Making the Invisible Visible – Repairs on Iron Gall Ink

This article reviews a recent training day organised by National Library Scotland on the repairs on iron gall ink. It was originally posted on ‘To Protect and (Con)serve’, the conservation blog for the Centre for Research Collections (CRC), University of Edinburgh. Check it out to find out more about the conservators, volunteers and interns at the CRC.

On Friday 4 March 2015, I attended a one-day training workshop on iron gall ink repairs. The session was organised by the Collections Care Team at the National Library of Scotland and hosted by Eliza Jacobi and Claire Phan Tan Luu (Freelance Conservators from the Netherlands and experts in this field. Please see www.practice-in-conservation.com for further information).

Iron gall ink was the standard writing and drawing ink in Europe from the 5th century to the 19th century, and was still used in the 20th century. However, iron gall ink is unstable and can corrode over time, resulting in a weakening of the paper sheet and the formation of cracks and holes. This leads to a loss of legibility, material and physical integrity.

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Document from the Laing collection, Centre for Research Collections, University of Edinburgh, showing early stages of iron gall ink corrosion.

Unsafe handling can exacerbate this problem. Bending and flexing a paper with iron gall ink can cause mechanical stress and result in cracking of the ink and tearing of the sheet. If this has happened, the area needs to be stabilised with a repair to ensure that further tearing doesn’t occur and additional material isn’t lost.

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Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Books with corroded iron gall ink causing the paper sheet to break.

Paper conservators usually carry out tear repairs with water-based adhesives such as wheat starch paste and Japanese paper. However, this can be harmful for paper with iron gall ink inscriptions. Iron gall ink contains highly water-soluble iron (II) ions. These are invisible, but in contact with water they catalyse the chemical reactions that cause paper to decay. If these ions are not removed before treatment, any introduction of water can cause significant damage to the item. If a tear over an iron gall ink inscription is repaired using an aqueous adhesive, these invisible components will migrate out of the ink into the paper in the surrounding area, and speed up degradation in this location. Since this is not immediately visible, it can take approximately 25 years before the damage is noticeable.

Conservators have only recently become aware of this problem, and have had to develop a method of creating a very dry repair, and a way to test it before application. This is what we were shown during the workshop. First, we created remoistenable tissues for a repair paper using gelatine, rather than the traditional wheat starch paste. Gelatine is used because it has been found to have a positive effect on iron gall ink. It has been suggested that gelatine may inhibit iron gall ink corrosion, however, this has not been proved by empirical research.

To make the remoistenable tissue, we applied a 3% liquid gelatine solution to a sheet of polyester through a mesh. The mesh ensures that an even layer of gelatine is applied to the sheet. Japanese paper is then laid onto this sheet and left to dry. We created three sheets using different weights of Japanese paper, for use on different types of objects.

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Document in the Laing collection showing early stages of iron gall ink corrosion.

When this was dry we had to remoisten the tissue so that it could be used to fix tears over iron gall ink. We were given a personalised mock-up item to practise this on. To remoisten the tissue, we used a sponge covered with filter paper to ensure that only a minimal amount of water is absorbed. You need just enough to make the gelatine tacky, but not so much that the water will spread away from the repair. Two sheets of filter paper are placed over a thin sponge and just enough water is added to saturate it. A small piece of remoistenable tissue is cut from the pre-prepared sheet, and placed, adhesive side down, on to the paper for a few seconds. This is then lifted using a pair of tweezers and applied to a test piece of paper that has been impregnated with bathophenanthroline and stamped with iron gall ink.

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Workstation with four sheets of remoistenable tissue, sponge, filter paper and indicator paper.

Bathophenanthroline has no colour, but in the presence of iron (II) ions, it turns an intense magenta colour. As such, this sheet can be used as an indicator for the soluble iron (II) ions that can cause paper to degrade. If little or no magenta colour shows after application of the remoistenable tissue, this suggests that the repair paper has the correct moisture level and this method can be used on the real object. We used this indicator paper to try out a range of adhesives, to see what effect they had on the iron gall ink.

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Bathophenanthroline Indicator Paper.

As you can see from the above image, the gelatine remoistenable tissue resulted in limited movement of iron (II) ions, whereas the wheat starch paste (WSP), methylcellulose (MC) and water applied directly to the paper has caused further movement. I thought that this was an excellent method of testing the repair technique, as it rendered the invisible movement of iron (II) ions visible. This means that a Conservator can be sure that the tear repair isn’t causing additional damage to the document.

Overall, the workshop was very informative and useful. A large number of documents at the CRC contain iron gall ink, so I’m sure I will put this new learning into practice very soon!

Check out this website for more information on iron gall ink: http://irongallink.org/igi_index.html

Emily Hick

Special Collections Conservator

Centre for Research Collections, University of Edinburgh

‘Channelling the Insect’ – Integrated Pest Management at National Museums Scotland

Every year National Museums Scotland (NMS) runs a series of workshops that aim to share knowledge of heritage related skills across the museum community. These popular workshops are free and cover a range of topics from collections care to handling skills. I recently had to opportunity to attend a workshop on Integrated Pest Management at the National Museum Scotland hosted by Preventative Conservation Officer, Catherine Haworth.

A wide variety of professionals attended the workshop from interns and volunteers working in large institutions to collection care managers in historic houses. Some had little or no experience of preventative conservation while others had come to refresh their knowledge of pest managment.

The day began with an overview of what Integrated Pest Management (IPM) actually is. IPM aims to prevent infestation of pests before it becomes a problem by monitoring for insects and modifying the environment to discourage pest activity.

In order to monitor for pests, we firstly needed to know what types of materials are at risk. Organic materials such as wood, silk and seeds are mostly in danger of infestation. Collagen based material such as fur, feathers, wool and vellum are also particularly tasty to pests.

Now that we understood what were the vulnerable items in our collections were, we went on to look at the types of pests are attracted to these objects. Furniture beetles, carpet beetles, moths and silverfish were all described in detail along with their favourite collections snack.

Next we had a series of exercises to put this new knowledge into practise. One exercise I found particularly useful was looking at photographs of objects that had been damaged, but there were no pests to be found. We had to identify the pest by looking at the type of damage and the debris left behind. I thought this could be easily applied to a real life situation, as often the insects could be gone by the time the damage is discovered.

After a fabulous lunch, we moved on to putting IPM into practise. Firstly monitoring pests through blunder and pheromone traps was explained; when and where to place the traps, as well as how often to check them. One top tip Catherine gave us was to cut a pheromone trap in half and stick it on to a sticky trap. This not only saves time as there is only one trap to check, but it also saves money as only half a pheromone trap is being used each time. The importance of good housekeeping and reducing the risk of pest by changing the environment was also highlighted in this section.

The NMS quarantine procedure was then described. This was a fairly simple procedure, that again could be used in a range of institutions. At NMS all new collections items are placed in a freezer at -30°C for 7 days. However, a commercial freezer that goes down to -18°C could also be used for a longer period of time to have the same results. This is simple way of killing any pests, before they have the opportunity to enter the building.

No matter how careful we are, there is always the risk of infestation. So treatment of object was also discussed. Treatment often depends on the object rather than the pest itself. For example, a heat treatment couldn’t be used for a wax object. However, certain treatments are not as effective for some pests.

To put this new learning into use, we were given a practical exercise to prepare an object for quarantine. We were asked to wrap a chair with tissue paper and polypropylene sheeting in preparation for freezing. The results of the 5 groups were very different. Some wrapped the chair very tightly with tissue and sheeting, while others wrapped theirs loosely. When this was completed, we compared results, and were told the NMS method of doing this. NMS suggests wrapping the object with tissue paper tied with cotton tape and using a plastic sheet (preferably one sealed on two edges, like a tube) to cover it with as little openings as possible so there it less to tape (quicker to cover and take off again at the end!). This was very different to what my group had done with lots of separate sheets cut to the lengths of different parts of the chair and stuck with lots of tape! I thought this was a good way of demonstrating the technique as getting it wrong means I will always remember not to do it like that again! It also made us think about the practicalities of wrapping, and unwrapping it which we wouldn’t have appreciated if it was just explained in through a powerpoint presentation.

Preparing chairs for quarantine

Preparing chairs for quarantine

Finally, we heard about the NMS IPM policy and had a brief introduction to how to set up our own policy. Overall, I thought that the whole day was really well put together, and the mixture of talking and practical activities worked well. The informal atmosphere encouraged discussion and we were able to compare different pest problems from all our places of work. These types of workshop offer a great opportunity to learn about subjects that may not be accessible for all institutions, especially low funded or volunteer-led organisations. This not only helps to promote and aid understanding of the conservation sector but provides better care for our shared cultural heritage.

I will leave you with one piece of sage advice gained from the day; “channel the insect”. When dealing with a pest infestation or considering an IPM policy, put yourself into the mind of the insect. Where would you hide? What would you eat? and how would you enter the store if you were a pest? This will help you create a successful IPM policy and keep calm when finding unknown creatures in your collections! However, if you are channelling the insect, just remember not to eat that tasty looking stuffed parrot at the back of the cupboard….

Emily Hick

Project Conservator

Centre for Research Collections, Edinburgh University

Photograph Conservation Tour

Conservation recently went on tour in Scotland, with four workshops being held throughout the Country focussing on the conservation and preservation of photographs. Find out what happened in this week’s blog… 

From 24 June to 2 July, a series of workshops on the conservation of photographs were hosted at Fort William, Brora, Aberdeen and St Andrews. The workshops were generously funded by Museum Galleries Scotland in partnership with Icon Scotland, University of St Andrews and the Scottish Society for the History of Photography. The workshops were aimed at people working with small to medium sized photograph collections.

Group identifying photographs

Group identifying photographs

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Photographic Preservation Training

The ICON Scotland Group, in collaboration with partner organisations, is offering a training day for heritage staff who work with small to medium sized photographic collections.

A few spaces are still available at the workshops in Aberdeen and Brora. Tickets are only £15 each, so book now to avoid missing out! http://www.eventbrite.co.uk/o/icon-scotland-group-8017964603?s=37146159

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Memories of Glass

This week’s article reviews a recent training event for Icon Interns on the conservation of glass plate negatives held at the RCAHMS and describes the process of repairing a plate using a pressure binding method…

Earlier this year, The Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS) hosted a training day on the repair of glass plate negatives organised by resident Icon Intern, Marta García-Celma. Other Icon Interns came from all over the country to take part in the training session. The day was split into two parts. In the morning, there were lectures covering the preventative and interventive conservation of glass plates and their digitisation. This was followed by a practical session in the afternoon, where we got to repair our very own glass plate. Continue reading

A Conservator Abroad….Japan

This week’s article comes from Elizabeth Hepher, a paper conservator at the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS), who recently travelled to Japan to take part in a three week course on Japanese paper conservation.

International Course on Conservation of Japanese Paper – JPC 2014

From the 25th August until the 12th September 2014 I joined ten paper conservators from around the world to attend the International Course on Conservation of Japanese Paper. The course was organised by The International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM) and hosted by the National Research Institute for Cultural Properties Tokyo (NRICPT) and has been running in Japan for the last 20 years.

Aim of the course

The aim of the course was to give conservators an in-depth understanding into the materials and techniques that make up Japanese works of art on paper and their associated paper conservation. The format of the course combined lectures and practical work, with the outcome being the participants learning how to make a hand scroll. The practical work was complemented by a one week study tour. Lectures were all in Japanese and with English provided by a translator.

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