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Restoring Historic Documents with Iron Gall Ink Corrosion

Restoring Historic Documents with Iron Gall Ink Corrosion

Iron gall ink corrosion can cause serious damage to historic documents. We have Pliny the Elder to thank for the ink recipe that originated in Greece. Iron gall ink was commonly created by adding iron ore and oak galls together, and cooking them over a wood stove top for several hours. The resulting ink was rich and brown. Its color could be altered with the use of additives such as copper and indigo. The visual quality and “flow” behavior of the ink could be adjusted as well by adding gum arabic and other binders. The ink was then applied with a quill pen. Recent research has revealed that the addition of copper and gum arabic in particular often lead to the most corrosive inks, which will actually burn through paper entirely, leading to “lacing,” or iron gall ink corrosion, which can irreparably damage historic documents. Above is an example. Iron gall ink corrosion can burn through paper, creating “lacing” and permanent loss of text over time.

If a paper artifact is to be treated properly, the issue of iron gall ink corrosion must be addressed during treatment, or else the problem will worsen over time and can destroy the document. Treatments that do not address iron gall ink corrosion can actually accelerate the deterioration of the inks, so it is paramount that a skilled conservator address these concerns. I am currently working on a historic recipe book for the Western Virginia Historical Society. It is an object that was declared one of the Top Ten Endangered Artifacts of Virginia in 2019. The book is filled with iron gall ink manuscript, and evidence of corrosion was present. In order to remove the free iron ions that cause the corrosion, I immersed the pages in a bath with the appropriate chelating agents. Below is a video I created explaining the process:

Washing, stain reduction and iron gall ink corrosion treatment of a historic recipe book from Botetourt County, Virginia. The book belongs to the collection of the Western Virginia Historical Society.

If you have questions or require assistance treating and preserving a paper artifact with iron gall inks, please submit and inquiry via the contact form on my website:

Conservation Treatment of Artwork by Hans Sebald Beham

Conservation Treatment of Artwork by Hans Sebald Beham

Hercules Sets Up the Columns of Gades,” 1545

The Gallery & Collections Coordinator at an area university recently brought in a set of 14th century engravings created by Hans Sebald Beham. Like many works of art in need of the care and attention of a skilled conservator, these pieces were attached to an acidic backing board with dry mount tissue. The paper was becoming yellowed and acidic, and there was significant planar distortion & cockling present. The prints were detached from the backing board carefully, and treated via immersion in solvents to remove the dry mount tissue and damaging tapes applied to the back of the engravings.

The engravings during immersion treatment. In this image, the dry mount tissue is being gently and carefully lifted away from the artwork.

Dry mount tissues can be stubborn and difficult to remove. There are also a variety of them that have been in use over the years, and the manufacturers change their proprietary adhesive formulations frequently. Care, skill and patience are often required to determine the correct course of treatment to remove them and repair the artwork. After immersion treatment, the artworks were treated with chelating agents to reduce the staining, yellowing and soluble acidic degradation products present in the paper. The paper was alkalized to prevent further deterioration and embrittlement. Once treated, the engravings were humidified and flattened in preparation for archival framing.

“Hercules Sets Up the Columns of Gades.” Hans Sebald Beham. 1545. Post-Treatment Photo.
Do You Have a Historic Baptismal Certificate That Requires Repair?

Do You Have a Historic Baptismal Certificate That Requires Repair?

Do you have a baptismal certificate or other historic family document that is acidic, yellowing, or damaged? Many times, these types of family heirlooms are found in attics, basements, or tucked away in a box after many years of neglect. A large number of my clients are people who have inherited these irreplaceable pieces of family history and are in need of assistance preserving them for future generations. That is where I am always glad to provide my expertise and skills to give these historic documents new life and preserve them for many more years to come. Genealogical documents are some of my favorite artifacts to conserve. Most of the time, these documents require washing and treatment to reduce the acidity of the paper, which will prevent further embrittlement of the paper. Damaging tape repairs are also often present, and I will remove those and reduce tape stains during conservation treatment. After the document has been treated, any losses or tears to the paper are mended with archival Japanese tissue, and the finished piece is then ready for safe storage or display for many more years to come. Below are some photos of a recent project I completed conserving a family baptismal certificate:

Washing of a historic family baptismal certificate on a vacuum table. Notice all of the yellow acidic degradation products soaking into the white cotton blotter along the edges of the document.
A detail shot of washing the same baptismal certificate on a vacuum table.
Detail shot of a family baptismal certificate.
Detail shot of staining in a baptismal certificate, and agarose plugs used to test the certificate prior to treatment. The agarose plugs are imbued with a variety of solutions that help determine the most effective course of treatment for the document.
The baptismal certificate prior to treatment.
The baptismal certificate after conservation treatment.
The finished and framed baptismal certificate.

If you have a family document that you would like to have evaluated for conservation treatment, feel free to submit an inquiry via the contact form on my website:

Repairing Historic Newspapers

Repairing Historic Newspapers

Clients often come to me with historic newspapers that are in need of repair. These documents are frequently oversize and extremely fragile due to the nature of newspaper manufacture. Newspapers were intended to be ephemeral in nature, so in many cases these documents have not aged well. My work typically consists of treating them to reduce acidity, wash away soluble acidic degradation and staining products, and to mend the pages to make them whole. The labor involved in this process is greatly affected by the condition of the newspaper, which is impacted by the original quality and relative thickness of the paper, as well as how it was stored. In many instances, these documents have been stored or folded, perhaps with rubber bands or string tied around them, and placed in attics or basements without climate control for many years. In some cases, they have been exposed to sunlight for long periods of time, or have suffered staining from water damage. Regardless, much benefit can result from conservation treatment. Washing and stain reduction reveal the amount of yellowing materials many times present in the papers. For example, see the image below of a newspaper undergoing washing treatment. You can see that the solution it is bathing in has become extremely yellow, due to the degradation products washing out of the paper itself.

Soluble acidic degradation products washing out of a newspaper as it is bathed.

The process of washing the newspaper typically dramatically brightens the appearance of the paper for this very reason. The paper can also be treated to reduce its acidity and create an alkaline reserve within it, which will prevent further embrittlement and help ensure the longevity of the newspaper. Careful testing is required prior to treatment to help prevent bleeding of inks and determine the appropriate solution required to effectively treat the newspaper. After washing, stain reduction and alkalization, the pages can then be mended with archival tissue and made whole again. At this point, the newspaper can now be safely viewed and will last for many more years to come.

If you would like to learn more, feel free to visit the Contact form on my website and submit and inquiry. I look forward to helping you preserve your historic newspapers.

Analyzing Layers of Paintings with XRF

A short video from the Fitzwilliam Museum explaining XRF analysis applications in works of art on paper. The ability to view multiple layers of media and analyze their components is incredibly helpful in art conservation.

Conservation in the Era of COVID-19

Conservation in the Era of COVID-19

The viral pandemic that has swept the world has undoubtedly had an impact on everyone to one degree or another. I count myself fortunate that I have been able to continue to complete conservation treatments on client projects, although I have not been able to meet with any clients during the past five weeks. Safety is paramount, of course. In many ways, this unprecedented time has allowed me to focus my undivided attention on conservation treatments with fewer distractions. I am also in the process of updating some of the administrative procedures I use to help make business growth easier. I look forward to returning to some semblance of normalcy as soon as it is safe to do so.

Military Discharge Paper Restoration and Repair

Military Discharge Paper Restoration and Repair

I have many clients who come to me with family heirlooms, including military discharge papers from ancestors long passed. These cherished family artifacts are often acidic, yellowing, and becoming embrittled. Many of them have tears and non-archival tape repairs, and are so damaged that they cannot be safely handled. Some suffer from iron gall ink corrosion, which can irreparably damage the paper of the document, and cause loss of text over time. You can see examples of all of these conditions in the discharge paper shown above. These documents require specialized treatment, many times including washing to reduce the acidic compounds and yellowing of the paper, as well as treating the paper to reduce iron gall ink corrosion and provide an alkaline buffer within the paper substrate. Often times non-archival tape repairs must be removed, and staining reduced. After receiving treatment from a trained conservator, these family heirlooms will be in highly improved condition. They can then be safely displayed or stored and handled at the owner’s discretion. If you would like to have your document evaluated by me for treatment, feel free to submit an inquiry via the contact form on my website: