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How to vacuum

There are three types of vacuuming that we do with objects. They are: 1. Through a Screen (rugs, furniture, some taxidermy) 2. Brush into Vacuum (ethnographic pieces, birds, sculpture, ceramic, ornate objects and textiles) 3. Micropipette (details and intricate surfaces)

Generally, the first step in cleaning is to vacuum loose dirt and debris. Choose the method that seems most appropriate for your situation. For rigid objects, usually this is brushing into the vacuum. For flexible objects, it might be vacuuming through a screen. For highly carved objects, it might be micropipette vacuuming. Often we use more than one technique, such as brushing into a vacuum followed by micropipette vacuuming. Tweezers can break up crusty accretions so they can be sucked up.

Working with Vacuums and Screens

Bind screen edges to prevent snagging. Nylon screens are more expensive and harder to find than fiberglass screens. They are stiffer and easier to use than fiberglass, although both work.

The vacuum should have HEPA filtration, a hose, and a variety of tools for the hose end.

There are numerous ways of working with a screen. It can be placed on an object, such as a textile (rug, upholstered furniture) or an animal with fur (taxidermy or flat skin), with the vacuum dusting nozzle held above the screen — not touching the object. The vacuum will suction out the fine dust on the surface. NEVER USE THE VACUUM DIRECTLY ON THE OBJECT.

Placing the screen on the object surface

For flat textiles, place the screen on the surface and hold it down. Then use the upholstery brush attachment to vacuum through the screen.

If you use the brush, you can gently touch the screen because the hair of the brush diffuses the suction. If you use an upholstery brush without the bristles – so it is a flat plastic attachment – stay just above the screen.

However, for textiles in good condition, you can lightly touch the surface of the screen. Make sure the screen is firmly against the surface and you keep low suction on the vacuum. The screen keeps any fibers or fragments from shifting.

Sometimes putting the screen on a wood frame – such as an embroidery hoop or a small painting stretcher – makes it easier for one person to use. One hand holds the screen flat against the textile surface and the other hand holds the vacuum cleaner hose. If you use a flexible screen with bound edges, it might take two people. One person holds the screen flat against the object surface with two hands and the other gently vacuums over the screen between the two hands.

Brushing into the vacuum

Use a brush to move dust towards a vacuum nozzle. A screen is placed between the brush and the vacuum hose to catch any part of the object that is accidentally dislodged. It is awkward to use the brush, hold a screen and vacuum (unless you have 3 hands). One trick is to tie, tape or rubber band the screen around the nozzle. Or place attachments, such as the crevice tool, over the screen, wedging it in place.

Use a skewer or the end of the brush to lift up layers of fur, feather or fabric to examine areas that are hard to see and access. Remove dust from these also. ALWAYS brush towards the vacuum nozzle.

Reducing vacuum suction

Keep suction as low as possible so there is less stress on the fragile surface being cleaned. How do you reduce suction? The best way is to have a vacuum cleaner retrofitted with a rheostat. Alternatively, you can purchase rheostats that plug into the wall (the vacuum plugs into the rheostat). These devices can damage vacuum motors and void warranties. Another method is to attach the bristled dusting tool. This helps dissipate the air and reduce the suction. In one situation, I had holes drilled in the hard part where the nozzle attaches to the hose. We used tape to close the holes when we needed more suction.


The weave of a basket or the intricate carving of a gilded frame may make it difficult to get at all the dust. If the brush can’t dislodge it adequately, sometimes the best choice is a micro-vacuum set up.

Miniature vacuum tools are used about the same as larger tools. Combined with fine brushes and screens, you can brush dirt from small areas into these small vacuum ends. Sometimes the attachment to the vacuum cleaner is perforated so suction can be varied. Sometimes it is not. If your vacuum cleaner doesn’t have an automatic shut off when the motor gets hot, then you need to be careful using this technique. Check the motor every few minutes during extended cleaning. When it gets hot, turn it off and let it cool. Otherwise you will burn out your motor (which is air cooled) and need to purchase a new vacuum cleaner.

Micro-pipettes are even smaller suction cleaners. Using a disposable eyedropper, cut off the bulb end and attach the point end to a tube. Usually it can be friction fit inside the tube. If you use clear tubing, you can see the amount of dirt picked up. The point end should be smaller than anything you might be worried about accidentally sucking up – such as a tiny bead. The tubing can be slotted into the air adjustment slot on your canister vacuum (if it has one), or taped to the larger hose end. If it is placed in the adjustment slot, then suction can be altered by shifting a 3” x 5” card over the open hose end. Completely covered is the highest possible suction with the greatest risk of burning up the motor.

Since the hole of the micropipette is so small and the plastic end is soft (if it feels rough to your hand, rub it against some fine sandpaper), you can clean an object surface directly. The tip of the pipette may be able to fit in between basket weaves (do not force it) or around individual beads. It is great for getting into crevices in detailed surfaces or in the pile of a fabric or suede. Or under hairs. Clean buckskin objects, inch by inch, using micropipette vacuuming. It is amazing how clean the surface becomes. It can be used for removing eraser crumbs, if they are used for cleaning.

Pumps designed for long-term use allow you a lengthy cleaning time without risking your expensive vacuum cleaner or being subjected to loud noises. (When using a vacuum for a long period, always wear ear protection). The least expensive option is an inexpensive aquarium pump, the type with one hose attachment option. These are designed to blow air. But if you open up the equipment and flip the rubber flaps, as per instructions from CCI Notes, it will suck. This isn’t easy to do, but it works WONDERFULLY. A more expensive option is a dental vacuum. These are designed to provide quiet suction over a long period of time.

Use micro–attachments or a homemade powered micropipette to get into tight areas that are otherwise hard to reach.

Small, battery operated vacuums sold for cleaning keyboards and electronics have low suction and are easily available. They aren’t as useful for cleaning objects as you might think, but they may have a place in your tool kit. The filtration isn’t good enough and the suction not adjustable enough for micro-vacuuming. However, they can be useful for cleaning the back of frames or cleaning around areas when you don’t want to drag out the big vacuum and all the tools.


- Always clean all of the vacuum tools after use. This includes the vacuum attachments, and hoses. Clean tools = clean objects.
- Keep all vacuum filters and bags clean.
- To reduce infestation risk, throw disposable bags away in an outdoors trash can. If the bag is reusable, wash it and freeze it according to IPM procedures.