Thursday, 19 November 2015




It may be a surprise, but one of the most important skills for a conservator to have is the ability to roll their own cotton swabs! One of the earliest conservation treatments I ever undertook taught me the importance of this fact.

Jar of used swabs tips.
Nikita Johnston 2015
Conservators make their own swabs for cleaning objects because it allows them to have more control over the size and shape of the swab, the amount of cotton used, and it’s also a lot cheaper. Homemade cotton swabs are also preferable to commercially available ones as solvents can dissolve the plastic stalks, redepositing them on the object’s surface.  Cotton swabs can be easily made by tightly rolling cotton wool around the end of a bamboo/wooden skewer.

While completing the Collections Conservation & Management program at Fleming College, each of the three semesters spent in study focused on two specific material types. Semester Two was devoted in part to wood, including objects made of wood or composites of wood. For each material type we were given the opportunity to select, by means of a lottery system, an object that we wanted to work on. For my wood project I selected a rather interesting veneered accessory/jewellery box.

Front view of drawers.
Nikita Johnston 2012
Measuring only 57.3 cm long, 18.0 cm wide at the ends, and standing 14.5 cm on its remaining leg, this small but interesting three-drawer piece proved to be a rather enjoyable and rewarding challenge.

Examination of the accessory box included both 'naked eye' examination and examination under raking light. A more detailed analysis of the piece was done using a magnifying glass and microscope in order to assess the object for physical weaknesses inherent to the piece or caused by damage/deterioration, as well as to identify various components such as the type of adhesive used (e.g. protein based animal glue), and to examine the soiling and frass caused by pests (e.g. insects and rodents).

One remaining leg.
Nikita Johnston 2012
Top view.
Nikita Johnston 2012
In addition to be extremely soiled, examination revealed that the adhesive used to adhere the veneer was dried, cracking, and crumbling, allowing the fine veneer borders to become separated, resulting in some loss of the fine veneer detailing around the edge of the top surface. 

Detail showing loss of veneer edging.
Nikita Johnston 2012
There was also some corrosion present on the drawer pulls, and in the right drawer the remnants of a mouse nest were found and there were numerous insect casing found throughout the piece.

Detail or right drawer, post-removal of mouse nest.
Nikita Johnston 2012
Treatment of the accessory box included the use of nitrile gloves and a mask, particularly during the initial dry cleaning of the piece and during the removal of the frass, soiling, and mouse nest. A mini-vacuum and soft camels hair brushes were used for this initial cleaning. Dry cleaning prepares the surface, so as not to muddy the surface and move abrasive particles against the finished surface during a wet clean (i.e. that incorporates the use of a solvent, such as water).

Following the testing of polyurethane sponges and PIG® PR100 Disposable Polishing & Wiping Cloths, I decided that a wet cleaning of the finished wood would be safe and more effective than continuing with a dry mechanical clean. To determine what kind of solvents I would use, small unobtrusive areas were tested using cottons swab dampened with several different solvents including, deionized water and mineral spirits. Used alone mineral spirits was ineffective, and I decided after further testing to continue cleaning the piece using a 90:9:1 solution of deionized water, mineral spirits (solvent) and Orvus (anionic detergent). This solution was applied with dampened cotton swabs, using a lifting (rather then scrubbing) action, to remove the soiling from the surface without damaging the finish on the veneer. Areas cleaned were then carefully wetted using a cotton swab and deionized water to remove any remaining detergent. The piece was then be wiped with PIG® cloths to dry the surface.

The 90:9:1 solution was used only on the finished wood surface. Unfinished surfaces, such as the insides of the drawers were cleaned using polyurethane sponges in a lifting motion to remove ingrained dirt. To clean the iron drawer pulls a 1:1 water and ethanol solution and cotton swabs were used.

Cleaning unfinished wood with polyurethane sponge.
Nikita Johnston 2012
In total approximately 40 hours, and hundreds upon hundred of swabs were made and disposed of in the cleaning of this piece. However, the results were definitely worth it.

Cleaned! Front view.
Nikita Johnston 2012
Cleaned! Top view.
Nikita Johnston 2012
So, the moral of this story? Besides storing your collections in dust, mice, and insect free locations, it pays to know how to make a decent cotton swab!


  1. What a rewarding project, and a great way to learn all of the necessary steps needed to make it happen - in particular rolling cotton swabs! I appreciated your explanation of why conservators make their own, as one of my first questions when I saw your first paragraph was "but why don't they buy them?" and your reasoning makes a great deal of sense.

  2. The difference between the pictures is incredible! I love getting a peek inside the conservator's world with these project-based posts.