by Peter Suciu
While not every piece of militaria likely survived a war, most pieces will be put to a greater test—and that’s surviving the test of time. The simple ticking of seconds on the clock is a worse threat than bombs or bullets on a battlefield. Over the long haul, everything will eventually turn to dust and that includes helmets, badges and medals. There are ways to slow this process, and help ensure that an item can be enjoyed by future generations. Saving items from certain destruction simply means treating each item like a prized possession.
SIMPLE STEPS ANYONE CAN TAKE
The most obvious suggestion is thus not to touch anything, at least don’t go out of your way to touch it. This might be harder than it sounds. But the truth is that oils and dirt on our hands aren’t exactly good for the paint or finishes on metal items. They’re equally bad for cloth and other fabrics. Thus, when handling most of items it is advised that gloves be worn, even if you’re sure your hands are already clean. The exception to this rule is actually with paper items. Here it is advised that hands be as clean as possible and completely dry—using gloves isn’t advised with older papers as it is actually more likely that a rip or tear will occur than it would be with bare hands.
The next best thing for anything, from paper documents and uniforms to helmets and field equipment, is to seal it up in an acid free box and never look at it again. That might sound like a drastic measure, but that actually is how many museums save items in the archives that aren’t on display. Of course, most collectors won’t go to such extremes. After all, who would want to spend a large sum of money on a German Knight’s Cross or an American paratrooper helmet only to lock the item away in a vault?
Just putting a rare item on the shelf isn’t exactly the best move either. “Be careful about the wood and plastic,” says Keith Gill, a long time collector and museum curator. “Unsealed wood will give off gas acids inherent in the wood.” The same he says goes for plastics, and notably styrofoam heads. While the latter seems like a good way to show off a cap or helmet, the fact is that the materials actually cause leather to deteriorate, so look for alternative materials. “Ethafoam is generally accepted as neutral and is widely used in museums. It comes in planks of varying thickness, and can be carved to shape.”
Paper, badges and cloths should be stored in acid-free cases, and if exposed to a lot of light should be under glass that offers some UV protection. For shelving, glass is a good option. Tempered glass is highly recommended as un-tempered glass can break into dangerous shards. Alternatively, bamboo and better still, aluminum are excellent options for shelves.
HEAT, HUMIDITY AND PRESERVATION
Even with acid-free cases and inert materials, there are other factors that can play havoc with collectibles. These are heat and, far worse, the humidity. This is especially true for leather goods. The problem is that most leather goods are only designed to last for a short period. Those vintage German Pickelhauben (spiked helmets) were actually intended to be replaced in a few years. Little consideration (if any) was given towards their future value.
Heat in itself isn’t that bad, at least in normal conditions that you’d consider comfortable. No item should be stored in harsh winter conditions, such as in an unheated cabin. Generally it isn’t so much the heat but rather the humidity. This is especially true in the eastern half of the country, where humidity can be quite high in the summer months. Humidity over 60 percent can cause leather goods to start to rot, so it is best to maintain a constant humidity below a relative humidity of 60 percent.
Where many collectors can only agree to disagree is in how to preserve old leather. The best advice is that if the leather is already soft and pliable to do nothing. Leather that is in good shape should just be properly stored. If, however, the leather is dry and old that is another issue. While some swear by various treatments such as Pecards, there are just as many who say to never use any treatment, as the “cure” can be worse for the disease over time. The fact is, most leather treatments were designed to keep leather soft for daily use, but not intended to “preserve” the leather for the long haul. So, use at your own discretion. Better yet, don’t use it at all.
Beyond the quality of the leather, and the materials used to preserve the items, there is the issue of air quality. The first thing to know—despite what the various commercials and infomercials tend to recommend—air purifiers really aren’t necessary if the air quality is already good. Collectibles don’t do well even with “fresh” air, which can contain dirt, pollen and pollution. Keep them away from smoke, food and even cleaning products.
Odors and the airborne particles that come with them can be removed via an air purifier, which can also capture and help control dust. It isn’t necessary, however, to try to turn your collectible into a full-blown clean room with an oversized air purifier. Likewise, avoid—at all costs—any air-cleaning device that claims to be “ionic” as these are typically really “electrostatic” and use plates to attract dust. These can actually pull dust across the room, which in fact, puts more dust in the air. Worse, these create ozone that isn’t good for anyone to breathe and isn’t good for fabrics or even paint! Look for an air purifier that uses a HEPA filter. Don’t get one that is “washable” as these can actually cause mold—the exact opposite of what you’d want to bring into your collection.
NUMBER ONE RULE OF PRESERVATION
The final point should be obvious: Keep your items out of direct sunlight. The light in itself isn’t exactly the problem as much as is the ultraviolet radiation that the light contains. This can cause cloth and even paint to fade.
So in a basement, you’re safe, right? Not necessarily. Besides generally being more humid than the rest of the house, many basements use florescent lights for illumination. Those provide a nice white light and can easily brighten a room. But these also send off a lot of UV radiation as well. Not enough to turn you into the Hulk, but enough that your items are at risk.
There are simple solutions, such as getting the plastic covers for the bulbs, or by installing plastic sheets if the fixtures are set into the ceiling. Plastic is generally “UV opaque.” For about $5 a panel (or $3 a sleeve) you can have a nice florescent glow without worrying about damaging your collection.