9 November 2017




Welcome to part two of “Dust, Rust, and All the Rest”. For those of you who missed part one, it can be found here. This final installment will recount the epic saga of Julie vs. the Cow Hair Trimmer, aka my first foray into conservation. During my time this summer as a Curatorial Collections Assistant at the Markham Museum, Janet Reid, the curator, arranged for conservator Miriam Harris (Professor of Cultural Heritage Conservation and Management at Fleming College) to lead a one-day conservation boot camp.

But what does a cow hair trimmer have to do with this? The short answer: it is a challenge I bested. The long (and less conceited) answer: Geared for Growing.

Geared for Growing is the current exhibition at the Markham Museum and showcases innovations in farming. In the museum’s teaching collection is a cow hair trimmer: a device that uses a hank crank to power a hair trimmer.

Colour me surprised when Janet told me she wanted it in the upcoming (now current) exhibition. I’m assuming this shock showed on my face as she told me that since dairy farms have to be extremely hygienic cows need regular haircuts. How does a farmer achieve this standard? A cow hair trimmer.

For a device that promotes cleanliness and hygiene, it could not be more disgusting. It was caked with dirt, rust, and cobwebs.

Photo courtesy of Julie Daechsel.
We brought the trimmer to the curatorial department and the conservation gauntlet was thrown down. Somewhere beneath the grime was a fantastic teaching object: I just had to find it.

In the curatorial armour (aka a lab coat and gloves), I used the first weapon in my arsenal: a vacuum cleaner. BOOM – the cobwebs were gone (and so was the spider that crawled out). With a dry brush, I brushed as much dirt and dust into the vacuum attachment.

The various brushes in a conservator's toolkit. Source.
Next came makeup sponges. The miraculous power of makeup sponges should never be underestimated: porous yet strong, these little wonders are dirt magnets (and cheap too). The trick is to gently sweep them over a surface – try not to rub or scrub as this can potentially damage the object and causes the sponge to deteriorate. And because they are cheap, use as many as you need – dispose of a sponge as soon as it gets dirty or you’ll be spreading that dirt back onto the object. Also, sometimes surfaces need to be cleaned with sponges more than one time – keep cleaning this way until the sponge comes back clean.

Makeup sponges. Prepare yourself for a enormous pile of dirty ones. Source.
To my great surprise (and eventual disgust), what I thought was painted metal turned out to be caked on grime. This grime was a lovely mixture of grease, dirt, cow hair, and what smelled like cow sweat. Once I numbed myself to the smell, scrapping this gunk out became really fun. Using scrapers and picks of various sizes, I eventually de-gunked the trimmer.

Some scrapers. Source.

At this point, the trimmer was no longer disgustingly dirty or smelly. But the rust was not attractive. After cleaning my picks and scrapers, I attacked the rust. Most of the rust was on the trimmer attachment.

The trimmer attachment. It was already broken when I got it, I swear. Photo courtesy of Julie Daechsel.
Usually, it is not suggested to take apart what you are cleaning for two reasons: one, you may not know how to put it back together; and two, once the rust is removed, the pieces may not fit back together. The voice of experience (Janet) gave me the all-clear to remove the screw that held the blades together.

The trimmer blades after being removed from the trimmer. Photo courtesy of Julie Daechsel.
I happily spent days scraping active rust (orangey-brown rust) off the trimmer (it’s not weird that this was extremely satisfying, right?). Don’t even get me started on the rush I felt after scrubbing it with heavy duty scouring pads and fine grit sandpaper.

These were super fun to use. Source.
If I thought old cow sweat was smelly, it ain’t got nothing on mineral spirits. A word to the wise: wear a mask! It removes rust but at the cost of your sense of smell.

And ta-da! The beauty beneath the grime was revealed!

No more rust! Photo courtesy of Julie Daechsel.
Lessons Learned:

· Brush and vac: boring, but effective. Contain your excitement at the sight of a rusty object and take the time to dry brush and vacuum it first.

· Horde makeup sponges: incredibly effective and easy to use. Just change your sponge frequently!

· Scrapers and picks: never try this without permission. Any cleaning beyond light dirt removal requires permission from an experienced conservator. Play with different shapes and sizes to find the one with the perfect angle.

· Mineral spirits (aka paint thinner): removes nearly everything, which can be problematic. Remember, it will remove paint as well so avoid using it on certain surfaces.

· Lee Valley is a conservation goldmine

If you are nervous about conservation, practice on a less valuable object. A great way to dip your toe in the waters of conservation is to try cleaning a demo/teaching collection object: the stakes are much lower.

Finally in the exhibition! Photo courtesy of  Julie Daechsel.
Thanks for tuning in! 

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