Objects Conservation Equipment

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Contributors: Robin O'Hern, Samantha Springer, (Charlotte) Yuyin Li, Christy McCutchen, Fran Ritchie, Katherine McFarlin, Maeve O’Shea. Your name could be here! Please contribute.

Copyright: 2021. The Objects Group Wiki pages are a publication of the Objects Specialty Group of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works. The Objects Group Wiki pages are published for the members of the Objects Specialty Group. Publication does not endorse or recommend any treatments, methods, or techniques described herein.


Objects conservators use many kinds of equipment when doing their work. Some of these are hand tools, others are instruments (loosely defined as anything that needs to be plugged in or runs on batteries). Listed below in alphabetical order are some of the instrumentation or other tools used in conservation labs. For additional information on conservation equipment, see the Book and Paper Group's page on Materials, Equipment, and Tools.

ASG 2000 Aerosol Generating Tool

AGS 2000 in the Garman Art Conservation Paintings Lab at SUNY Buffalo State. Image provided by Christy McCutchen.

The AGS 2000 Aerosolgenerator (Fig. 1&2) is an ultrasonic mister (see Mist Consolidation for more information) used for humidification (with demineralized water), consolidation (with dilute aqueous consolidated solutions), and deacidifying aqueous solution treatments. Because the aerosolized particles are produced with ultrasonic vibrations they are extremely fine (1-6 μm, depending on the density and surface tension of the fluid) and offer a highly controlled delivery system for dilute aqueous solutions to a surface. There is a separate smaller polystyrene cup reservoir (Fig. 3) for consolidant solutions which can be inserted into the larger clear atomizer chamber to deliver the dilute consolidant to a surface. Because solutions used in this reservoir must be dulite to low viscosity the concentration of the consolidant solution is by necessity also low and therefore applied in small amounts. This delivery system is ideal for delicate small scale objects.

Annika Blake-Howland using an airbrush inside a fume hood for an inpaint treatment.

Airbrush: An airbrush is a small, air-operated tool that sprays paint. An air compressor is attached to the airbrush with an air hose. Airbrushes come with different types of air compressors which can be adjusted to control the air pressure. The airbrushes themselves also come in variety of types from “extreme detail” for finer lines to “extra wide” for a broader coverage.

Airbrushes or spray guns in conservation are more commonly used when applying varnishes or creating a fine mist for humidification. However, an airbrush could be an alternative option for inpainting, especially when it comes to ceramics. Brushes can sometimes leave raised paint surfaces and if the evidence of brushstrokes is undesirable, then airbrushes are a good alternative. Airbrushes could be ideal for wide, flat areas of single color, such as ceramics, and solid color tiles, where texture change or different paint levels are more obvious. Of course, there are downsides to airbrushes such as the possibility of painting over the original paint, which is why it is highly recommend to practice using the equipment before treating the artwork and using it only as a last option to reach the desired effect.

Heated spatula image provided by Fran Ritchie

Heated spatulas: Conservators use heated spatulas to apply controlled levels of heat to precise areas when conducting treatments.

LED work lights: Good lighting is critical for conservators when examining, photographing, and treating objects. LED lights that can double as strobes for photography are helpful to have. One example of which is the Godox LED Flash Light LF308, a relatively inexpensive light, that has an adjustable color temperature between 3300-5600K, and can be used for continuous light or synced to your camera for a flash. Another LED work light option is the Litepanels Astra 6X Bi-Color LED panel. It has incredible output and battery life, more adjustable and sturdy support, and an adjustable color temperature from 3200-5600K.

Pocket Microscopes: Pocket microscopes are best used for looking at flat surfaces; it can be used for observing weave patterns of textiles, identifying prints, and examining pests. The pocket microscope is very easy to use with only one knob for adjusting magnification and one button for switching on/off the light. Pocket microscope can be light weight, portable, affordable, and powerful (60-120x magnification range). These often features a built-in battery powered LED light. They also may have an aspheric lenses that gives a sharper and less distorted image than normal lenses. Overall, it is a handy tool that is used frequently by conservators of various specialties.

Steam Cleaner (Dental): Dental steam cleaners provide a quick and thorough method of cleaning surface debris from hard-fired and glazed ceramics, as well as select stone and metal objects. Steam cleaners allow high levels of control of the steam, heat, and pressure output of the tool, allowing variable and responsive levels of cleaning. Steam is excellent for cleaning dirt accumulation in hairline fractures in glaze layers, from break edges, and from other areas that are highly detailed or difficult to reach with standard tools. Steam can also be employed to reduce wax coatings, and can aid in the softening and removal of adhesive or overpaint layers.

Dental steam cleaners differ significantly from the hand steamers used for textiles, and are not interchangeable. Large-scale steam cleaners used for buildings operate similarly to dental steam cleaners, but are not appropriate for small objects. Dental steam cleaners use small nozzles to specifically direct a cone of pressurized steam, and these units are easily transported and stored on small workspaces. Aside from the temperature and pressure controls available on the unit, the intensity of the steam can be modulated simply by moving the nozzle closer or farther away according to the needs and stability of the object. Always exercise caution when working with steam, as placing parts of the body in the direct path of the steam can cause burns. Similarly, concentrating the steam on a singular part of an object for extended periods of time can causing overheating and related damage. Caution should also be exercised when filling the tank in between uses, as the highly pressurized air in the tank should be released in a slow and controlled fashion. De-ionized water is strongly recommended to prolong the life and quality of the steam cleaner.

Image of the Nilfisk GM80 Deluxe Vacuum Cleaner at the Conservation Department at SUNY Buffalo State.

Vacuum Cleaner: Vacuum cleaners are one of the most frequently used items in a conservation lab. They can be a useful tool in removing dust from an object. Their long hose that can be used with a variety of attachments, which makes it possible to get suction in the areas that need it. Any vacuum used on collections items should have an intensity dial which allows for precise control over the amount of suction. The vacuum may also have a high efficacy particulate air (or HEPA) exhaust filter and microfilter which together prevent particles down to 0.3 microns from escaping the unit. These vacuums are usually very portable, with a removable wheeled trolley.