Cleaning & Restoring Finds.
Retrieving relics hidden for 60 years or more in the ground is always a magical moment for us military archaeologists. As soon as we arrive home, every digger starts to clean and repair the best pieces he's found, but sometimes inexperience or haste may cause serious damage to our "little treasures". All too often I have heard about German M38 paratrooper helmets scratched with metal brushes (thus removing all remaining traces of original decals or paint) and these then being repainted in Feldgrau to make them look better!! There are other, and in my opinion, better ways to preserve dug helmets.
Similarly, there are also proper ways to clean and restore badges, dog tags, rusty weapons, metal and glass containers, rubber parts and so on. The following article is basically a list of tips that are borne out of 15 years of experience and what is more important, mistakes. Any further additions are welcome from visitors and fellow diggers.
In the Summer of 2005 I had the great fortune to locate a still untouched WW2 era trash dump. I went there many times over the following 2 months, with good results. Now the place has been almost completely searched, but nevertheless I'm still able to find in a relatively short space of time a bag full of relics. In one morning, after three and a half hours of toil, I returned home with a remarkable number of American made glass bottles of every kind, parts of equipment, buttons some vehicle parts and so on. Among the many objects, some were unknown to me: I took them anyway.
The first thing to do at home is to remove the largest pieces of excess soil and debris as possible from your finds. For this purpose I use an old knife and a small screwdriver. Remove the soil gently, and do not scratch the objects. After this, I place everything into a bowl filled with water.
The only exception to this rule was what was apparently a brake light from a Willys jeep; I considered a softer approach to this find because, as it was empty inside and could not be disassembled easily, that the drying process would have been slow. Consequently the rust would have corroded the metal further.
So here is the first tip: Don't leave anything you unearth behind! You may regret it later on!
Dirty aluminium or brass tags may hide interesting inscriptions, visible only after cleaning, whilst a strange piece of rusty metal may turn out to be and important vehicle or weapon component, or even a specific military device: in this latter case, the aid of text books and experience colleagues can be very helpful.
So here is the second tip: Leave the relics you have selected for cleaning in water for a minimum of two hours.
This is intended to soften the soil debris still attached to the finds. In this way you save yourself energy in cleaning, as well as avoiding accidental damage to the item in question.
For cleaning, arrange a wide variety of different devices. I use many kinds of brushes, tools and also a particular kind of abrasive cloth, usually used by bricklayers to clean walls: it can be obtained from most hardware stores and will see off the most stubborn dirt from items without having to resort to more invasive metal brushes or sandpapers. After some use the abrasive cloths get softer and less effective. These are not thrown out but kept as they can still be used to clean relics that require softer treatment.So tip three: Buy some abrasive cloths, these will be useful on a wide range of relics.
Above left: The "tools of the trade". Various brushes, abrasive cloth and a metal chain for cleaning out glass bottles.
After this first stage you can now select the best pieces to begin the second process. From this point on the cleaning process will be different depending on the type of relic you are cleaning. This second phase can also coincide with the commencement of any restoration to the find. At this point we should point out that professional archaeologists tend to adopt only reversible restorations. That is to say that any restoration process can, if so required, be reversed in order to reinstate the relic to it's "original" ground dug state.
Repainting, reconstruction or non-reversible integrations should be avoided unless there is no alternative to halting the destruction of the piece by corrosion or decay.
Regarding glass bottles, I have found that the best way to clean the mud from the inside is to use a length of chain, very similar in fact to the type the US military used to use to hang a soldiers identity discs on (these days such small chains are used to hang your bathroom sink plug from)!!!
Once again these are easily obtained
from your local hardware store. Insert into the bottle with some water and if
need be, some soap. After a few minutes of vigorous shaking the chain has worked
the dirt loose. In cases of a bottle with a narrow neck, keep one end out of the
bottle and hold onto it - least you end up with that "ship in the bottle
Below: Two original WW2 era Coca Cola bottles. The one on the right having been cleaned using the chain.
There is a risk of knots forming in the chain during shaking, this can make extracting the chain difficult. In this case be patient, and try to untie the knots in some way, either by shaking the bottle for a bit longer or using a stick to remove the knot. Even adding some more soap and thus making the inside smoother can help. I have never had to break a bottle to recover a chain! So the next tip is: Buy one metre of "ball chain" to clean bottles. It will be worth the cost if you have many bottles to clean.
HELMETS AND PAINTED IRON PARTS.
Helmets must be cleaned with great attention. Even after 60+ years, depending on the ground the piece is coming from, a lot of paint may still be in place. In addition, decals or painted insignia may still be visible or recovered to some degree. The first steps described earlier can be followed to prepare the helmet. However with washing great care must be taken with helmets that retain any leather parts. Do not allow this to get wet. If this should happen then allow the leather to dry slowly and naturally. Also the choice of any brushes for cleaning must be taken with care. In areas where insignia might be present (i.e: the sides of German helmets and the front and or sides of American helmets).
We should point out a very important distinction at this point: The paint applied to American helmets is much thicker and durable than that used on German helmets. Therefore American shells can retain a good percentage of paint even if the shell has turned into a dome of rust. The M1 shell had a rough texture, made by adding cork to the paint. Do not use strong abrasive devices as this will remove the cork from the shell, and will only save the smoother part of the helmet. A good cleaning product that can be utilised for helmet cleaning is the abrasive washing powder of the type used to clean sinks. Use this powder with some water and rub it in with your fingers all over the shell, (not forgetting to be careful in areas where insignia/decals might be present), then rinse with plenty of water. Take a look at the results and repeat as necessary. Bear in mind however, that with such powder you will inevitably remove some paint as well as rust.
You can mix the above method with another: spray over the shell some limescale removing detergent, you can steal it from your mother or wife, as this type of detergent is used by housewives for cleaning the bathroom! You need to ensure that you use the type that contains Phosphoric Acid. The types that use Chlorine should not be used. Leave the limescale remover on the shell for 2-3 minutes then rinse with soap and water. Check your results and repeat as necessary.
German helmets were produced with a much thinner finish, although of high quality. The use of abrasives may greatly damage any remaining paint. Of course helmets were repainted in the field, and so helmets can be found with considerably thicker layers of paint on them, thus a better resistance to corrosion. This alone does not justify attacking a German helmet with vigorous cleaning. By far the best approach is to use limescale remover - taking extra care when using this product in areas where decals might be found, as even this mild acid will damage decals.
The M1 above still retained much of its finish, as well as traces of netting. Unfortunately the metal had become so fragile, with paint becoming detached with the shell. In this case the application of a thick coat of protective transparent paint proved to be necessary to preserve the integrity of the relic and to reinforce the fragile shell.
After cleaning the wet helmet must be dried. I use a hairdryer for this purpose as it gets the shell dry fast. Remember to let any leather parts dry naturally.
Once the shell is dry apply a layer of protective Vaseline oil. This will protect the shell as well as help to revive the colours. Alternatively, if the shell is very fragile then a coat of clear paint or lacquer may be applied. However this should be only taken as a last resort as it is irreversible.
The above method can also be used on other painted objects such as road charts, ammunition boxes etc.
UNPAINTED IRON RELICS.
Even a rusted piece of iron can be of some interest to a military archaeologist: a bayonet, a gun part or a mechanical device. These kinds of objects, that were never painted, can be cleaned with much less attention than the previous category. After removing most of the dirt and loose rust manually, you can consider whether the use of abrasive or chemical means. I prefer the latter on most occasions. You can use limescale remover or vinegar, just leave the item in the solution until the rust is gone! From time to time you can take out the item and clean it with a plastic brush and rinse it with clean water. This gives you a chance to examine the item before deciding to re-immerse it into the solution, as well as clearing away more loose rust in order for the solution to get to work on the deeper rust underneath. This entire procedure will take from 1-3 days depending on the amount of rust on the relic and the strength of the acid solution.
Once the rust is gone wash the relic again using a brush, soap and water (to ensure all traces of the acid are removed). Then dry it with the hairdryer and apply a coat of protective oil.
BADGES, COINS ETC.
I use two methods to clean badges, "interesting" buttons, coins, dog tags, and similar items. There is the quick way and the slow way.
The quick method consists initially in using soap, warm water and a toothbrush. If this fails to yield good results then I can decide to use an abrasive cloth, and acid or even both.
Regarding the cloths, I use a new one to clear heavy dirt, and an older one for lighter cleaning. Using an acid based cleaner should be done carefully. Depending on the kind of object you are dealing with and how fragile it is, decide whether to spray the acid onto the relic (similar process to helmet cleaning described earlier), or to immerse it completely, as described in the non-painted iron section part of this article. If you are in any doubt, always go for the less drastic option! Don't forget that acid with remove the patina, will damage the finish if present, may even compromise the integrity of the most fragile of relics. This applies especially to German War Badges, made in zinc or to belt buckles painted Blaugrau or Feldgrau.
Above: A German paratrooper badge by G.H. Osang of Dresden, before and after cleaning. The pin has been very carefully eased back to its original shape.
After cleaning and drying, cover your little treasures with a coat of protective oil. This gives the added advantage of making them look even better and rendering details clearer (i.e. the inscribed serial numbers on an ID tag). If you have a very delicate or precious object to clean, such as a rare coin, badge or similar, you can use the slower method. Submerge the relic in a cup of vaseline or paraffin oil and leave it there for about a week. This treatment will soften any dirt and allow you to remove it without risking damage to the item. Moreover, this method preserves the age patina on metals such as copper, brass or bronze.
BREAKS & SCRAPES.
Sometimes one might retrieve a badge broken into pieces; time, war, oxidation and even mistakes in recovery are not good friends of fragile pieces such as zinc war badges and dog tags, brass cap badges or insignia. So what to do in such cases? Firstly, we must remember that every restoration process should be reversible, so I would avoid attempting to re-solder broken parts. On the other hand there is a great temptation to wish to re-instate the item to its former glory. I have found, in my opinion a good compromise; I use superglue and toilet paper!!
It sounds bizarre but it really works! Cut out a small piece of paper and place it over the fracture point of the two broken parts; then let a drop of superglue fall onto the paper. Wait a few moments and then apply another 1 or 2 small pieces of paper. Once dried, this mixture will look like semi transparent plastic, very strong but also very easy to remove. You can use this to repair many plastic things in you home as well. A friend adopted this method to repair a professional printer, and it worked splendidly!!
Two German identity discs, "Erkennungmarken" that have been re-assembled by using the glue and toilet paper method!
This article is copyright 2006 Ironcrown & Lerenfort.
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