Don't Do It Yourself: Cautionary Tales of At-Home Art Treatments

There are few rites of spring more satisfying than the annual clean. And while spotless living spaces make a house a home, many of us unfortunately have to use harsh chemicals and solvents to achieve that goal. The application of products found under the kitchen sink can lead to chemical reactions on the surface of art objects that can prove to be quite serious, resulting in detrimental losses that are usually so much greater than the reward of a home cleaning approach. When it comes to caring for your art and antiques while freshening up around the house, we strongly advise our readers to adhere to the “DDIY” rule—Don’t Do it Yourself—and leave the job to professional art conservators.

Time and time again, at The Conservation Center, we see instances where a beloved piece or family treasure has been accidentally damaged due to a well intentioned, but ill-advised, attempts of at-home repairs. The treatment and care of art objects is a skillset that is beyond most people’s general scope of knowledge, which is why these problems are always completely accidental and performed with the best of intentions, so it is falls to our role as conservators to educate on the importance of prevention.

A broken antique plate that recently came in to The Conservation Center for treatment

A broken antique plate that recently came in to The Conservation Center for treatment

The standards of high-quality art and heirloom conservation call for reversible materials and processes, so that anything added to a piece beyond original content can be identified by another professional and undone in the future for whatever reason. Fine art conservators apply an in-depth working knowledge of various solutions, chemicals, adhesives, and techniques to actively preserve a piece in a laboratory setting. This knowledge isn’t just gained overnight, but from years of applied experience. In this sense, there is no easy fix, which is why it is so important to leave any art related problems in the hands of trained conservators.

Over the next coming months, our newsletter will feature a series of cautionary at-home art repairs and the effects they have on the value and aesthetics of art objects.

Exhibit A: The Infiltrator

The Conservation Center sees a lot of ceramics due to their fragility in comparison to other mediums. This is also a type of object that people often attempt to repair at home using fast-drying, instant adhesives, most containing cyanoacrylate. This adhesive is much better known by its brand names: Super Glue, Instant Bond, Super Bond, or Loctite. While this adhesive may be reversible in a few different solutions, it is not considered safe to use on art objects. 

For example, a ceramic plate came into our lab that had previously shattered into multiple fragments, which the owner had carefully reassembled using cyanoacrylate. The owner had actually made satisfactory repairs that held, as the pieces were re-adhered at the correct orientation and angle. However, after about a year, the adhesive started to discolor, leading to major concerns for the owner. The fissures in the plate slowly yellowed, and then turned an unappealing brown. Upon noticing the degradation in appearance, the client brought the plate to The Center, where we were able to reverse the chemical processes that bonded the fragments together with little issue. Unfortunately, because ceramic is a very porous material, the adhesive had spread underneath the glazing on the surface of the piece. While we were able to remove the adhesive around the edges, the area underneath the glazing could not be accessed to remove the adhesive without damaging the integrity of the piece itself. None of our poultice techniques to draw the adhesive out could reach that far into the material, despite several attempts from our conservators. So while we were able to put the pieces back together creating a unified whole with a conservation-grade adhesive this time around, at each break point there were yellow and brown lines that remain visible underneath the glazing where the adhesive had previously bonded and discolored.

A "do-it-yourself treatment" using Gorilla Glue on an antique ceramic (top); and post-treatment (bottom)

A "do-it-yourself treatment" using Gorilla Glue on an antique ceramic (top); and post-treatment (bottom)

Exhibit B: The Exploding Vase

A client brought in to The Conservation Center an ornate, antique vase that had been repaired with a polyurethane glue, an extremely strong adhesive that expands as it dries. Polyurethane adhesives include brands such as Gorilla Glue, Titebond, and Bolder Bond. These are great for fixing many objects, but are unfortunately not good options for repairing art. “The problem with adhesives like Gorilla Glue is that they expand as they dry,” commented Josh McCauley, the conservator who examined the piece. “Because the glue expanded, it displaced the negative space within the vase, placing additional strain on the undamaged parts. This led to further cracks developing.” When it was eventually brought in to The Center, repair options became much more problematic, as polyurethane adhesives are not reversible. The Gorilla Glue was mechanically removed, and the pieces then had to be painstakingly reconstructed by hand using a proper conservation-grade adhesive. The losses were filled and inpainted.

Exhibit C: The Clean Slate

Often under-the-sink household cleaners have concentrated chemical components that are highly abrasive. Even cleaners that are made from 99% natural ingredients should still be avoided when attempting to clean artworks. A client brought to us a beautiful, hand-painted porcelain box that he had attempted to clean using a multi-surface cleaner at home. Unfortunately, the paint used by the original artist contained the rare and expensive pigment, lapis lazuli, amongst other sensitive pigments. The chemical smeared, and in some places, stripped the paint completely off the piece while the client unknowingly lightly applied the solution to the surface. We were unfortunately not able to offer any beneficiary treatment options, as almost none of the original paint layer was left to save.

Beware of products that advertise safe use on ceramics or porcelain—your bathtub is made of a far different type of ceramic than antique Chinese pottery. Conservators understand the correct types and relative strengths of solutions to use so that a piece will be cleaned of dirt and grime, but neither stripped nor harmed. Considerations concerning the materials are always made first, based on how they will interact with certain chemicals. The materials our conservators use are specifically formulated for their intended projects, and align to a specific set of museum and archival standards.

Strips of tape can have harmful effects on your cherished art objects

Strips of tape can have harmful effects on your cherished art objects

Exhibit D: The Scotch Tape Massacre

Surprisingly enough, a strip of tape can be just as harmful as a polyurethane or cyanoacrylate adhesive. “A client brought in a cracked porcelain piece that had been taped together to show where all the pieces fit in place. She was trying to prepare the piece to be glued once it got here to The Center. By the time I was able to remove the tape, its glue had stripped the pigments off the piece,” said Josh, reflecting on another item that had been accidentally damaged at home. Luckily, this only occurred in limited areas, allowing our conservators to inpaint the areas of loss with reversible paints after properly gluing the pieces back together with conservation-grade adhesives. We often see fragmented works of art, so our conservators are experts at puzzle-piecing objects back together. While we appreciate the help this particular client was trying to offer, it unfortunately didn’t work out as she had hoped.

Josh working on the broken antique    plate

Josh working on the broken antique plate

All of these examples stem from people trying to take care of their objects and keep them in good condition. It is difficult to advise letting a valuable piece gather dust rather than be self-cleaned, but these case studies are hard to ignore. The fact is that all of these mishaps were completely preventable. Conserving fine art, much like creating it, takes years of honed practice and education—our conservators themselves are always learning new techniques from colleagues and the conservation community at large.

To schedule an appointment with The Conservation Center, please call us at 312.944.5401, or e-mail: