A gargantuan challenge: washing and buffering enormous pages — on a shoestring

By Elizabeth Fagg-Shuttlewood

The reality of conservation is that while there are some amazing pieces of expensive equipment available to big institutions with big budgets, many conservators work freelance or for small institutions and have very small budgets. We often have to get creative and use the items around us, turning them into bespoke pieces of equipment at a fraction of the price.

Just such a dilemma occurred when I was approached about conserving a book of architectural drawings. The book measured 700 mm x 1070 mm x 150 mm and had 39 pages, including two larger leaves that folded out, one 1220 mm wide and the other 1580 mm wide. None of my equipment was large enough.

The object’s backstory

The unique 1913 Ridham Dock and Tramway Contract Drawings book holds the original set of architectural plans for the Kemsley Paper Mill railway viaduct. This narrow-gauge railway was used to transport both paper and workmen between the paper mill and the docks. For a while, the Kemsley Paper Mill was the largest producer of newsprint in the world.

Fig. 1 – The Ridham Dock and Tramway Contract Drawings, owned by the Sittingbourne & Kemsley Light Railway (SKLR). © E. Fagg-Shuttlewood

This side-stitched book of architectural plans had been rescued 30 years ago, when it was found discarded in a building rubble skip (a large open-top waste container, designed for loading onto a special type of lorry).

  • The plans had been rained on and had consequently developed severe water stains (Fig. 2).
  • The book had been folded in half at some point, so that there was a long sharp crease running vertically down the middle of each page. This created a weak area that was prone to tearing: the paper had a tendency to fold along this crease, which had damaged the fibres over time. The first page was torn almost completely in half along this fold line (Fig 3).
  • Several plans had been stained by hundreds of squashed insect larvae, presumably from contact with rotting rubbish (Fig. 4).
  • Other staining included oil stains, which were part of this object’s history and evidence of its use as a working document on the building site. These stains were not considered damage and did not need removing.
  • The paper was very acidic and brittle (Fig. 5).
  • The front cover, which was made of cloth laminated with paper, had lost most of the lining paper, leaving large areas of thin unlined cloth. The cover also had surface dirt and stains.

After the plans were rescued, they were kept under a bed for 30 years. While this ensured their survival, the storage space was not ideal. The book was not stored in an acid-free enclosure, and it had been exposed to fluctuating environmental conditions such as temperature changes from central heating and high humidity from people sleeping in the bed. 

Conservation goals

  • The goal of the conservation treatment was to ensure that the book could be handled safely. The client wanted to digitise it and make a full-size facsimile, so that they would have a duplicate set for researchers to use.
  • The book would need to be disbound before digitisation.
  • The original book was to go on a tour of talks, alongside the facsimile set. Therefore, the client wanted the plans to be returned to the original binding after photographing. 
  • The original book needed a bespoke storage/transport solution.

Too big to treat?

Lining the pages to strengthen them would have altered the characteristics of the paper too much. A preferable treatment would be one that restored the paper’s internal strength by reactivating the fibre-to-fibre bonding and making it more flexible. With this in mind, I carefully weighed two different deacidification options: spray versus an aqueous solution.

Pre-prepared spray deacidification would have been the easiest method of application on such a large item. However, this method does not remove staining, which was a limiting factor. I contacted several manufacturers to try to find out how much liquid would be required to spray the entire surface of the paper. However, they were not able to give me an answer, as this is subject to the characteristics of the individual paper. I could not easily estimate the cost of this option, but it looked likely to be very expensive, and would not have removed the stains, so I ruled it out.

It is well documented that washing and aqueous deacidification remove acidity and strengthen paper by increasing the bonds within it, which in turn increases flexibility. Calcium hydroxide was my preferred deacidification agent, because it is relatively simple to prepare, inexpensive, and good at neutralising carboxyl groups. This procedure can also remove or reduce some types of staining, so it seemed like an ideal treatment for the Ridham book. However, the equipment in my studio was too small to allow me to wash the paper; also, handling wet paper of this size would be very challenging. 

My research, online and in journals, uncovered no useful technical information on washing techniques for large-format paper. I had to think of a way to overcome the difficulties and make this kind of treatment work.

I had four key problems to overcome:

  • My sink was too small.
  • How could I safely handle the paper when washing such large pages?
  • How to dry the pages? I only had a very small drying rack.
  • I was working on a very tight budget.

Overcoming the sink difficulties

My sink was divided through the middle into two basins, each of which was too small to accommodate the large pages. I overcame this problem by using the two washing support platforms that came with the sink. I set them up to sit above the divider (Fig. 6.1). The ‘new’, raised sink area was lined with a polythene sheet, which was clipped onto PVC pipes to make a large shallow tray (Fig. 6.2). One side of the lining sheet could easily be unclipped to empty out the water.  Not only would the pages now fit, but the height of the raised sink was also more ergonomically suitable for moving large objects. 

Fig. 6.1 – Sink with division and one washing support. © E. Fagg-Shuttlewood
Fig. 6.2 – Sink adaptation. © E. Fagg-Shuttlewood

The new shallow tray was also economical as it required only a very small amount of water and chemicals. This was a large treatment, so I needed it to be as cost-effective as possible.

To produce deionised water for the calcium hydroxide solution, I purchased a small linear deionising (DI) water filter from Ionic Systems, a company that supplies linear filter units for window cleaning (www.ionicsystems.com) (Fig. 7). I connected the filter to my tap via a short piece of hose.

Fig. 7 – DI water filter. © Ionic Systems

How to handle the paper when washing such large pages?

I developed an inexpensive solution for handling the paper, which I nicknamed my extendable arms. This was made by sewing two long pockets into the opposite sides of Bondina® fabric, using a sewing machine, and then inserting two long pieces of PVC pipe into the pockets (Fig. 8).

Fig. 8 – Extendable arms. © E. Fagg-Shuttlewood

These extendable arms offered fantastic support. I could use them to lift and move the railway plans with ease. Wet or dry, the paper remained fully supported by the Bondina®. I could position my hands at various points along the poles, which allowed flexibility when I was lifting and moving the object or performing various other operations, such as draining the paper and moving it to the drying area. I could also easily wash several pages at once, as the poles separated them from one another slightly.

I realised that the plastic pipes would be problematic during the drying process. They were in the way of the pressing boards, so they needed to be removed. I did this by slowly rolling the Bondina® onto the pipe, and continuing to roll under the item, until the paper was off the Bondina®. Because the plans were made from very heavy paper, this posed no risk.

Building a giant temporary drying rack without spending a fortune

To make a large but economical drying rack, I upcycled a mid-rise bed frame that had been thrown away (Fig. 10).

The frame could safely support three drying rack shelves, which I made by sewing woven industrial screening fabric onto a frame made from PVC electrical conduit pipes and corners (Fig. 11.1 & 11.2). The PVC parts were sourced from a high-street DIY store. The fabric, made from PVA-coated glass yarn, was sold by Picreator Enterprises LTD (www.picreator.co.uk) as a support for drip-drying material after washing.

Fig. 10 – My giant bespoke drying rack. © E. Fagg-Shuttlewood

Final treatment steps

What I loved about this treatment setup was how easy the extendable arms made the whole process. I was also amazed at how much more flexible the paper felt after treatment. I had been expecting to do a lot of strengthening with repair tissue along the weak central creases, but following treatment, many of these repairs were no longer required.

In the end, only the title page needed extensive repairs. It lay in several pieces and needed full lining with spider tissue, as well as infilling with Japanese tissue. On the other leaves, just a few long tear and edge repairs were required.

Fig. 12 – Lining the front page and doing the infill repairs. © E. Fagg-Shuttlewood

After treatment, some stains were washed out, while others were not. The water stains had disappeared completely, and the insect incrustations were less visible (Fig. 13.1 & 13.2). However, the lovely historical oil stains, which show that this had been a working document, remained (Fig. 14).

Fig. 14 – Paper after conservation, ready for digitisation. © E. Fagg-Shuttlewood

The front cloth cover would have originally been lined with paper, but over the years the paper had mostly eroded, leaving a large piece of unsupported cloth with only a few fragments of the lining. The back cover had retained its entire lining. 

A decision was made to reline the front cloth, replicating the original paper lining’s weight and colour as closely as possible. The new lining paper had to be available in sufficiently large sheets to reline the cloth in one piece, with a vertical grain direction; this rather limited my choices of paper. The vertical grain direction was essential to ensure that the paper would flex correctly upon opening. Zerkall paper was chosen, which is a large-format, mould-made, acid-free paper (75% cotton, 150 gsm). Once relined, the cover made the book easier to open, as it supports the pages and counteracts their previous tendency to fold in half.

After the photography was completed, the book was resewn in the original side-stitched style (Fig. 15). A very important part of this unique item’s identity was the gigantic size of the book. Therefore, it was important to the owner to maintain the evidence of how it had been made (quite simply, sewn through five holes). This was no fancy binding – just a simple style of sewing designed to stop the pages from getting separated during site visits. While the binding style does restrict the opening of the book slightly, it would have been inappropriate to change it or leave the pages loose. Since there is now a facsimile set of drawings, the original book will receive minimal handling. 

Fig. 15 – After conservation. © E. Fagg-Shuttlewood

To house the book, I made a custom archival folder, lined at the back with archival boxboard to stop the
item from flexing (Fig. 16).

Fig. 16 – Custom-made archival folder. © E. Fagg-Shuttlewood

The original book, accompanied by the facsimile set (stored separately), was then ready to go off on a short tour of talks by enthusiastic railway historians.

Elizabeth Fagg-Shuttlewood has worked in conservation for over 25 years. Having been awarded a B.A. Hons in book and paper conservation at Camberwell College, she went on to work at the Middle Temple Library, before working at the National Archives. She now manages the Archaic Treasures conservation studio, which supports museums, history groups and private clients throughout Kent, ensuring that they have access to conservation facilities. She is currently working as a project conservator at the Wellcome Collection.

18 thoughts on “A gargantuan challenge: washing and buffering enormous pages — on a shoestring

  1. Hello from Italy! Thank you so much for your paper, it’s very useful. With my small business It’s normal to find cheap and good solutions but yours are genial. Buon lavoro

    Greatings Orietta Felice

    Inviato da Libero Mail per iOS

    giovedì 25 marzo 2021, 13:00 +0100 da comment-reply@wordpress.com : >thebookandpapergathering posted: ” >By Elizabeth Fagg-Shuttlewood > > > >The reality of conservation is that while there are some amazing pieces of expensive equipment available to big institutions with big budgets, many conservators work freelance or for small institutions and have very small” >

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for your lovely comments. I certainly did have to think outside the box. Love the idea of using mosquito net, would never have thought of using that, I would love to hear what you have found that useful for!


  3. Roger, Thank you for your lovely comments. When I took the photos I never envisaged writing the article, so I was worried that I had not always taken the prefect image, so thanks for your positive comments on the images!


  4. Mª Jesús Delgado. Than you for the Hug from Granada! Google translate tells me your message said “You are an artist, thank you for giving us solutions that are available to everyone. A very strong hug from Granada”. Glad you liked my solutions


  5. What an amazing treatment. Kudos for all of your inventiveness to solve problems. Can you share this with the AIC wikis for book and paper and conservators in private practice? Many could benefit from your experience.


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