body of the lock. It is obscured and unreadable in the photograph on the left. By using a scalpel I was able to carefully remove large chunks of corrosion material to reveal the marking as shown on the right in a close-up photograph. I used the toothbrush to remove dust and other smaller, loose material to make the lettering even more visible. The embossed letters "CPR" vertically down the key hole cover can clearly be seen.

Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) on November 13, 1911 leased the operations of the Dominion Atlantic Railway (DAR, incorporated on October 1, 1894) effectively taking ownership, although DAR maintained its own identity for most of its existence.  Therefore we can date this padlock to sometime after 1911.  Eventually all (or most) padlocks with the letters DAR were replaced with CPR lettering.  There is also a registration number on the back of the hasp (not shown here).

The photograph below shows the material removed, the tools used (toothpicks and shish-kabob stick not shown), and the end result - a cleaned up padlock.

Conservation Tips: Be very careful when using sharp tools such as a scalpel (besides the ever present safety issue) by keeping in mind that it is very easy to scratch the metal object.  I carefully used the scalpel to pry material loose not to scrape it.  That is, I insert the sharp edge in cracks and pry it up, leveraging the blunt edge.  The photograph above shows several very large pieces that came loose.  Certainly, it is more time consuming to do it this way but I find that a combination of prying carefully followed by brushing with the toothbrush works best and alternating this back and forth as many times as needed for the desired result. The wooden picks can be used for scraping but again, be careful.  In this example, the corrosion was generally very loose and relatively easy to remove.  Consult a conservator to determine how far to go with the removal of corrosion who will remind you that scratches may result if you go too far.  The next step is to coat the object with museum grade wax to prevent further corrosion by sealing it off from contact with moisture.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Roundhouse Objects Conservation - Nov. 20, 2012

November 20, 2012

Glass Objects Cleaning

There were several bottles recovered from the railway roundhouse demolition that required cleaning to remove soil and sand deposits both inside and out.  I show an example in this post of what can be done to prepare these for storage and display.  The photograph below, on the left is of a Watkins bottle with the phrase "Container Made in USA" on the bottom underside and "Watkins" in raised letters vertically on one side.  There is a lot of soil and sand mostly on the inside in hard to reach places but also on the outside around the neck, bottom, and raised lettering.  The challenge was to clean up as much of that material as possible.  This prepares the bottle for storage so loose material will no longer fall off due to handling and makes it more presentable for display purposes since the raised lettering and any other embossed marks become more visible.  The following is a list of tools and materials used in the cleaning process:
  • several wooden toothpicks and a shish-kabob stick
  • one tooth brush with soft bristles
  • several Q-tips
  • two soft cloths, cotton
  • one nail file
  • 1/4 teaspoon Orvus soap paste
  • one cup distilled water
Watkins bottle before cleaning
Watkins bottle after cleaning
I used toothpicks to gently pry all the loose soil and sand around any crevices such as at the neck, the bottom and around the raised lettering.  Toothpicks are used because they will not scratch the surface of the glass and the sharp points can reach into very small crevices.  I used Orvus soap and distilled water (discussed in previous posts) with a soft cloth to wipe off the exterior followed by a rinse with distilled water and a different soft cloth.  To get the material from the inside I first used a wooden sish-kabob stick to get into as many of the interior cracks and corners to loosen up the soil and sand.  I then used q-tips attached to the end of the stick to reach the hard to reach sloped parts just inside the top.  The q-tips are cut in half in the middle, attached to the stick and bent back so that when you push them through the neck they will open up enough to rub around the inside loosening the material found there.  The loose material is dumped out of the bottle and then the inside is rinsed with distilled water.  The last step is to rub all around the interior with more q-tips to remove any sheen of dirt or other bits left behind.  I did not use a bottle brush for the simple reason that this is a square shaped bottle.  Bottle brushes are more effective with round bottles.  The photograph below shows the end result of the cleaning.

The photograph below illustrates the tools used in this example and the material removed.  You can see the brown stains on the Q-tips and the pile of sandy soil removed is in the middle.

Bottle cleaning tools, nail file at bottom.
Conservation Tips: I do not use metal tools or abrasive materials of any kind to clean glass objects.  There is a chance that the metal or abrasives could scratch the glass surface.  The wooden picks will not scratch the glass and the nail file is used to sharpen the ends of the wooden picks (they will get dull over time) to reach into crevices to dislodge dirt and to make them easier to fit the picks into the Q-tip ends. 

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Roundhouse Objects Conservation - Nov. 13, 2012

November 13, 2012

I took a break from cleaning ceramics and glass this week to start entering catalogue data onto the Kings County Museum's collections database.  Getting as much information on the museum's objects as we can loaded into the database is very important for anyone wishing to do historical research.  Fortunately, all of the objects donated to the museum from the railway roundhouse demolition came with a catalogue sheet describing the object along with measurements, condition, possible dating, and a few other pieces.  Over time I will add to this information by doing additional historical research, taking high resolution photographs (called record photography by conservators and other professionals), talking to railway objects collectors, visiting other museums with railway collections, and so on.  My objective is to date everything and provide additional resources for those interested in learning more.

We were happy to be able to visit a local collector, Don Foster, arranged by the museum's curator, Bria Stokesbury.  Don has been collecting railway objects for very many years.  He has an amazing collection that follows the development of railways in Nova Scotia.  He has a caboose in his yard that was in use from 1912 until 1976 and which he has done a lot of restoration work.  Because it is mostly wood it requires regular maintenance.  He is a passionate collector with a strong interest in promoting railway history.  Even more importantly to us, he was able to answer all of our questions concerning our railway roundhouse objects and put them into context through his own collection.   We brought with us a box of metal objects that we knew very little about, that we thought were not in good shape and which we could offer to him.  There are two photographs of the objects we brought him that I wrote about in a previous post on October 16.  Here is the link: Roundhouse Objects Conservation - Oct. 16, 2012  (It will open in a new window).

There were several important things he was able to tell us about these objects.  The small bolts with square heads as shown in the photograph below were very important to him to be able to use in repair of his caboose. These bolts are now more difficult to find as they have been replaced in modern times with hex head bolts.

Square- headed wood bolt from old rail car. 
The tool shown in the photograph below was a mystery to us and Don was able to identify it.  It is used to open the bearing box on the axle of a rail car (a small door on the side near the top of the wheels) and then to adjust, remove and/or replace the packing material (with the flat, curved end) within this opening.  Prior to friction bearings it would have been used to make sure that the packing material was in place and oiled properly to ensure it will not overheat.  Overheating could cause serious damage and injury.  It is an object that I will clean up by removing as much of the rust on it as I can and then stabilize it with a thin layer of museum grade wax.

Bearing box maintenance tool in Kings County Museum
Don had a similar tool in his collection and below is a photograph with me holding the museum's and Don holding his.  Don's is somewhat longer, has been cleaned up and the handle is of a slightly different design but it has the same features such as a small tab in the middle of the handle that is used to pry the small door open and a wider, flat, curved end that is used to adjust the packing material.  Thanks to Don we can now make this a show piece in the museum's collection. The likely age of this object is circa 1912 but, I will be confirming this date with future research.  There is a possibility that it could have been hand made.

Comparing bearing box maintenance tools.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Roundhouse Objects Conservation - Nov. 6, 2012

November 6, 2012

Ceramics and Glass Cleaning

Cleaned up the last of the ceramics in the collection and started in with the bottles and other glass objects.  One of the ceramics was a plate that had some interesting characteristics.  It had been broken and repaired with a large crack essentially down the middle.  There are patches of glue that squeezed out of the crack and dried.  This same plate had an interesting wear pattern in the middle which can be seen at an angle with a bright light.  The pattern suggests to me that it was likely used as a tray for a milk or water jug which stood in the centre.  Perhaps the person repairing it decided that it could remain useful even with the effort to repair it.  This is conjecture on my part.  Can you think of another explanation?

The glass bottles are especially challenging because most have small openings at the top and were buried in soil so they often have small patches of soil right up underneath the top.  I used a shish-kabob stick with a cut off Q-tip bent back on itself to reach the difficult spots at the base and the top.  In some cases the bottles were rinsed inside only if they did not appear to hold any special remnants of what may have been the original contents.  It is important to keep any  material which may be original content for future testing.  It is not critically important at this time to determine the contents but we cannot be sure if this might be important perhaps 50 or 100 years from now.  Certainly, the testing if done now would be expensive and would not normally be done by a community museum with limited funding for such procedures.

The following photograph gives an example what should be done with material to be kept.  The dark material removed had flakes of lighter shiny material intermixed.  These were not separated out but just carefully kept and stored together.

Material removed from inside bottle with container and label.

Conservation Tip:  When cleaning any object be sure to keep any material removed which may be important for future research.  It must be stored in a container that can be sealed to remain uncontaminated.  The container must be labelled to clearly identify the object it was removed from and any other relevant information.  Some examples of materials which should be kept:

  • the contents of a bottle,
  • flakes and/or pieces of an object which fall off when handled,
  • threads or cloth pieces from textiles,
  • plant material found on exterior or interior,
  • paint flakes.