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Cleaning very old paintwork

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Good morning all. 

I have just joined and am putting this out there for advice.


I have recently inherited two model ships.  I am now 69 and had admired these ships from when I was 5 yo

They were built by my great, great grandfather who was a ships' carpenter and they were models of the ships he sailed on. Enough of the background, enough to say they are very precious to me.  I will figure soon how to place photos of them on the system. They are half models and in separate cases. They require work and I am about to commence working on them.


However the beautiful background of shore, sky and clouds needs cleaning.  I do not know what paint was used and it is in good enough condition to not need touching up. Just cleaning to remove probably 150 years or more of grime/tobacco smoke or whatever that cracks in the in glass fronted boxes have let in.


Any ideas would be appreciated.    Regards   Mark T    

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As the models are old, it is probably safe to say that the paintwork (not having seen it, though) is oil-based. If it is on a rigid support it will make life easier. If on something soft, like canvas, it will be more difficult. You will need to support the back to prevent bending as you clean and possible cracking/flaking.


For nicotine and ordinary grime, a damp cotton bud (not soaking wet!) will remove these. Be particularly careful if the surface of the paint is cracked. You don't want moisture penetrating the cracks. If there are other issues with the paintwork, you may wish to consult a professional conservator.


A word of warning. As a professional conservator, I've worked on paintings where damage by an enthusiastic amateur has cost far more to correct than if the piece had come to me before it had been 'cleaned'.

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Thank you Druxy,


I will try and upload a photo of the models when I figure how to.

The background is painted on wood which has a crack along it from side to side.This is on both models.

I had not intended to make the pieces "as new"as I want to maintain their character and charm.

I agree that many restorations are ruined by attacking too vigorously.

There is a lot of work to be done on the rigging as one of the pieces was damaged in shipping.

Also all the sails are carved from wood and there appears to be no metal parts whatsoever on the models.


I will keep you informed on my progress.  Regards  Mark T


(have just managed to upload 2 photos of the best of the two !!!!!!)




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Hi Mark T


As others have mentioned I've also heard about damage caused by well intenioned people attempting restorations.


I'd suggest getting in touch with a local (maritime?) museum and seeing if you could take the models in to show a conservator. Certainly some of the conservators I've spoken to would be happy to help with a bit of advise.


Or perhaps a uni within reach who have a course in conservation may be approachable.


Mark D

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Thanks Mark D


Interesting that you should say that as I have just filled out my application to join the Brisbane (Queensland Australia) Maritime Museum as a volunteer.

I will take your advice and talk to them this week before taking any further action.  I think I owe it to my great great grandfather to do it properly.

Thanks for your input.


Regards  Mark T 

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  • 2 weeks later...

fantastic!  I just found your website and forum and I too have inherited a diorama, probably made by my great grandfather who was an able seaman sailing the Atlantic between Scotland and many parts of the world - both under sail and steam. The diorama is in a glazed box. The diorama is very dirty - it was kept for many years in a peat-burning croft in the Outer Hebrides. The rigging has fallen apart and I too don't want to glam it up - just return it to a clean state with intact rigging. I don't really want to do this job myself but have been looking for a conservator or restorer for a while and the only quote I have been able to obtain was EXTREMELY expensive (Mayfair/London). Anyone out there know of a course in London? I have tried the Maritime Museum but so far without success in finding someone who might be interested in the project. Any advice is welcome but thanks for your earlier comments as so far they are the furthest I have come over several years of looking for information in the UK. I attach a picture of the unnamed ship which is nearly one metre wide.


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Hello Tadumac,


I just read your burst above. I have also sought to have them cleaned up and repaired professionally but I am afraid the cost is prohibitive.  I intend to do a very careful job and repair and clean them myself. One of them is worse off than the other as I came off the wall in a thunderstorm here that shook the house.  I have heard that rubbing the pieces with fresh bread is is used by some conservators, and another method used by museums to clean oil paintings is using a cotton tip wetted with saliva.  Sounds unusual but apparently it is a method that is used in most museums throughout the world.  I have used a cotton bud dipped in white vinegar in a trial area of the background and this seems to work well getting rid of the grime with no effect in the actual paint


I will have to do some repairs on it and have sourced an organisation here in Australia that appear to be very helpful. If anyone wants fittings etc, I really recommend that that tale a look at the following site.  




I will keep you posted on my progress as I have no intention of pushing it and making a mess of it.


Also I am trying to get some more history about my ancestor.  The background painting is remarkably similar and both makers were sailors. I believe that his name was Johnson.  You never know.


Regards Mark T   

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Hi Mark,


Thanks for your feedback.  I have often wondered if there was an early 'kit' out there, or even if the diorama had been made by someone else. I await a quote from a UK specialist but will take a look at the site you suggest. My gg grandfather sailed to Melbourne,Australia, then New York in 1870-71 ( on only his second voyage after one from UK-Quebec) and I obtained a photograph of one of his ships from the State Library of Queensland so there are definitely strong links from those days.  But there were thousands and thousands of ships and sailors. I am very lucky in that I have all his ship discharge papers and can therefore plot a detailed chronology.


Meantime, in case of a prohibitive quote, I will file your technical notes for future reference!!


all the best,



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