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Cleaning and Maintaining Organic Material

Cleaning and Maintaining Organic Material

Cleaning and Maintaining Pieces Made of Organic Material

    By Dina Grey GardenArtUS Antiques at Ruby Lane

Organic material such as Mother of Pearl, Ivory, Pearl, Tortoiseshell, Bone, and Horn can be harmed if using any harsh cleaners. It can actually dissolve shell and eat away at organic material.

Ivory, Bone, & Mother of Pearl

Clean off any dirt with a very soft brush before beginning a "wet" cleaning process. An old toothbrush with the finest bristles or an artist brush with natural bristles works wonderfully. Dirt can sometimes be gritty and mar the piece if not removed first. Avoid using a cloth or any heavy material because this can catch any lose areas and lift them right out or break them.


If there is any residue from stickers or tape simply use vegetable oil to remove it. Wipe the piece with a soft cloth that has vegetable oil on it until the residue is gone. The nice thing about using it on Mother of Pearl, any type of pearl, they all love having a bit of oil now and then. It makes Mother of Pearl shine beautifully. Make sure to not leave an excessive amount on your piece. Buff it gently with a soft cloth until the majority of the oil is gone. 


Make a solution of mild soap that does not contain any acidic additives such as orange or lemon, a low PH value or no PH is the best type of liquid soap to use. The solution should be 10 parts warm water to 1 part soap. This is referred to as conservator's soap.


Gently apply the soap solution to the piece with a cotton swab. Do not drag the swab across the piece but rather the idea is to moisten the piece. Do not soak the piece with the solution only dampen it. Rinse with clean warm water in the same manner using a cotton swab. Gently wipe the piece dry immediately. You might need to do this several times until the piece is clean. Do not be tempted to force this process. Take your time so you do not damage the item.


If the piece still is not as clean as you would like it to be then using the Half & Half method (see next paragraph) might be needed. If the piece looks clean then apply micro-crystalline wax. The wax will protect the piece and leaves it with a satiny feel and look. This product is used by museums to protect everything from Paintings to metal.


If using conservator's soap does not remove all the dirt then the next step is to clean white organic pieces using a soft cloth dampened with Half & Half and apply it evenly by tapping gently do not rub or drag the cloth across the piece. Let the Half & Half dry completely then gently remove it with a very fine, soft bristled toothbrush or artists brush. Do Not rinse it under water. The Half & Half will absorb the dirt to be swept away with a brush.


You might have to repeat this process several times before seeing the results you want to achieve. Make sure not to grind the brush into the surface this can cause unwanted marks. Once the piece is cleaned to satisfaction seal it with micro-crystalline wax. With MOP you might consider using Vegetable Oil as your last step instead. Make sure you have buffed off as much oil as possible. It will attract more dust then the micro-crystalline wax will but the oil brings out the colors of MOP a great deal more then the wax.

Tortoiseshell & Horn

Tortoiseshell and horn should be cleaned in the same manner as Ivory or Bone with a mild conservator's soap solution using a very fine brush. Do not soak the piece in water.


If Tortoiseshell or Horn is exposed to light or extreme changes in temperature it will start to become dull and worse yet it will shrink and crack. If the surface has dulled use a soft polymer polish, one good choice is chrome polish since it will not mar the surface and some products will keep finger prints from showing and can also be used on glass. Apply to the surface in a circular motion then buff gently. Seal the piece with micro-crystalline wax.


Maintaining Organic Material

Do not expose organic material to sudden or extreme changes in temperature, keep them out of areas that are close to heat or cold sources and wind.


Pieces should be kept in an environment that isn't overly dry or humid. It is best to store them with a small cup or vessel of water to maintain a level of moisture so they do not dry out. Check the water level regularly, change the water often, and clean the container to keep mold from growing.


Never store organic material in direct sunlight. Some artificial lighting can also cause bleaching and drying of the material.


Storing pieces in a glass case will keep some of the dirt away and you'll be better able to control the environment they are in.


Regular cleaning with a soft natural bristle brush will keep the deep dirt away once the pieces have been thoroughly cleaned.


Do Not use Bees wax or other type waxes they will eventually discolor and harden. Using micro-crystalline wax will keep your items protected. Clean all dust off and apply wax every 6 months to a year. Don't be tempted to use very much because it goes a long way and remember the old adage of less is more. Wipe gently with a soft cloth then gently polish it to a warm glow. Do not use this until your piece has been thoroughly cleaned first.


If storing pieces use acid free tissue paper and wrap the item well leaving no exposed areas after dusting them and sealing them with micro-crystalline wax. This will protect your pieces from dirt and debris while in storage saving you the task of deep cleaning them again.


About the Author, by Webmaster: Dena Gray is a well known and respected Antiques Dealer on the Ruby Lane site, and has been involved with antiques, collectables and art objects for much of her life. Dena too modestly says “I’m not an expert in any field and do not claim to be”; however, the truth be told she is very much an expert in several areas. These include not only the organic materials she has written about here, but also fine china, furniture, silver and other areas as well.

To visit Dena’s shop -  GardenArtUS - at Ruby Lane please click here.
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