A significant part of developing a new exhibit at Fort Ticonderoga is the preparation of collection objects before they go on display. Some objects require very little preparation, others require somewhat more attention. In the case of the museum’s newest exhibit Bullets & Blades: The Weapons of America’s Colonial Wars and Revolution, the objects slated for exhibition required significant attention.
Fort Ticonderoga’s core collection of historic weapons was largely assembled during the first half of the 20th century. In the 1960’s museum staff, concerned that the iron elements of the firearms and swords were at risk of damage by rusting, undertook a project to help prevent the weapons from being damaged by systematically coating each piece with a lacquer or shellac-like compound. While the theory was sound and the coating did largely prevent further oxidation, the material was thickly applied and, over time, became yellow. The coating on some pieces became so yellow in fact that it caused some iron musket barrels to appear as if they were made of brass.
Today there are better solutions to prevent the oxidation of metal.
Over the past month, curatorial staff has been systematically treating each weapon that will be included in the new exhibit. Fortunately, the coating applied to the weapons nearly a half-century ago is almost always easily removed.
The first step in the process (for firearms) is the dismantling of the weapon. Locks are removed, completely disassembled and barrels, whenever possible, are removed from the stock. The lock parts are soaked for 5-10 minutes in acetone which softens or dissolves the lacquer or shellac-like coating and softens other accumulated dirt and grime. Using cotton balls and swabs, the compounds are carefully wiped from each piece and each piece is then rinsed in clean acetone to remove any residual material. Barrels are wiped using acetone soaked cotton balls to dissolve and remove the coating and then rinsed with clean acetone. The butt plates, trigger guards, rammer pipes, etc. are not removed; they are carefully cleaned in situ on the stock.
Once the chemical cleaning is done, the iron parts then receive a careful cleaning with extremely fine (0000) steel wool. This gently removes any surface oxidation without interrupting the patination of the object’s surface. Screw threads and tight crevices are cleaned using fine wire brushes and dental picks.
The final step in the process is the application of microcrystalline wax. Three coats of wax are applied to the metal providing an imperceptible but durable clear coating that protects it from atmospheric pollutants and light handling.
In all, this process of dismantling, cleaning, waxing and reassembly of each weapons takes between 2 ½ to 3 hours. It’s a painstaking process, but is an essential part of the care and preparation of the weapons before they are placed on exhibit.