Wednesday, 27 May 2015




For this Conservation Tips & Tricks post I really wanted to share with you three very cool tools that may not be found in the average conservator’s toolkit. However, if you ever get the opportunity to look in a conservator’s toolkit I suggest you take it. While many of the tools inside may seem familiar such as brushes, tweezers, and bone folders, I guarantee you’ll find some more unexpected finds. In my own personal kit one of my prized collections of specialized tools is a series of dental picks and a dental mirror. 

These have proven useful time and again on a variety of objects, from ceramics and metals to pieces of wooden folk art.  Speaking of re-purposing dental tools, the first tool I want to introduce is a Cavitron.

I was introduced to this amazing and very fun tool during my time at the UBC Museum of Anthropology as their Conservation Intern, during a Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI) Workshop on Wet Basketry. A Cavitron is a dental tool that uses high frequency pulses to vibrate plaque off the surface of teeth. You have likely all experienced your dentist using one. The Cavitron was used in this workshop to lift dirt, mud and silt off the surface of wet site basketry. The Cavitron was the most popular tool at the workshop, due to the almost instantaneous removal of dirt and the Cavitron’s ability to safely clean in between the basket weave.

Cleaning a sample piece of wet site basketry using a Cavitron (Johnston 2012).

We fell in love with this tool so much that we ended up asking CCI to borrow it for an extra week so that I could continue to clean some of the basketry we had on site, as well as a couple of fired and glazed ceramics that had a lot of ingrained dirt in their heavily textured surface. We were all sad to see this tool go when we sent it back to CCI.

Cleaning ingrained dirt from a fired and glazed ceramic lid
with a seagrass textured surface (Johnston 2012) 

My next tool is something that today is quite common. Some of you may even use one on a regular basis, particularly those with pets of the feline variety.

Laser cleaning is a valuable tool for the conservator, providing a highly selective, controllable, reliable and precise method for removing layers of corrosion, pollution, paint and other unwanted surface coatings from pieces of art. Laser cleaning has successfully been performed on objects made of marble, bronze, ivory and aluminum, and has been used to clean prehistoric artefacts, sculptures and monuments. The selective quality of the lasers allows the conservator or technician to remove the unwanted surface layers while preserving any patina, fine surface detail and important surface coatings. The type of technology and laser system used by conservators has been modified from medical systems developed for cosmetic surgery. It is so gentle that it can even remove soot from a rose.

A laser is a source of energy that provides an intense pure form of light that can deliver energy to a surface in a highly controllable manner. Those commonly used by conservators emit short pulses of infrared light, which has a wavelength of 1064 nm that quickly heats the dirt on the surface of the art piece, causing the dirt to expand and come away from the surface. As the light interacts weakly with the cleaned surface, the process stops as soon as the dirt is removed. You can watch some really cool laser cleaning performed by the National Museums Liverpool here

The final tool is really a combination of software and technology that allows us to produce 3D images and replicas. An amazing use of this type of technology in conservation was performed by the Conservation and 3D Imaging teams at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. On October 6, 2002 at 6:00 am the base on which sat Tullio Lombardo’s lifesize marble Adam collapsed, and the sculpture fell to the ground breaking into twenty-eight large pieces and hundreds of smaller fragments. Restoration efforts included the three-dimensional imaging and laser scanning of the broken fragments. The conservators were then able to make models at various scales including lifesize, using both computer programs and physical models. This allowed the conservators to determine what was the best and less invasive method for re-assembling Adam, without causing further damage to the sculpture itself. The incorporation of this type of technology into conservation work is groundbreaking, and for those interested I highly suggest reading the report on the restoration of this piece here. For those less inclined to add some academic reading to their summer schedule here is a summery video of the restoration process.

What I love about these three tools, as well as my dental picks is that the comparison of conservators to doctors is in a way actualized as all these tools are borrowed or modified from the medical field and are often used in very similar ways. So hand me my Cavitron, laser, and 3D imager and call me Dr. Johnston!

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