How Do I Take Care of THIS?

by DKP

How do you get information on caring for your precious family heirlooms?  We are asked how-to care for items frequently, in areas where we have little expertise (photographs, digital information, etc.).  However, we know where people can obtain the info they need, and at the bottom of this post we recommend books and sources of further detailed information on the internet.

When considering where and how to store your objects, ask yourself if Grandma or Grandpa would be comfortable in the same environment (minus the three square meals!); if so, then temperature and humidity are probably in a healthy zone!

  • Minimize exposure to direct sunlight when displaying.
  • Turn off incandescent and fluorescent lighting when not in use.
  • Protect from excessive heat and moisture.  Store objects inside closets, cabinets, etc. in your living areas.  Avoid basements, attics, garages, and sheds.
  • Avoid mothballs and cedar planks or chests.  Regarding cedar chests, the issues is that if you place a textile into the chest the oils from the cedar will often transfer onto the textile, and you will have a rusty square that is impossible to remove.  If you have a lovely cedar chest, put the quilt/dress/baby items into archival storage boxes from Talas, then you can place the box into the into the cedar chest, which will repel insects.
  • Avoid wide fluctuations in temperature and humidity.
    • Move antiquities away from vents, radiators, heaters, window air conditioners, etc.
    • Adjust for seasonal differences.  It’s okay to be a little warmer or cooler than 68-72 degrees if the temperature and relative humidity will be steadier.
  • Avoid sprays, cleaning chemicals, and invasive or chemical treatments for most materials.  Avoid Pledge.  Beware orange, lemon, and linseed oils, as well as many organic products.  It is not that any of these are bad, but you need to know what works on your particular finish.
  • Avoid repeated polishing of metal items!  Plating and details will wear off.  Avoid dips and bath solutions.  These products permanently alter the chemical makeup of the metals.
  • Vacuum textiles gently through cheesecloth or by placing a new clean household screen (buy a small one used just for this treatment and make sure it is clean) on the fabric and holding the vacuum, if strong, several inches away from the piece so that the full force of the vacuum is not felt.  Some vacuums have adjustments to lessen the strength of the suction.  The screen will also hold the item securely.
  • Beware “swiffers” as they can catch splinters and edges and rip them!
  • Dust with a VERY slightly damp or dry (on painted finishes and lacquer) clean diaper cloth or other soft cloth.
  • Minimize handling and use; most people wax and clean unused objects too often.
  • If handling is necessary, especially with lacquer, consider wearing cotton or surgical gloves.  Wash hands thoroughly dry thoroughly, and avoid lotions when handling.
  • Inspect for damage and deterioration annually.  Monitor pests when cleaning; look for orderly piles of wood shavings, like little ant hills, or oddly colored dust in one area.
  • Keep objects away from smoke from wood fires, oil and coal heaters, cigarettes, cigars, and pipes, and the kitchen in general, due to fine particles of grease that linger in the air.
  • Protect precious objects from dust when possible.  If smaller objects will be displayed, use a glass-enclosed cabinet or display case.
  • Consider storing objects in archival storage from Talas with conservation-quality padding, folders, sleeves, all of which can be found at Talas.  They are very good with helping you find what you need if you ask customer service.

Finally, when in doubt, ask an expert in the field: your local curator or conservator.  Check their credentials before taking advice!

Inventory What You Own:

  • Keep detailed records of the items in your collection, including photographs and up-to-date appraisals.  Scan documents and photos as a back-up.  Store in bank box or with a trusted friend.
  • In case of fire, water damage, etc., notify your insurance agent and contact a conservation professional immediately.  Take pictures as soon as possible.  Get witnesses as soon as possible.
  • In case of theft, notify law enforcement officials and your insurance agent immediately.  Share any physical details that might aid in identification and recovery.
  • In case of natural disaster, contact the American Institute for Conservation or local Museum or conservation professionals who can assist with salvage of cultural and historic materials.



First, the DON’TS:

  1. Do NOT trust the information offered on eHow, and many other DYI sites.  From time to time they may be right, but our firm has been listed on some of these sites and no one contacted us, we never wrote or said anything like what they are saying, and would not endorse the written advice.  Further, they would not remove our name after we repeatedly asked to be removed from their source list.  Some of these people just make it up as they go, literally.  Double check any information off these sites.
  2. Do not try to follow directions or perform treatments intended for conservators.  Check with a qualified conservator before proceeding with anything invasive.


When researching items with the American Institute for Conservation, think about what the item is made of, and look under both areas.  Example: Photographs, think paper and photographs.  In an upholstered chair with a needlepoint seat, look under wooden objects and needlepoint or textiles.


The following are great online resources for general public use, in the order that we find most valuable.

Smithsonian: Museum Conservation Institute: Taking Care:
Extensive information from top notch writers on almost any object!

Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI) Caring For Collections:
Note that they also have many articles on the same index pages that are for conservators, however, it is fairly easy to see what is general and for public use.  Extensive information from top notch writers.

NPS: Museum Management Program: Conserve-O-Gram:
The best part of their site for your use is their actual items list, such as furniture, photographs, art, etc.  We have some disagreement about what they advise, but usually this is in their conservator-geared articles, not those that the public might use.



There are many books on caring for items, but these are the best, in order of our recommendation:

Saving Stuff: How to Care for and Preserve Your Collectibles, Heirlooms, and Other Prized Possessions, Don Williams. New York, NY: Fireside. 2005 (368 p.)  Don Williams was a senior conservator at the Smithsonian Institute, and this book is user friendly for anyone who has collectibles, however, you have to buy it used!

Caring for Your Family Treasures: A Concise Guide to Caring for Your Cherished Belongings, Heritage Preservation. New York, NY: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. 2000. (165 p.)

For more information on treatment of specific items, visit MPF Conservation!

©MPF Conservation.  May be printed for your own use ONLY,
not for use on blogs/sites without permission.

About MPFConservation

We are a conservation and restoration firm located in the Pacific Northwest, specializing in objects: furniture, but also other objects; wood, stone or metal furniture or objects; lacquered and painted furniture or objects; traditional finishes on furniture or objects; quilts, beaded objects, and some textile reparation and interior architectural elements, such as leather or upholstered walls. When you think about conservation, equate it to restoring the furniture or object the best way possible for the history, life and value of the object. We are fully qualified to perform museum-tectbook treatments, but also flexible enough to work with private clients to allow for daily use of objects. We work West of the Rockies from Canada to Mexico, and once in a while venture beyond the West for specific treatments. Kate and Mitchell Powell are partners in work and in life; we each have our specialties in work and in our marriage. Mitchell is the cat charmer in both! To see our work visit our official website:
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2 Responses to How Do I Take Care of THIS?

  1. The one, the only . . . Olivia says:

    One of the pictures on this page reminds me of a quilt that used to be in our family. My fathers’ foster mother had made a quilt entirely from her husbands silk ties. It had smaller, irregular shaped pieces that were stitched together with larger yarn. Other smaller pieces made of a fine grade (very soft) velvet had been thrown here and there for a solid patch of color. That thing eventually wore out, thread bare to be exact. It passed away . . . had such a useful life.

    • You are speaking of the crazy quilt. They were the rage in the Victorian era. Income levels determined the richness of the fabrics, but the design eye of the women and their skill level with embroidery determined the overall beauty. I have seen rather humble crazy quilts be amazingly beautiful.

      Women saved scraps, ties, pieces of fabric corsages, and then hand-stitched them together and embroidered on them. Unfortunately, the silks often ended up threadbare, partly because they were placed next to velvets and other heavier tie silks which pulled on the fragile silks, and began to cause them to split, then eventually give way altogether.

      This one happens to be from my own great-grandmother Hoyt, who had money. DKP

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