How to preserve family heirlooms

Preservationist Maria Pukownik takes a break in her basement studio near Gettysburg, Pa. - KATE PENN

Ever get inspired by “Antiques Roadshow” to search for treasure in your grandmother’s attic?

If you’re lucky enough to eyeball something of value, experts advise that you not attempt to “clean it.” Your innocent intentions could land your find in the junk heap.

Enlisting professional help, on the other hand, might not be an expense you’re willing to pay.

“In that case,” said Gettysburg conservator Maria Pukownik, “you’ll need to proceed very carefully, using the proper tools and cleaning solvents.”

Pukownik, who has more than 40 years of experience under her belt, suggested the “clean, repair and protect” strategy for preserving paper goods and clothing.

“Don’t attempt highly fragile pieces though,” she warned, “or you’ll be headed for trouble.”

Maria Pukownik is restoring this document for the Spring Grove Area Historical and Preservation Society. -- KATE PENN

For newspaper, photos and letters

Contamination of paper usually comes in the form of dust or dirt. A soft brush can be used for cleaning, but avoid anything abrasive. To repair damage, try acid-free document repair tape.

Never use pressure-sensitive tape, such as Scotch tape, because it will eventually oxidize and cause brown spots.
If your document or photograph is seriously damaged, because of water or high temperatures, get it professionally treated. Light solvents can work miracles, but using them is best left to the conservator.

To store, wrap your item in acid-free paper, keep it away from UV light and maintain it in ­climatic conditions suitable for a human being.

Archival framing is another option. An ­archival-frame kit includes UV coated glass to ­filter out sunlight and acid-free matting to prevent mat burn. Once framed, rotate your displays to ­minimize prolonged exposure to natural or ­
artificial light.

For clothing

Before cleaning antique clothing, test each color by applying water and then squeezing it between two pieces of paper towel. If it bleeds and is wool, you’ll have to stabilize it in a mixture containing one gallon of water with one tablespoon of household vinegar. To wash, use cold water and a small amount of mild detergent. Unfortunately, this ­procedure can’t be used for cotton.

Stained cotton can be treated with hydrogen peroxide or a poultice of Borax. Just be sure to treat the stain and not the entire garment. Dry cleaning isn’t advisable unless you’re certain special care will be taken.

Because fabric is generally weakened by age, no wringing or hanging is recommended. Instead, lay clothing out to dry. To protect items, wrap them in acid-free tissue paper, keep them out of direct sunlight and store them in a suitable environment (i.e. no damp basements or musty attics).

This Scottish coat of arms is just one of the fragile documents being preserved by Maria Pukownik. -- KATE PENN

When in doubt, don’t go it alone.

The bottom line is that it’s very easy to ruin what you’re trying to preserve. If it’s irreplaceable, consider contacting a specialist.

For your preservation needs

Maria Pukownik, chief conservator

MP Fine Art and Paper Conservation

1045 Orrtanna Road, Orrtanna

Phone: 337-0668


Adams County Historical Society

111 Seminary Ridge Ave., Gettysburg

Phone: 334-4723

A few of Maria Pukownik's tools in restoring and preserving artifacts. - KATE PENN

York County Heritage Trust

250 E. Market St., York

Phone: 848-1587