One of the biggest dilemmas when working with artifacts is how to preserve the item for the future. Most experts will tell you to do nothing and cleaning is bad. In most conditions cleaning the wrong way can cause extreme damage. The reverse of doing nothing and allowing the artifact to rust away will, although over a greater time, cause extreme damage. If the goal is to enjoy your collection while growing its value over time, what should you do?
I am for cleaning as long as you follow some simple rules. Cleaning is a long process and any cleaning solutions should be as mild as possible. One I use is 90 percent distilled water a couple drips of Dawn clear dish soap and a small amount of ammonia. I learned how to make this solution from a friend who professionally cleaned oil paintings. Distilled water in 100 percent water with no trace minerals in it. When it dries there is nothing in it to leave a residue on your item. The clear mild dish soap helps over time break up dirt and oil. The ammonia will help with the dirt and grease and help kill any bacteria on the item.
I prefer to use cotton tipped applicators, (single side Q-Tip on a long wooden stick) to clean with. I dip the cotton end in my cleaning solution and wipe in a single direction until it is gray and start with a new one. When I was cleaning a single decal German helmet, we thought it had an army eagle. After three days and over 100 “Q-tips,” it was discovered the eagle was gold for the German Navy and the helmet was more valuable.
Any brushes used must be softer than the artifact. Never use steel or stainless steel brushes ever. Remember when two items come into contact each item will leave something on the other, but the harder item will do more damage to the softer item. So if I am cleaning a helmet I want the helmet to cause damage to the brush. A soft kid toothbrush is the most used type of brush I use. The hardest brush I used on a heavily rusted steel sword was very soft brass with a massive amount of oil. It took over a month to clean the sword so remember it not about how fast. It is about oil; let the item sit so dirt and rust loosen up, remove, then repeat over time.
If you have any questions if something should be cleaned or how to clean it, stop in the shop. We will give you our thoughts on what is best. Last year we had a customer bring a US World War I helmet with white paint on it. He wanted us to clean off the paint. Upon closer inspection, we could tell the paint was part of a camouflage pattern that was original to the war. We showed him how to clean the dust and dirt buildup over time. The helmet is now a key part of his collection and he is thankful he did not attempted to remove the paint. Until next month thank you, check out and like our Facebook page @hmihistory.