Cleaning Fine Collectables and Antiques:

-What Abrasives & Solvents to use:


What do you pull out from under the kitchen sink when the spirit moves you to finally do something about great-grandma's what'zit?  Makes a big difference.  One bottle will destroy the what'zit and another may waste your entire weekend, (and maybe destroy it as well!)

This business of preserving and protecting collectables often begins with cleaning them.  (Actually, it really begins with recognizing valuable collectables under layers of age and crud and then cleaning them so it amounts to the same thing.)  Besides this, the first step to protecting some collectables -like christening gowns and what-not- from mildew and insects is to clean them.  I don't know about cleaning fabric.  (Well, I know how to toss them in the washing machine and fiddle with the dial till water starts squirting in.  Soap is involved, but I use the stuff me' sainted Irish Mom used and ring-around-the-collar be damned.)

What I do know is how a thing or two about, however, is furniture.  The best way to clean something old & cruddy and made out of wood is paint thinner and steel wool. But I am ahead of myself.  What it really comes down to is some kind of solvent and some kind of abrasive.  Permit me to illustrate. Soapy water as a solvent and a wash cloth as an abrasive work pretty well on people-skin, don't they?  Water, however, is a bit problematic on wood.  Makes the grain do funny things.  You say you use water and a dishcloth on your cutting board everyday?  Me too, and if you run your hand over it after it has dried, you will feel a very slight roughness.  Ain't no thing on a cutting board, but try this on a nice piano. (By the way, if you were to pour a dollop of cooking oil on your wood cutting board once in a while, it will thank you. Be generous with the oil and let it soak in for an hour or two.  Use paper towels wipe off the un-soaked-in oil.  But do NOT oil your piano –more on this later)

To resume, the trick to cleaning collectables is to find the right solvent and the right abrasive.  If you are reading this article, I suspect it because you suspect warm water, de-odorant soap, and a wash-cloth is not going to get the job done.  Either it just won't work, or it's apt to mess-up your collectable -or both.  I like steel wool and paint thinner followed up with wax, but I work with wood and tend to go there by default.  So here's what lets do, let's take a look at some solvents and some abrasives.



SOLVENTS -from the gentlest to the most aggressive:

If you read nothing else I write, PAY ATTENTION here.  If your valuable collectable is real old and colorful and fussy, it is apt to be hand painted with milk paint, gesso, tempra, or who-knows-what old-fashioned paint.  (Don't despair of old paint, some of this stuff has -and will continue to- outlast our modern polymeric wonder-finishes.)  But you DON'T want to risk ruining it.  I am required –by law in 17 states- to tell you to try your cleaning regime on a part of the object that doesn't show.  Do this even if you are using the mildest possible solvent.
I remember from some high-school class –bio or chemistry probably- that water is the "universal" solvent.  Not sure what this means, but I do seem to reach for water in one form or other when I have something what wants cleaning.  While I don't use distilled water to hose off the back porch, I have no doubt it would work just fine.  A little expensive, but it would work well.  With the exception of unfinished wood, water might be the place to begin, and if you are cleaning something sufficiently delicate and valuable -or the water in your area is nasty, a trip to the grocery store for the distilled stuff might be worth the effort.


Look closely at what I've written –not the water, but the SUDS.  Chris, of Bearly Belivable Gifts, offers this for cleaning plush toys (Teddy Bears):

I put a squirt in the sink and then fill it up with warm water.  I only use the SUDS, not the water itself, and completely rub the suds over the fur with your hands.  You don't want to actually get the fur wet, just sudsy.  You can test most fabrics in a small spot, but I have yet to have had a problem.  When this is dry, I use a 1 to 2" paint brush to "bush" the bear's fur.  Very simple, and this technique also removes most of the oil that floats through the air and attach itself to the fur.

Chris also suggests a stay in the freezer to kill the allergen dust-mites, and a bit of nylon over the end of the vacuum hose to keep buttons & eyes and such from disappearing.  Finally, she counsels against keeping stuffed animals in the kitchen where they soak up cooking oil and smells.  Smart lady.


There is much to be said about soap vs. detergents.  Unfortunately, I am not the person to say it. My limited understanding of the topic has to do with the beading-up, flowing-off, and rinsing-out when it has done its job. ("Surface tension" what-ever this may be, seems to figure into the all explanations I've read.  Couldn't tell you why.)  What I do understand, is that detergent simply rinses out better.  Shampoo, fr'instance is actually detergent. So I conclude thus:  Rinse carefully –very carefully, and / or use lots of cotton swabs, or litho-pads, or paper-towels or whatever to get it good and dry and it probably doesn't make much difference if you use soap or detergent.

Good News
–it's cheap, easy, and cleans about 90% of the stuff you want cleaned.

Bad News 
-it's hard on wood –particularly wood with fine finishes.  To dissolve the really greasy or oily stuff, you might have to soak it for a day or a week.  You going to soak a nice piece of furniture in the bathtub for a week?

In the research I have done on the subject, I have come across something called "Triton 100" a pH-neutral & non-ionic(?!) detergent.  You probably will have to go to an archival source to find the stuff.


This is my favorite. If you don't like the smell of paint thinner, use turpentine.  This smells a bit like pine-cleaner.  Can't say I like either smell, so I use thinner because it's cheaper.  The thing about paint thinner is that it dissolves wax, oil, smoke crud, bug-doots, people grease, and most of the stuff that accumulates and that you don't want on your collectable.  But paint thinner does NOT dissolve finishes –or finishes that deserve to be called 'finishes' anyway.

Good News:   
-cleans about 99% of the stuff you want cleaned 
-cheap -not as cheap as soap & water, but gim'me a break 
-gets along with wood –even wood with fine finishes
-dissolves the effing glue they use to stick price tags on every-damn-thing you buy. The expensive stuff you buy especially to do this is little more then paint thinner with some lemon oil mixed in.

Bad News: 



Good News: 
-smells nice –or nicer then thinner anyway
-evaporates quickly 
-dissolves lots of bad stuff

Bad News: 
-It WILL dissolve shellac finishes –and many beautiful old wood pieces are finished with shellac.  For that matter, so is much of the stuff I make!



Good News: 
-any of these will dissolve just about anything you might ever want dissolved. If acetone, fr'instance, don't dissolve it, trust me on this, you don't want it dissolved.

Bad News: 
-they will also dissolve just about any finish on anything and lots of the 'anything's too!

Lacquer thinner, for example, makes a respectable paint remover right out of the can. If I need to take some paint off something, I just toss in into a coffee can with a little lacquer thinner in the bottom, give it a slosh & a shake, put a cover over the can and come back in an hour or two.  It the thing is too big to toss in a coffee can, I cover it with paper towels and splash thinner on the paper towels.  Then I sort of squeeze them down onto what ever I'm taking the paint off of so it is wet with the thinner.  Then I cover it in aluminum foil.  This last step is important because the thinner does its work slowly, but evaporates quickly.  Give it an hour for the thinner to soften up the toughest old paint, and most of it will come off with a putty knife.  


This recipe is recommended by Don Williams in his excellent book SAVING STUFF –How to Care for and Preserve Your Collectables, Heirlooms, and Other Prized Possessions.  From my comments above, you have to know this is pretty serious stuff.  Don't use it on finished wood, finished metal, plastic, anything painted, (paint is nothing more than various kinds of pigmented plastic after all), fabric, photographs or printed stuff.  If fact, it might be easier to simply say where you could use it safely –uncoated metal, glazed ceramic, and maybe your finger nails.  There –that wasn't so hard, was it?



ABRASIVES –from the softest to the scratchiest:

I guess this is an abrasive -ain't a solvent.  I have a can on my computer shelf for getting 'tater-chip crumbs out of the keyboard.  Comes with a long tube / nozzle and works great.  Also claims to be 100% ozone safe.  I also have compressed air I the shop and use it to blow dust around.  (I say "around" because when I blow the dust off of something, so much gets stirred up that some inevitably settles back on what I blew it off of in the first place.  Sometimes the old-fashioned not-quite-instant way works best. In this case, a bench brush and dust pan.)


Kind'a the same thing as compressed air –just going in the other direction.  There are also more vacuums in the world then there are air compressors.  To really do it up-fancy, for delicate fabrics and all, make yourself a frame and staple nylon screen-door-screen around it.  This will involve a trip to the hardware story, but it can't be helped.  If making a frame is the beyond you, get a smallish piece of metal screen and fold a few layers of duct-tape around the edge.  Be a shame to have neglected this step and ruin something all pretty and satin by catching it on a ragged metal end of screen.  If you have skin –and all the best collectors do- the duct-tape will also make it easier to keep your blood inside your skin because these ends are ever-loving-sharp. Vacuum through this and buttons and bows will stay on whatever you are cleaning.


These serve to rub (abrade) the goo, but I think they serve best by putting just a little solvent where you want it and then taking it up again once it's gotten dirty by doing it's job.  If you have a good art-supply store at hand, the effort of buying litho pads is worth it.  They are truly wonderfully absorbent.  If you can't find litho pads, get some cotton balls or, (dare I say it?), some feminine hygiene products.


Big ones, little ones, stiff ones, soft ones, and cheap ones, but mostly cheep ones –they are stiffer.  You pay through the nose for a nice soft sable or camel-hair fine-art brush and you can make beautiful pictures with it.  (Well, some folks can.  Not me.)   But for getting the schmutz out'a the corner, the cheep ones work best.


Pretty dull subject, but a few words on steel wool are appropriate about now. The stuff you are apt to find at the local hardware store and use for touching up wood items is graded in zeros.  The more -0's the finer –the less abrasive.   0000 is the finest your hardware store is apt to have and works well for both taking stuff off and putting wax on, (more on wax shortly).  000 is a tad more aggressive and probably best for taking off the schmutz but is a bit too scratchy for putting wax on.  00 is for cleaning up metal or wood that is REAL dirty.  I actually use 00 and sometimes 0 in place of sandpaper for some applications.  Don't use steel wool on latex or other flat-painted (non-glossy) things.  It's apt to leave a nasty & indelible steel-gray stain.  Try a plastic scrubbing thing from the kitchen or a green scouring cloth –a brand-new unused one please.

These are just what they say they are.  Very VERY finely ground rocks that you mix-up into a slurry and rub on things. Pumice powder is used to finish fine surfaces -one grit for satin finished, and another -finer- grit for semi-gloss.  Rotten-stone is used to take it all the way to gloss.  They are not easy to find and truth to tell, I've never used either one. They were all the rage before they invented 0000 steel wool (above) or very fine grit emery cloth.  Read on.


It would have to be pretty dirty before you want to take sandpaper to it, but there are things to be learned.  For starters, sand-paper comes in some pretty fire grits and emery paper comes in even finer.  Grit is backwards -the bigger the number, the finer the grit.  I use 120 grit sandpaper to get started on raw wood and sometimes go as high as 220 when I am finishing wood a piece prior to stain and finish.  Emery paper  is just getting started at 200 and runs up to 1200, but it's likely you will not find much higher then 600 at the local hardware store.
Another thing to be learned from these paint accessories is that wet sanding is a wonderfully labor saving way to go about it.  Emery paper is made to be water-proof so use water.  But what about water on wood?  Isn't this a bad idea? you ask.  Dang right.  So use regular old sandpaper and paint thinner.  Just be sure to put out your cigar and do it outside.  Works extra great on painted wood.  The paint has glue in it and this clogs up the sandpaper pretty quick if you do it dry. Wet sanding prevents this.

What I use is a flat shallow Tupperware thing holding 1/2" or so of the thinner. When one sanding pad gets clogged, I put it in the thinner and pull out one that has been soaking.  A little swish in the thinner and I am back in business.  Wet sanding with sandpaper also seems to cut much faster.  Don't know why, just does so I don't have to sand as long.  When I am done, I put the lid back on the Tupperware & sandpaper and put it all away.


This is as far as I'm going to up the scale of aggressive abrasion.  It's also about as far as anyone COULD go.  I have to say it again: if you clean many a collectable, no matter how grungy and disgusting it was and no matter how nice and shiny you get it, it may NOT be as valuable as it was when it was dirty.  Clearly sand blasting is not for most –nor even for very many collectables at all, but if it's something like a rusty old wood stove from the flea-market, it might be just the ticket.  Haul it down to the gritty side of town and have someone sand-blast it.  But you probably want to be there when he does it –entirely possible that he will get it so clean and shiny that he will wear through in places if the rust was thick enough.  I suspect that all else being equal, this is one of those places where too little is better then too much.


WAX –the curator's friend:

Wax is neither an abrasive nor a solvent, but it is such good stuff I have to talk about it.  I use it on much of my woodwork -0000 steel-wool and furniture paste-wax is often the last step before I send something off to a customer.  The steel wool takes off the last tiny boo-boos and the wax makes it nice on your fingertips.  I use two flavors –light and dark- and have to order the dark from a special (over-priced) wood-working supply place. Turns out that grocery stores stock the stuff in about a half-dozen colors.  They call it 'shoe-polish', but what it is, is, is a good quality hard-wax paste wax with lots of pigment.  Bunch cheaper then the special stuff I buy too.  Consider the above example of a wood stove back from the sand-blaster.  Is isn't so much chrome-bumper shiny after sandblasting as it is gray and vaguely sparkly.  The next step might be to hit it with the shoe-polish.  Hit it hard and use lots of it.  For that matter, anything you have that is either cast-iron or steel might need nothing more then shoe-polish to bring it from the proverbial 'flea-market-junk' category to the 'family-heirloom' category.