Caring for our Collections

While most collectors are eager to “restore” a relic whether it is a helmet or a jeep, “preserving” their collection seems to take a back seat. Preservation, though, is the easiest approach to making sure your prized items last for generations.
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Collection Care begins with some simple steps

The biggest threat to our militaria hobby, whether relics or vehicles, is not government confiscation or societal reprobation. While these topics permeate the headlines and, therefore, get a lot of attention, we are much more likely to suffer a collection loss due to our environment rather than the government or the pitchfork and torches-toting masses. Whereas I bet you are up-to-date on most legislative threats or changing sensibilities as to what history is socially acceptable, I wonder if you know what threats to your collection are in your home?

IT COULD HAVE BEEN WORSE

A collecting buddy called me recently. He began, “It could have been a lot worse…” and went on to describe how recent, heavy rains had seeped into his basement — where he stored and displayed his collection. While most of the relics — worth thousands of dollars — were up, off of the floor, some were not. We talked about some books he had to throw out, and a few mannequins that had acted as water wicks, drawing moisture up to the footwear and uniforms that each displayed.

But, yes, it could have been much worse. As we talked, I looked around my office. While the landlord describes it as a “lower level suite,” it is really just a room in a basement. I looked at books stacked on the floors, original ration crates used as props for torsos, and all of the ordnance lined up ready to soak up any water that might seep in. After we talked, I decided it was time to review some basics of “home collection preservation."

PREVENTION IS THE BEST DEFENSE

While most collectors are eager to “restore” a relic whether it is a helmet or a jeep, “preserving” their collection seems to take a back seat. Preservation, though, is the easiest approach to making sure your prized items last for generations.

Bear in mind, most of what we collect is not composed of a single material. Whether it is a medal, a rifle, a uniform, or military vehicle, most military relics are made of several different materials. Conditions that are ideal for a set of WWII Jeep tires may not be best for a Korean War M1 rifle. So, we have to find a happy medium to preserve our collections.

TEMPERATURE AND HUMIDITY

No matter what the material, high heat and humidity will generally speed up deterioration. These two gremlins promote mold growth. They also make your collection very attractive to a variety of insects — which we don’t want around our stuff!

On the flip side, extremely low humidity and temperatures can lead to splitting, drying, or making items brittle. Consider leather, for example. It can become dry, soft, sticky, flexible, or stiff, just in reaction to the temperature and relative humidity.

Most of us can’t afford a controlled climate for our collection. But there is something we can do.

A basic rule that you can employ to protect your collection is: If you are comfortable, your collection is too. That means, if you are sweating due to the heat and humidity, so is that leather liner in your M35 helmet, the wooden stock on your M1 carbine, or those straps holding your canvas in place.

Therefore, try to keep your collection out of the extreme environments (this usually means: no attics, basements, or unheated garages). Try to keep the temperature in your collection area no higher than 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Keep the humidity between 30 and 60 percent. And, most importantly, avoid sudden, extreme fluctuations in either temperature or humidity.

INSECTS AND MOLD

We have all seen it: Uniforms devastated by moths. Seat cushions covered mildew. Books tore apart by bugs. Any infestation is going to end in loss. The best defense is to stop it before it happens.

Bugs like clutter. So keep your collecting area clean at all times. Don’t allow dust and dirt to accumulate.

Don’t eat around your collection or vehicles! Somehow, my shirt naturally attracts a variety of coffee, ketchup, and chicken stains. Imagine what my Riker mounts full of Tank Corps patches would be like if I allowed myself to eat while looking at them!

Seriously, apart from the obvious, routine inspections are your best defense. Are you storing stuff in cardboard boxes (not good—very acidic!) or plastic tubs? Open them up two or three times a year just to see how things are doing. If you detect mold or insects, isolate the items and deal with the problem.

Remember what I said about heat? High temperatures and humidity are ideal conditions for mold to grow. You don’t want to see what mold will do to a Rubbermaid tub full of Civil War leather cartridge boxes – it would make you cry.

LET’S DIM THE LIGHTS

By now, I think most collectors realize that light is a quick reducer of structural integrity, whether it is that of the paint on your deuce-and-a-half or the images of Civil War soldiers housed in leather cases. Exposure to light — even for brief times — is damaging.

So what can you do? Keep it all in the dark? No fun there. But, you can keep your collection in the dark when you aren’t viewing it. Make sure windows are covered and lights are off when you aren’t enjoying your collection.

The real killer is UV (ultraviolet) light. That comes from the sun and also from fluorescent bulbs. Filtering the UV light will go a long way toward preservation. You can do that by applying UV filters on your windows or UV screens on your fluorescent lights. Instead of fluorescent lights, consider low-level incandescent bulbs in your collection area.

AIR QUALITY

Frankly, most air quality is out of our control — except when it comes to smoking. I won't lecture on the pros and cons of smoking, but I will say, if you believe smoking (or vaping) does damage to your lungs and plants, you should see what it does to a collection. That smoke and tar will sink in, stink up, and discolor your collection, whether it is sheet metal on a tank, the stock of a Civil War rifle, or the visor of your favorite officer's cap.

Smoke and vape are bad. Keep it away from your collection.

WATER AND FIRE

This is where we started. Water and fire are sneaky buggers. If given the opportunity, they will find the slightest of paths to destroy your collection. Like me looking around my office, do the same. What’s on the floor? What things are near outlets or exposed wires? What’s above your collection (pipes, bathrooms, air-conditioning equipment, etc.)?

Precaution is the key to preventing water and fire damage. Some routine chores will save you pain later: Clean your rain gutters. Make sure downspouts are in place. Store items at least four inches above the floor. Run a dehumidifier as needed. Make sure your fire suppression system (sprinklers) are operable. Check your smoke alarms.

THE COST OF PREVENTION

None of these tips should cost you much. Even if they did, preserving your collection is worth it, right?

I know that conservation is nowhere near as fun as going out and discovering the next cool relic, but it is our responsibility as custodians of history to take the time to do it. If we don’t, what will be around for the next generations?

Preserve the Memories,

John Adams-Graf

Editor, Military Trader and Military Vehicles Magazine