Polishing Liturgical Brass

November 21, 2009
Brass polishing kit, St Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, November 2009

By Ellen Carrlee and Dave Harvey

This is the How-To Manual that accompanies the kit above that we made for the St. Nichlas Russian Orthodox Church in Juneau, Alaska.  In August 2009, the Western Association for Art Conservation (WAAC) held its annual conference in Juneau, and the church was the site of an “Angels” volunteer project described elsewhere in this weblog. The brass polishing part of the project was organized and led by Dave Harvey, who has extensive experience caring for metals, dating back to his time working at Colonial Williamsburg.  The technique and kit are designed for items that are in active use.  Conservators treating museum artifacts would usually mix up their own formula for polishing metal, but the approach for objects that continue to be in regular use and maintained by non-conservators have a slightly different approach.  The materials and techniques must be accessible.  If you have metals conservation needs or questions, Dave Harvey lives in Los Angeles and can be reached at: topladave@gmail.com

Three biggest rules:

  1. Polishing is abrasive.  You are sanding off the surface of the metal.
  2. Solvent fumes are serious
  3. Getting well set up is half the battle.


If you need to start from scratch for a large project, setting up a deluxe kit is around $500.  If you have a lot of this stuff lying around (table, fan, hairdryer, towels) you could put together a good kit for around $100.

2 plastic tubs ($11.22 Home Depot. Sterilite 66 quarts or 62 liters. )  Nest together.  Lidded ones are good because the tub can double as the storage container for the supply kit.  Size depends on how large your objects are.

Bucket ($4.47 Home Depot.  Helps with transporting hot water)








Teflon tools ($21.50 big, $19.50 small.  Talas www.talasonline.com) Non-abrasive special plastic for scraping off wax.

Wooden tools ($2.00 – $5.00 Fred Meyer.)  Bamboo skewers, popsicle sticks, toothpicks etc. Really helps with getting candle wax out of threads on screws.








Terry cloth rags ($13.97 for bag of 24 at Home Depot.  Large bags also sold at Costco.)  Other kinds of cotton rags like old bed sheets or cloth diapers are fine, too.  White cotton is the best.

Large bath towel Got an old one at home?  This is nice just to place on the table under the wash tubs.  (Any color is fine.)

Silver polishing brushes ($7.50 each Talas www.talasonline.com) Made of horsehair and very soft, for getting the polish off before waxing.

Nitrile gloves ($24.41 Fisher Scientific www.fishersci.com Box of 100 pairs)  Latex gloves from Costco are OK too, but some people develop an allergy to latex.

Acetone ($16.96 Home Depot one gallon) Used to remove lacquers and other coatings from the brass.  Also, after polishing and rinsing, acetone removes remaining residues and helps evaporate any water in crevices.

Hair dryer ($14.99 Fred Meyer) Used to help remove wax when submerging in hot water isn’t a good option.

Hot air gun ($29.50 Home Depot) Gets much hotter than the hair dryer and is used only to heat the metal gently before waxing.








Renaissance Wax ($21.00 Talas www.talasonline.com 200mL can) For protective waxing of the surface after it is clean.

Mylar ($53.50 for .005” thick 20” x 50 feet Talas www.talasonline.com) Polyester sheet film that can be cut into drip-catchers that are almost invisible.  When they get spattered with wax, they can be peeled off and replaced, saving you from having to polish as frequently.

Scissors ($10.00 Fred Meyer) For cutting the Mylar

Small mat knife or X-acto ($3.00 Home Depot)  For cutting the Mylar

Wright’s Copper Cream ($4.29 Fred Meyer) For polishing.  Avoid anything that has “ammonia” in the ingredients.










Jet-dry ($5.29 Fred Meyer) Contains non-ionic surfactant.  Any rinse aid that says “non-ionic surfactant” on the label is OK, but avoid dyes and perfumes.  This container has blue color in the plastic bottle but the liquid itself is clear.

6 foot folding table ($175 Costco) As a working space if you don’t already have one

Fan ($18.00 Fred Meyer) To help get rid of the fumes.


Brass is the name given for a metal alloy that is made mostly of copper but also includes zinc.  There may be small amounts of other metals present as well.  (Bronze is a copper alloy that includes tin.)

Brass is often polished with harsh abrasives that can leave scratches in the surface and residues that harm the brass over time.  Many commercial polishes contain ammonia as a cleaning and degreasing agent, but it also reacts with the copper.  If there is already tension in the metal, the ammonia can cause a phenomenon known as “stress corrosion cracking.”  This is well known among folks who repair clocks and watches because of the damage it causes to the gears.  If chemical residues are not well washed away, they continue to attack the metal after the polishing is done.  For things in everyday use with a limited life span, the aggression of these commercial products is fine.  For heirloom pieces, artwork, clocks, and museum items to be preserved for hundreds of years, more gentle techniques are needed.  Most metal polishes contain fine abrasives.  Pinkish or reddish polishes contain iron oxide, which is much too abrasive for shiny silver or brass.  Steel wool and naval jelly are too harsh as well.  The rule is to use the gentlest polish possible. Remember, polishing is essentially sandpapering.

Sadie Beck Ingalls and Lauren Horelick use a hair dryer to help remove candle waxThe unpolished underside does not need treatment if the surface is stable. Gentle washing was all that was needed for this side. Polishing removes surface metal and we don't want to remove any more metal than necessary.

Brass in need of polishing often has degraded lacquer (can appear as dark tarnish areas,) candle wax, dirt, and corrosion products on the surface, including greenish organometallic corrosion that is often due to the interaction of impurities in the candle wax with the brass.  The green is often copper sterates or copper oleates.  These are caused by organic acids in the oils of the waxes reacting with copper ions from the metals.

The cavity of this candleholder was filled with resin. We tested it and found it was not water-soluble and was safe to submerge in warm water for cleaning.

If the item is completely brass, you can follow the simple instructions below.  If it includes any other materials, such as wood, ivory, paint, and so on the technique is slightly different so as not to damage those parts.  For example, you should not submerge it in water.  For the votive table we polished, it had wood underneath and careful use of heat from a hair dryer (not a hot air gun, that would be too hot) helped loosen the wax.

The candleholder filled with resin has areas where the metal was very thin and cracked, so we polished very gently in those areas.


Make a workspace with a large table covered with a large bath towel.  We used the gift shop area with a station for wet work and a separate station for waxing. There was a spot outside on the front porch for dirty acetone-soaked rags.  We set up the waxing station near the back door for ventilation.  Fumes from the acetone, polish, and wax can make the work unpleasant and make you feel really lousy.  Setting up a fan to blow the solvent fumes away from you is a good idea as well.  If you do feel lightheaded after doing this work, you probably had too much solvent exposure.  Your liver will be working hard to clear it out of your system, so be kind to your liver and avoid drinking alcohol that evening.

Using tags and a digital camera to label where all the pieces go.

If the brass item comes apart, like a candelabra or a votive table, you MUST document where all the parts and piece go so you can reassemble easily when you are done.  Photographing is helpful.  If you use a digital camera or even a cell phone camera, you don’t have to download the images, just use the playback on the camera to check and then delete the images later after the object is reassembled.  It can help to make tags or labels of where things go.  If possible, only remove a few at a time so they are easier to keep track of.

Hot water from the bathtub

Fill tub #1 (the wash water) halfway or a little more with tap water as hot as it can come out of the bathtub faucet . You only need to fill up the tub far enough to cover whatever it is you are polishing.   It helps to have two people to carry the tub. If you are on your own, use the bucket to carry hot water to the tub.  Add just enough non-ionic rinse (Jet Dry) so bubbles come up when you shake your fingers around in it.  Tub #1 will be for cleaning.  Keep the Teflon scrapers and some rags handy near this tub.

Fill tub #2 (the rinse water) the same way.  It will be for final rinsing after the brass is clean, right before waxing.  Keep the horsehair brushes and some rags handy near this tub.

Set the acetone container under the table with some rags handy. Do not use acetone or other chemicals around flame or sources of ignition, and do not smoke. If the fumes are annoying, you might want to do the acetone work near some ventilation.  You might want to have a big ziplock bag to use with towels that become too stinky so you can seal them up and set them aside, or even set them outside on the porch.  A fan might also be helpful, positioned to blow any acetone fumes away from you.  Acetone is the main ingredient in fingernail polish remover, and while there are many solvents that are much more toxic, some people are quite sensitive to acetone and it is smart to reduce exposure.  An open door or window can help, and in nice weather this activity might even take place outdoors.

Keeping stinky rags on the front porch










You have several weapons to combat the candle wax, stain and corrosion:

  1. Hot water
  2. Teflon or wooden tools
  3. Polish
  4. Acetone
  5. Rags

Weapons to remove candle wax and corrosion









Soak the brass parts in tub #1 of warm wash water to dissolve dirt and soften the wax.  Use the Teflon scrapers to loosen the warm candle wax and wipe it off the scraper onto a towel you keep handy.  You can scrape and dip repeatedly in the warm water to get the wax off, or even keep the piece immersed in the warm water while you work on it.  Once the candle wax starts getting sticky and goopy, it is time to get fresh hot water.  Wrapping the back end of a plastic pen in a rag and twisting into the candle hole helps clean it out.  Anything that is softer than the metal and won’t scratch the metal is generally OK as a tool.  Bamboo skewers (like those used for shish-ke-bobs,) toothpicks, and popsicle sticks are nice too.

Working in warm water to clean the brass

Using a Teflon tool to scrape off candle wax








In order to remove the last bits of candle wax and the degraded lacquer, put a little acetone on a towel and rub it off.  Use the smallest amount possible.  Keep the lid on the acetone as much as you can and try to limit how many rags are being used, or else the fumes from the acetone will make your work unpleasant.  It is best to do this work in a well-ventilated place.

All this brown stuff will come off









Rub a small amount of the polish onto the surface of the brass with the sponge that is included in the jar.  Rubbing the metal with the sponge ought to help remove most areas of stain. The gentle abrasion offered by a terrycloth rag with polish on it is helpful, too.  Polish seems to work a little better if it sits briefly on the surface.  Brownish tarnish areas will come off with enough rubbing.  The towel will have dark stain on it as you polish, and some of that is the metal itself, so the idea is NOT to polish until your rag comes up clean, but until the stain is gone.  Sometimes going back and forth between the acetone and the polish is helpful.

Applying the polish









When you have cleaned it as well as you can, use the rinse water in tub #2 and the horsehair brushes to remove the polishing residues.  Dry the object with a clean cloth.  If there are two people working on the project, one person can be doing the dirty cleaning off of candle wax and using tub #1, and another person can be doing the less-dirty activities of rinsing at tub #2 and waxing.  If you are working by yourself, it is good to change your gloves before going to tub #2.  Otherwise your gloves might get candle wax and dirt residues on your freshly cleaned brass.


Microcrystalline wax provides a layer of protection from dirt, wax, fingerprints, grease etc and will make your polishing job last longer.  The Renaissance wax is also a sacrificial layer that will take a lot of soiling with it when it is removed during the next polishing.  We use Renaissance microcrystalline wax because it is of known good quality, does not need to be pre-melted before use, and will not cause corrosion of the brass.  However, it does have solvents in it and you should take care with breathing it.  It is not a natural wax like the beeswax in the candles, it is a petroleum product.  Wipe down the brass with acetone on a clean rag just before waxing.  This will remove grease or fingerprints from the surface as well as help remove any water from crevices.  The cleaner the surface, the better the wax can form a good coating.

Acetone removes grease/residues and helps the last traces of water evaporate before waxing.

Pre-heat the brass piece you are working on evenly all over with the hot air gun.  Do the heating gradually over the whole piece, not just in one spot.  Do not touch the nozzle of the hot air gun or you could be burned.  Heating opens the pores of the metal and makes the wax flow on and penetrate the metal surface much better than if it were applied cold.  It is difficult to get the metal warm enough with a simple hair dryer.  When the metal gets almost too warm to touch with your fingers, like a hot muffin, it is ready.  Dab a little Renaissance Wax on a clean rag and then barely coat the surface of the brass.  Make sure there are no shiny spots left and the brass is completely coated. Remove the lid of the wax container only long enough to put some on a rag.  Apply it to the surface with one rag, and then right away take a second clean rag and buff like crazy.  Use a fingernail inside the cloth to get buildup of wax out from the small spaces and grooves.  It is a good idea to walk away from the waxy rag while you polish so you are not standing in the fumes.

Heat gun and wax









When you are done with the project, lay out all the used rags to let them air dry overnight.  Choose somewhere where no one will be, as it will get stinky from the fumes.  When they are dry, wash them with detergent like a normal load of laundry in the washer and dryer.  They will come out pretty clean and can be put back with the kit for future use.

Final buffing after the wax is applied.


Your polish job could last for years if you avoid handling the brass with bare hands and can keep candle wax drips off of it.  Wearing cotton or plastic gloves or even having a clean towel between your hand and the brass can prevent fingerprints that etch into the metal over time.

Fingerprints etching into the brass









There are “Dripless” candles of higher purity that might cost more but cause less damage.  We made custom-fit layers of clear plastic Mylar film to act as drip guards for the candelabras and votive tables.  These are optional but might make your polishing job last longer.

Templates for making more plastic drip-guards for the candelabra









How long does it take and how many supplies are needed?  Well, 5 or 6 people (professional conservators) working for two days (about 14 hours) polished one large floor-standing candelabra, one large votive table with a great many candleholders, and another smaller votive table with only a few candleholders. They used up 1/10 bottle of Jet Dry, 1 ½  cans of polish, 2/3 can acetone and most of one can of wax.  A few months later, 3 people (two conservators and a volunteer) took 12 hours to polish the second floor-standing candelabra.  (The 21 little individual candleholders that unscrew from the candelabra took those 3 people 3 hours.)  They used 1/10 bottle Jet Dry, one can of polish, 1/3 can acetone, and ½ can of wax.


Aleut or Alutiiq “Child’s” Boots

November 15, 2009

NOTE: the terms “Aleut” and “Alutiiq” are from old museum records here at the Alaska State Museum.  These words refer also to resilient, living cultures who are increasingly asserting control over interpretation of their own traditions.  Many Alaska Natives prefer the term “Unangan” or “Unangax” instead of “Aleut”.  Also, many “Alutiiq” people prefer the term “Sugpiaq”.  These are not just words, these terms are part of a complex history that affects people today.  

Hello, I’m Lauren Anne Horelick, Ellen Carrlee’s third year intern from the UCLA/Getty Masters Conservation program in Archaeological and Ethnographic objects. Prior to my coming up here to work at the Alaska State Museum, Ellen had asked me if there were any types of objects that I wished to gain experience in examining and treating. My response was “any objects composed of gut or composite objects with fur.”  Gut material, or other inner skins such as esophagus, or bladder hold significant interest for me. I was delighted to arrive and have a box handed to me that enclosed two damaged boots made from an inner skin material.  Below is the written and photographic documentation, as well as the treatment that was carried out to stabilize these boots in preparation for travel and display at the Sheldon Jackson Museum in Sitka, Alaska.  The idea to turn this report into a blog was inspired by the rarity of these “child knee boots” which may be from the Aleut or Alutiq cultural groups. Due to the paucity of information about them, we hope that this blog entry will be of use to others who may have similar materials in their collections.

Fig.1.BT_Boots Standing_A_B

SJ2008-6-1 A,B. Aleut or Alutiiq Boots. Before Treatment

Catalog No: SJ 2008-6-1a,b     Object:  Boots   Culture:  Aleut or Alutiiq  Boots

Materials:Unidentified. Possibly sea lion esophagus membrane for the legging, and sealskin or commercially tanned leather for the vamp (based on similar objects). No materials analysis has been conducted at this time to confirm or suggest other possible material origin.

Dimensions (see above image for letter designation):

Boot A: H: 24 cm W: 5 cm D:  13 cm (boot A is 2 cm taller than B)

Boot B: H: 22 cm W: 5 cm D: 13 cm

Description: The object is a pair of “child-sized” boots with dark brown leather vamps, a yellow-colored hide sole, and a thin, opaque, papery yellow-colored material for the legging. It is not possible to distinguish the right boot from the left. Both side seams of each boot have the remains of coarse and kinky tufts of alternating red and blue wooly fibers, as well as regularly spaced small feathers. It is not unclear if the boots where used as footwear, as the size of the feet appear too small and narrow for a real fit. The boots may have been models or practice sewing pieces for girls or they may have been produced as souvenirs.

Background Info: The boots were purchased in auction from a woman in Vacaville, CA for the Sheldon Jackson Museum (SJM) in Sitka, Alaska. Vacaville is about 3 hours from Ft. Ross, which was the Russian American outpost during the early 1800s, and now a historic park. Ft. Ross is significant for this objects attribution as Aleut/Alutiiq people helped establish the fort.  Curator Rosemary Carlton of SJM speculates, “… these small, fragile boots may have had their origins from some of those 19th century settlers. Unfortunately the seller knew nothing about the boots other than having purchased them at a church sale in Vacaville” (Carlton 2009). A second time frame for the boots is provided by Oakes and Riewe (2007) who indicate that the “Aleut, Alutiit and the Dena’ina had contact with the Russians by the late 1700’s,” and that the “boot style was probably introduced by the Europeans and may not have been worn prior to Russian contact.”


Similar boots are in the collections of the Alaska State Museum (ASM) in Juneau, the National Museum of Finland, and the department of Anthropology at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC.  The collection dates of similar boots from these institutions span from 1854-1913.

ASMboots Together

Figure 1:Left: ASM “Baby’s boots” II-F-53. Right: ASM “ Child’s knee boots” II-F-72. Images of the boots while on display at the Alaska State Museum 11.05.2009.

One pair of similar boots in the Alaska State Museum collections (II-F-53)[Figure 1] are described as “baby’s boots”, measuring 10.8 cm long, 2.5 cm wide and 14 cm high. The feet are incredibly narrow, and could not possibly fit the typical width of baby’s foot (the 7 lb newborn of the ASM conservator [Figure 2] had a foot width of 3.5cm and 7.5cm long.  At 2 years of age and walking well, his feet were 6.4cm wide and 14cm long.)

Carson and feet

Figure 2: Carson Carrlee at 2 years old showing us how wide his feet are. You can tell, he also thinks those boots are too narrow for his feet.

The boots in Figure 1 are described generally as sealskin, though the vamp (sides and top of the shoe), which encircles the feet, appears to be black-brown commercially processed leather with a glossy surface quality. The legging is opaque yellow with a visible grain pattern, indicating an inner skin that has an overall softness in quality. This legging material is attached to the top perimeter of vamp by very fine hand-sewn stitches resulting in tiny pleats occurring at random. The other pair of ASM boots (II-F-72), referred to as “child’s knee boots”, measuring 14cm long, 5.5 cm wide, and 27 cm high. These boots possess realistic proportions relating to children’s feet, and they appear to be made with identical materials as the previously described baby’s boots, showing an overall similarity in design and execution. When seen together, these two pairs of boots could be construed as a model pair next to the final product. Both of these boots have brown-black vamps, stitched to a skin of opaque yellow legging, and adorned at the top with a single strip of brown-black material sewn along the interior . The striking similarity between these rather rare boots may be attributed to their collection history. Both pairs are from the Samuel and Martha Applegate collection of Aleut materials dated 1881-1913, based on the period of time the family was in the Aleutian Islands for various business and professional ventures (ASM file 67-67). This collection time frame pushes the previously stated “early 1800’s” time frame given for the SJM boots, to possibly mid to late 1800’s.

ASM boots compare

Figure 3: At right are the SJM Museum’s “Child’s knee boots” before treatment next to an image of the ASM’s pair of “Baby’s knee boots.”

What is most compelling in comparison to the SJM boots is the quality and shape of material used for the vamp of the boots, and the method of attachment to the legging material. Both the SJM and ASM boots show what appears to be very fine hand-stitched thread to connect commercially tanned leather to a traditionally used skin [Figure 3].

The boots from the Etholén collection of the National Museum of Finland are documented in a catalogue with the dimensions of height at 22 cm and the length of the foot at 16 cm [Figure 4].

Fig3.Etholen collection_233_Koniag

Figure 4: Child’s boots in the Etholén collection of the National Museum of Finland. The boots are described as seal skin for the sturdy vamps, and sea lion esophagus membrane for the legging. Image: Varjola 1990: 233. Photo by Matti Huuhka, Museokuva.

The boots in figure 4 were collected circa 1854-62, which is a bit earlier than the ASM collection date, but still well within the range of late 1800’s. From the black and white image in the catalogue, these boots appear very similar to the ASM pairs with the same dark top border, light legging material, with tiny pleats resulting from fine stitching of the legging to the foot encircling vamp of the boot. The catalogue entry describes the materials for these “child’s boots” as seal skin for the sturdy vamps, and the legging of sea lion esophagus membrane (Varjola 1990). The description of the top border of the boots indicates the use of sealskin that at one time contained fur, but is now completely worn off (Varjola 1990). These boots are also described as having “narrow esophagus membrane piping painted red, green, and black” (Varjola 1990).

The most striking similarity between the Etholén boots compared with the SJM’s pair can be seen in the quality of the legging material, though there is no painted surface on the SJM pair. The stitching technique and overall design and execution are very similar to both the ASM and the SJM boots.

The Smithsonian’s Aleut and Alutiiq boots are much larger than the SJM’s pair of boots overall, and were not intended for children (or babies) as they are called either “man’s fancy knee-high boots”, or just “man’s knee boots” called sapuugan in the Aleut’s Unangam Tunuu language (www.alaska.si.edu) [Figure 5].

smithsonian boots_1

Figure 5: Smithsonian Museum collections of similar boots, possibly made with similar materials to ours though much larger. Left: man’s knee-high fancy boots from Aleutian Islands. Accessioned 1873. Right: man’s knee-high boots from Unalaska Island. Accessioned 1881. Images: www.alaska.si.edu.

The similarities in these larger boots, in comparison to the other collections, can be seen with the use of similar-looking materials such as the black-brown vamp, described in discussions with elders as commercially tanned leather. The vamps have a similar overall shape and attachment method to the legging material said to be either “seal throat”, sea lion esophagus membrane, or caribou skin, with the seams made waterproof by sewing with whale or caribou sinew (www.alaska.si.edu). It is interesting that there is no mention of sealskin, as in the examples from ASM. The soles of feet are described as either sea lion flipper or bearded seal skin (www.alaska.si.edu). The overall color scheme is similar to all of the other pairs of boots, with the dark vamps and the light yellow legging material. These boots also do not appear to have a painted surface.

An engaging detail can been seen in the pair of Smithsonian’s boots (seen at right) showing short colorful fibrous tufts protruding from the side seam along with what appears to be the remains of feathers, or long wispy fibers of some type. This arrangement of short tufts of fibers (and possibly feathers) is identical to the seam design on the SJM boots, as well as on a rare example of boots collected from the Athabascan Dena’ina in 1855 and now in the collection of the National Museum of Finland, Museum of Cultures [Figure 6]. The Dena’ina live in Cook inlet and the surrounding land northwest of the Aluiit, and Northeast of the Aleut (Oakes and Riewe 2007).

Fig5.Athabaskan boots_143_oaks and riewe

Figure 6: A pair of boots collected from Dena’ina in 1855 in the collection of the National Museum of Finland, Museum of Cultures. Note the small tufts of red fibers emerging from the seams. Images Oakes and Riewe 2007.

Materials and Technology



SJ2008 A-B Before Treatment.

The legging material is matte, opaque, and has a soft, somewhat flexible paper-like quality with approximately 1 mm thickness overall. The exterior of the legging material has a regular, striated, vertically occurring feature that appears, at first glance, as previously creased or folded material. Under the binocular microscope, the legging also shows fine, incised-looking lines that run close together. Under magnification it is not possible to detect a follicle pattern on the exterior or interior of the legging material. On the interior of the legging there are randomly disbursed black filiform features (fine, wispy, threadlike undulose strands) [Figure 7]. These features are characteristic of an inner skin, or gut material, though the exact animal and previous function of the inner skin is undetermined.

Fig5.gut feature and inner seam

Figure 7:Detail of the inside of the legging showing filiform features characteristic of gut.

Along areas of breaks in the legging material the cross-sections reveal a white and densely compact fibrous material [Figure 8]. The numerous deep and shallow creases along with the amount of dirt accumulation throughout the legging complicates observation of the legging’s micro-features.

Fig6.Break in legging

Figure 8: Detail of a cross-section break edge showing white fibrous material.

The legging material appears to be manufactured by using two separate, front and hind strips, sewn together at the sides to form a column shape. The seam sewing is not visible from the exterior of the boots, but can seen along the interior occurring as a tiny overlapped band that has been whip-stitched, possibly with sinew. The seams coincide with a thin (2mm) strip of welting of a brown skin colored material. The welting encloses decorative additions of short tufts of red and blue fibers, along with small, semi-plume feathers spaced at regular intervals. The seams are placed roughly in line with where the ankle would be.

The top seam at the opening of the boots is folded towards the interior, and a (5mm) band of skin material, pigmented green, is sewn just below the perimeter of the top lip [Figure 9]. It appears as though feathers and more tufts of colored fibers were held in place by this band, which is stitched with a wool-like thread that is now faded blue-green. The tufts occur in dense clusters of blue and red fibers that have a kinky quality.

Fig 9.top detail

Figure 9: Pigmented green band of skin around the top perimeter of the boot.

The tufts have a pattern going up the seam, where at the first cluster shows the red tuft surrounded by blue, and then the pattern is reversed in the next grouping. The semi-plume feathers are consistently located in the center of the tufts grouping (where they are still present) [Figure 10].

Figure 10.Detial Boot B_feathers and welting

Figure 10: Detail of the side of the seam where there are feathers and alternating tufts fibers.

The feet appear to have been made from one piece of an overall dark brown-colored material to form the vamp (sides and top of the shoe), which encircle the feet. The vamp has a visible grain pattern throughout [Figure 11]. The vamps may be commercially processed leather, as there is a lack of hair follicles and the vamps possess a slight luster in areas lacking abrasion. The deterioration of in the surface flakes, with slightly powdery material beneath is reminiscent of red rot seen on vegetable tanned leather, but not similar enough to suggest red rot as the mechanism with confidence.

Fig 11.Vamp material

Figure 11: Photomicrograph at 10x magnification of the material used for the foot. Apparent in this image is a clear grain pattern with no hair follicles present.

The lack of hair follicles observable on the vamp may have to do with the processing of the skin, the species of animal, or the location from where the skin was taken. The legging material is slightly pleated at the area where it is sewn around the top perimeter of the vamp. These stitches may be made from sinew and are visible from the outside of the vamp and appear in short, angled lengths that are close together.

The soles of the feet are made from a tough and inflexible dark-ochre colored hide material that has been stitched around the bottom perimeter of the feet. The stitching is not visible from the exterior of the boot.


Please see condition maps for measurements and specific locations [Figure 12].

condition map

Figure 12: Condition maps of the boots before treatment. Click on image to see it larger.


Both pairs of boots are in poor condition with several disfiguring compound tears, heavily creased material, tiny holes, soiling, deformation, and scattered areas of missing decoration. The boots do not appear to be able to stand on their own and generally look misshapen due to the extent of the tearing and crumpling to the material. Both boots have strong creases up the front and back resulting in a flattened appearance. The legging material is heavily creased throughout, but does not appear to be brittle and has retained flexibility. The legging material on both pairs of boots is an overall cream to yellow-ochre color with pronounced darker patches, particularly in deeply creased areas. Both boots have scattered areas of abrasion revealing a white material, which may reflect the original color of the boots.

Both boots overall have a fine layer of a sooty and greasy-looking black dirt. Areas of pronounced dirt accumulation can be seen in the numerous deep and shallow creases throughout the boots, and within the small holes present at the top of the boots, as well as collected within the tiny feathers.

These “child-sized” boots may have been displayed hanging on a wall with the toes facing inward. Evidence for this observation can be seen in the amount of discoloration, either due to soiling or light damage, or both to the surfaces of only one side of each boot. Further evidence to suggest this can be seen with the amount of missing fringe decoration along the sides and tops of one side of each boot.

Past interventions, presumably to provide inner support to the boots, can be seen by additions of bundled stockings (possibly Nylon) and commercial wrapping paper (with a holly motif). Although this material has most likely helped to reduce some of creasing and exaggerated deformation, it has altered the orientation of boot A from upright to a slight diagonal position, which is strangely enhanced by this boot being 2 cm taller than boot B.  It is also possible that the action of adding the less than ideal inner stuffing caused the splits seen throughout the boots. The creasing seen throughout most likely contributed to the weakening of the fibers of the legging material. Thereby the action of possibly overzealous stuffing may have caused these already weakened areas to split.  Both boots have also been previously “mended” with a clear pressure sensitive tape.

Boot A: Specifics of condition

The legging is torn directly above the vamp of boot A in a horizontally oriented tear running from the opposing side seams of the boot. This tear is located approximately 1 cm above the foot. Many smaller longitudinally oriented tears accompany this area of damage. The nylon-stocking bundle is currently bulging out the torn flaps of the legging material in this location, and forcing the orientation of the legging to a diagonal [Figure 13]. Two other horizontally oriented tears are present towards the top of the boot. A vertical tear is present on the back of the boot above the heel.

Fig13.stockingsDetail_boot A

Figure 13: Detail of boot A with stocking ( possibly nylon) pressing out torn flaps of skin material.

There are additions of a clear pressure sensitive tape visible on the interior of the boot’s opening, presumably to act as mends to the localized tears. The tape does not appear to be well adhered to the surface and is coming loose at several corners. The adhesive surface of the tape does not appear to have attached skin material.

Many pin- sized and smaller holes are present on the top of the boot. Some of these holes appear to have the burr facing outward, suggesting puncturing possibly from past display methods where a pin or tack could have been used from the inside to secure the boots. Other small holes are less regular in size and have the appearance of being burnt or brown colored at the edges. These holes may be the result of insect grazing followed by dirt accumulation.

The vamp and sole of the boot appears to be in very good structural condition and is intact with no significant tears, losses or abrasions. The bottom of the foot however, is misshapen in a slightly convex form.

Boot B: Specifics of condition

The top of the legging is distorted and flattened overall. In particular the opening is flattened shut.  There are small horizontal tears located towards the back of the legging.

The legging material has multiple tears and losses. One vertically oriented tear is present at the front bottom of the legging material. This tear coincides with creased skin material. Two other tears are to the right and left of this central area of damage. The top front of the legging material has a large horizontally oriented C-shaped tear, with the torn material in folded inward.

Along the back crease of the boot, beginning near the heel, there is a vertically oriented tear that had been “mended” with two pieces of clear pressure sensitive tape, which has failed exposing more of the nylon stocking. The tape appears well adhered in some locations though it is coming loose around the edges. Towards the opening of the boot, on the back, is another tear coinciding with creases.

There are several small holes similar to those on boot A in location, distribution, and size.

The vamp and sole of the boot are in fair structural condition with no significant tears, or losses. The top center of the vamp is heavily abraded and the material on the back of the heel shows some degree of delamination [Figure 14]. Tiny bits of this brown material have become dislodged providing some “self-sample” for potential analysis.

Fig11. vamp condition

Figure 14: Back of boot B detail of the vamp showing the present condition of the leather.

The top decorative bands of the boots, as well as the side seams have a few remaining tufts of red and blue fibers. The feathers are largely missing on one side of each of the boots and are not present along the top decorative band.

Boot B- has a small splash of light blue paint along the back of the legging material that coincides with a crease and a tear in the material.

Treatment Proposal:

  1. Descriptive and photographic documentation of the object.
  2. Remove the interior stockings and paper.
  3. Remove the clear pressure sensitive tape from locations of tears.
  4. Reduce the amount of surface soiling first by light vacuuming with a soft brush.  If this procedure does not appear to have reduced the amount of loose and ingrained dirt a secondary method such as soot sponge or groom stick will be used. The surface cleaning will aim for an overall even appearance and will not attempt to make the boots look new.  Surface cleaning will help to facilitate proposed consecutive conservation treatment steps such as humidification (to reshape) and mending with an aqueous adhesive (removal of dirt will promote a better bonding surface).
  5. Localized humidification to reduce the amount of creases, bends, and folds.
  6. Mend tears with an appropriate adhesive in combination with a backing tissue of an appropriate weight and flexibility. The choice of an adhesive will be informed by the results of mock-ups on similar weight and textured material.
  7. Consolidate the flaking leather, most likely with Klucel-G in a dilute solution to allow penetration into the leather.
  8. Create interior stuffed Tyvek support for the boots to prevent further deformation of the shape.
  9. Create a supportive blue board tray and box for the object during transit to the Sheldon Jackson Museum, in Sitka, Alaska.

10.  Digitally document the condition of the object after treatment.


  1. Removed the inner stuffing from the boots. The stuffing appeared to be two different types of stockings (possibly Nylon). Three stockings were wedged into the bottom of boot A. Boot B contained only one thicker type of stocking along with a small wooden stick, resembling a used matchstick.
  2. Tweezers were used to mechanically remove the clear pressure sensitive tape from the interior and exterior surfaces of the boots. Ethanol on a small-tipped brush was introduced to the tape in locations where adhesion was pronounced in order to release the bond. A cotton swab with ethanol was used to reduce adhesive residue remaining on the skin.
  3. Light vacuuming with a soft brush followed by surface cleaning with latex-free cosmetic make-up wedges (Swisspers brand) was used to reduce loose soiling from the interior and exterior of the boots.

The makeup sponges picked up dense and greasy black dirt resembling fine particles of soot.  Soot sponges were also tried, but no soiling resulted on the surface of the sponge. This may have to do with the large pores of the sponge and the relative size of the dirt particles on the boots.

After exhausting dry cleaning methods, aqueous cleaning began experimentally with distilled water on cotton swabs. Initially this did not appear to be an effective method, producing very minimal soiling on the swab. Perhaps this was due to a lack of applied pressure. However, after the boots were humidified (step 6) the use of a cotton swab and distilled water removed a significant amount of dirt. A 16-ounce can was eventually filled with completely blackened swabs after both boots were surface cleaned along the interior and exterior.

It is possible that the process of humidification swelled and loosened the dirt from the surface of the legging material. Humidity may have also relaxed the fibers sufficiently to release the soiling. The cleaning appeared to bring a more luminous quality to the boots with an overall brighter yellow color [Figure 15].

Figure12.DT_boot B_during cleaning

Figure 15 : Boot B during surface cleaning. In this image only the top half of the boot has been cleaned revealing a luminous and light yellow material.

  1. Toluene was used to flush soiling from the feathers. This was done by placing each feather onto strips of blotter paper held away from the body of the boot while solvent was introduced via a small brush. A second piece of blotter was placed on top of the feathers. A dark black material resulted on the blotter, and the process was repeated until staining ceased.  This was done with the objects in the fume hood where the action of the airflow helped in volatizing the solvent while separating the stuck-together barbules. This process of solvent introduction and blotting was repeated until the blotter paper appeared to be unsoiled.
  2. Ethafoam was carved to approximate the shape of the leg’s interior. A thin layer of foam and Tyvek was then wrapped around, and tucked into a slit made in the Ethafoam to provide a smooth, inert, and structural form for the boots.
  3. The boots were humidified first by placing them individually in plastic bags with distilled water and an environmental logger to record the RH. The first attempts at humidification were not successful, as the RH did not reach above 61.88% over a period of 4 hours.

A custom built Plexi Glass humidity chamber measuring 33 x 24 x 18 inches was used to encourage better overall humidification of the boots. The humidity chamber has a perforated metal rack on which on the boots could rest, while underneath the rack rested bowls of water and dampened blotter paper. A data logger was also placed within the chamber so the RH could be monitored. The legging material was significantly more malleable after being humidified for six hours while the RH steadily increased from 52%-94%. While the boots were flexible from overall humidification, and the rigid inner forms were placed within. Padded mini clothespins attached to the openings of the boots were suspended from a board to hold up the creased material and help the boot accept a vertical position. This maneuvering was needed to help bring complex tears into alignment [Figure 16].

Boot B in humidity chamber

Figure 16: Boot B inside of the humidity chamber. The little clips at the top of the boot are are suspended from threads individually tied to a board held above the boot by the Ethafoam planks. At the time we though it was very Macgyver, and seamed to be doing the trick of of convincing the legging material to go into alignment.

  1. Japanese tissue was toned to match the overall color of the boots with Liquitex acrylic paints.
  2. Adhesive mends were made with a paste of 5% methyl cellulose and Jade in a 3:1 ratio (respectively). These adhesives were mixed to a toothpaste consistency on a watch glass plate. New batches of the adhesive mixture were made for every mend, because the mixture became slightly gunny and less desirable to work with when allowed to sit for more then about five minutes. The mixture was brush applied in a thin layer to the toned Japanese tissue.
  3. Through experimentation a method was established whereby the tissue mends could be applied to complex tears in hard to reach areas. At this phase in the treatment, damp cleaning also provided an opportunity for localized humidification and re-shaping followed by tear mending. Cleaning in localized areas of heavily creased and distorted material enabled re-shaping by holding the softened material in the desired conformation with gentle pressure applied through blotter paper with fingers for about 1-2 minutes.

Pre-feathered and toned tissue, without adhesive, could be slid in-between tears and positioned on a piece of silicone release Mylar. The flexibility of the torn legging material provided openings to apply the adhesive in a thin film with a small brush onto the positioned tissue. Gentle pressure was applied to the legging material through silicone release Mylar and blotter paper until a bond was formed between the legging material and the adhesive mend. The strength of each mend was tested the following day by gently pulling with tweezers. Completely flat mends were not always possible due to the dimensionality of the legging material, particularly in the pleats where the legging joined the vamp. In these instances mends were made in adjacent areas to tears and losses thereby preventing further tearing while compensating for losses [Figure 17].

Before and after of fills

Figure 17 : At right, the back of boot A where there are compound tears with an area of loss. At left. the after treatment image of the mended area with toned Japanese tissue that also served as a loss compensation material. This fill was later toned further to match the surrounding area per the request of the curator.

10.  Liquitex acrylic paints were used to further tone along areas of loss compensation on the back of boot B as per the request of the curator (Rosemary Carleton) [Figure 18-19].

back of boot B_before_during

Figure 18 : At right, boot B after the pressure sensitive tape had been removed from the creased and split back of the boot. At left, boot B after the toned Japanese tissue was used to fill and mend tears and area of loss. As the request of the curator the lighter areas of yellow were toned further to match the surrounding area ( see image below for final result).


Figure 19: After treatment image of the back of boot B. Here all of the fills are further toned. It is possible to see the areas of fill with close observation.

11.  The drip of blue paint on the back of boot B was mechanically removed with a scalpel under magnification.

12.  The boots were re-housed in an archival box with customized supports to prevent excessive movement.

13.  Digital documentation of the condition of the boots was taken after treatment.

Before and after Image of boots

Figure 20: Before and after treatment images of the boots.


Adhesive selection:

The qualities of an appropriate adhesive for the repairs on this object include: appropriate strength, good long term aging properties, pH neutral, flexibility to allow movement of the material, reversibility, and not stain or otherwise alter the quality of the skin.

Adhesives were tested on butcher paper that had been distressed by soaking, crumpling, and kicking around the wet gravely surface of the Alaska State Museum’s parking lot. Paper is very chemically different to skin, however replica material was not an available option (in part because the material of the boots could not be identified) and the distressed paper appeared to possess handling properties similar to the skin on the boots. The paper was torn with straight and complex tears to simulate the damage that appeared on the boots. Various adhesives were tested with Goldbeaters skin, and Japanese tissue carriers to accomplish the mends.

Heat activated adhesive films such as BEVA or films of Lascaux 498 HV presented logistical problems due to the shape of the boots and the locations of the tears; therefore these types of adhesives were not included in the testing. The adhesive selected was chosen after empirically testing the following solutions:

a)     40 % PVA-AYAT in 50/50 ethanol: acetone

b)    20% PVA-AYAT in acetone

c)     5% Methyl Cellulose in distilled water

d)    5% Methyl Cellulose in distilled water and Jade in 1:3 proportions.

Results: The main problem with the PVA solutions was in handling properties and drying time. The combination of methyl cellulose and Jade had the best handling properties for this particular application and had a longer drying time, which originally was sought after. A longer working time was originally desired because it first appeared that the mends would require a fair bit of complicated positioning. However, in the end a simpler method was devised. The Japanese tissue allowed for the edges of pre-cut shapes to be feathered and therefore it allowed for more places of adhesive contact with out lying, in-tact material. While Goldbeaters skin is typically the preferred choice of a mending substrate on skins, due to its similarity in overall features, its edges cannot be feathered and its translucency would have been lost in use as only tear mending material.

The leather vamps of the boots were not consolidated as originally planned. This is because the Klucel-G, the consolidant selected and most commonly recommended, appeared to darken the leather to an unacceptable degree. The material appears to loosen with handling and excessive movement. If handled, stored, and exhibited with care, the boot vamps should not shed flaking material.


Steve Henrikson (9.1.2009): The boots may have been made for tourist trade and the vamp may be from an acquired trade item as it has the appearance of industrial processing and surface treatment.


Samples of material from the vamps that were loose and had become detached were collected in a polyethylene bag for analysis to try to determine a tanning process. The samples were sent to chemist Tami Lasseter Clair at Portland State University.



Blotter paper: An acid free, 100% cotton paper. Available through Talas and Museum Services Corporation.

Cosmetic sponges: Polyurethane foam latex-free Swisspers brand makeup sponges. Available locally at drug stores.

Ethafoam: a registered trademark for low-density polyethylene foam that has a closed cell structure. (http://cameo.mfa.org) Available through Talas, and Museum Services Corporation.

Jade 403: An aqueous adhesive emulsion containing ethylene vinyl acetate (20/80) copolymer. (Talas #TAD007002. http://talasonline.com)

Japanese Tissue: a strong, hand-made paper composed of long bast fibers (http://cameo.mfa.org). Available through Talas, and Fine Art paper stores.

Klucel G: Non-ionic adhesive (hydroxypropylcellulose) Soluble in water and alcohol and mixes well with hot waxes.  Thermoplastic, flexible, and dries clear.  Available from Talas, 568 Broadway, New York, NY 10012.  1-212-219-0770.

Liquitex Acrylic paints: Acrylic water–emulsion paint. Available at art supply stores.

Silicone release Mylar: Polyethylene terephthalate. A registered trademark of a series of optically clear, colorless, thermoplastic polyester films. (http://cameo.mfa.org). Available through Talas.

Methyl Cellulose: cellulose ether that forms a highly viscous colloidal solution in cold water (http://cameo.mfa.org).Available through Talas.

Soot sponge: A natural vulcanized rubber sponge used to remove dust, soot, and odors. Dry cleaning sponges statically collect and retain small particles. Available at most hardware or craft stores and through University Products, www.archivalsuppliers.com


Tyvek: a non-woven spun bonded polyethylene fabric (http://cameo.mfa.org). Available through Talas, and Museum Services Corporation.


Carlton, Rosemary 2009 Aleut/Alutiiq Boots; Sheldon Jackson Museum, Artifact of the Month for October. On line press release, State of Alaska Department of Education and Early Development. http://www.museums.state.ak.us/documents/sjm/artifacts/oct_2009.pdf

Cruickshank, Philippa 1987  The Conservation of a Model Eskimo Kayak Involving the Treatment of Gut.  Leather Conservation News 4(1): 1-12.

Oakes, Jill and Riewe 2007  Alaska Eskimo Footwear. University of Alaska Press, Fairbanks.