Vellum & Parchment Conservation & History

Vellum & Parchment Conservation & History

Due to their sensitive nature, vellum and parchment manuscripts must be handled with great care. Vellum has a tendency to warp and cockle when exposed to fluctuations in humidity. Pictured above you can see a previously rolled vellum manuscript ready for treatment in my studio. The client wishes to have it flattened in preparation for framing.

To understand the way we approach the conservation treatment of vellum and parchment, it is helpful to have more insight into the methods that were used to manufacture these delicate materials. Vellum is made by soaking the skins of young animals in a lime solution. The lime softens and removes the hair from the skin. The skins typically have two sides that appear fairly different from one another. The inner side of the skin is smooth and fair, making it ideal for writing on. The outer side can contain fragments of hair and hair follicles. Scars may be evident that the animal acquired during life. If you look closely, you can often see the patterns of veins as well on the outer side of the vellum.

Once the vellum or parchment has been soaked in lime, it is then carefully stretched over a frame to dry. As it dries, it contracts and becomes smooth & taut like a drumskin.

The process of re-stretching and flattening vellum in many ways mimics its manufacture. It is humidified carefully and then dried under restraint to reflatten it. It is often necessary to repeat this process several times in order to flatten the parchment successfully.

Do you have a vellum or parchment based document that requires repair? Feel free to submit an inquiry via the contact form on my website:

Introducing Fibernacci Press!

Introducing Fibernacci Press!

I would like to introduce my friend and colleague Susanne Baker, papermaker, marbler and bookbinding extraordinaire. Susanne exudes magic and whimsy in all of her creative endeavors, and derives great joy from both creating gorgeous, high-quality handmade papers, as well as facilitating the creative processes of others. She is a gifted and practiced teacher. Her marbled papers are exquisite, unorthodox and works of sheer beauty, just like her. If you have need of watercolor paper, handmade papers of any type, or are interested in attending book arts workshops, contact Susanne. She is one of the best in the business.

Rethinking Audubon’s Legacy

Rethinking Audubon’s Legacy

This sensitive and honest article takes a look at the life of John James Audubon, and the way he related to Native Americans and African Americans. He apparently had slaves, and was a supporter of the practice of slavery. In so many ways his work was benefitted and made possible by people of color as well. I enjoyed this close and fact-based analysis by one of his biographer’s, and highly recommend reading the article. Audubon made tremendous contributions to the art and environmental/bird watching communities. It’s also important to see how the roots of slavery and racism have touched so many institutions and aspects of American lives, including the Audubon Society, from hundreds of years ago.

How is Iron Gall Ink Made?

How is Iron Gall Ink Made?

This is a question that I encounter frequently in my work with historic documents. Everything from land indentures to family bibles other documents contain iron gall ink. The recipe is said to have originated with Pliny the Elder, an Ancient Greek philosopher. The ingredients required to make iron gall ink are simple: oak galls, ferrous sulfate and gum arabic.

I was recently discussing this recipe with a friend, and she happened to have observed oak galls for the first time in her yard, where she took some photos. She was kind enough to share her photos, which you can see in this article. Oak galls are created when the gall wasp lays an egg on an oak leaf. The oak leaf then exudes tannic and gallic acids to create the oak gall. This is what an oak gall looks like:

The inside of a fresh oak gall.

If left to its own devices, the gall wasp larvae will mature, and then escape through a hole in the gall, leaving the gall formation behind.

To make iron gall ink, the oak galls are collected, dried and crushed. They are then soaked overnight, and cooked with ferrous sulfate. Gum arabic may be added to adjust the flow quality and behavior & look of the ink.

This recipe was commonly used throughout Western civilization, including Europe and the Colonial & Civil War era United States. The ingredients were easy to procure, and the recipe was common knowledge for those who were literate.

It is worth noting that high levels of copper and gum arabic are associated with iron gall ink corrosion as they age.

Many thanks to Cheri Rieman, who was kind enough to contribute her photos for this article!

An oak gall fresh from the tree.

XRF Mapping Used to Analyze Historic Paintings at the Fitzwilliam Museum

It’s pretty interesting seeing what is going on underneath the surface of many paintings. This video provides an overview of the useful information gleaned by conservators and museum staff from XRF analysis. Often, there may be a different painting entirely beneath the finished surface. In these instances, the canvas was reused for the sake of economy. The instruments necessary to provide such an analysis are expensive, but often available to cultural heritage institutions with the funding available to access the equipment and services. It can also provide insight into the materials that were used to create the painting: pigment sources, mineral composition, chemical composition and varnishes or lacquers.

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 treating 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 recipe book belonged to Eliza Breckinridge Watts, a member of two prominent families with history in Botetourt County dating back to the Revolutionary War era. Eliza and her husband General Edward Watts resided near present-day Roanoke near the Barrens. Their home was called the Oaklands, one of the largest plantations in Southwest Virginia. Eliza’s recipe book is filled with iron gall ink manuscript, and evidence of corrosion was present when I performed my initial evaluation. 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.

I will share more information about the subsequent stages of treatment for Eliza’s recipe book in a later blog post.

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: