Guide to preserving a collection of antique arms and armour

One of the most frequently asked questions we receive is “How should I look after my antique arms and armour collection?”. Antique high carbon metal weapons and associated armour require basic maintenance to keep them in the best condition. With this quick guide to preserving a collection of antique arms and armour, you will be well informed to maintain the beauty of your collection. Maintain its value and ensure your prolonged enjoyment.

Firstly, it is important to note that this document is not about restoration. It is about preservation and generally, a less is more approach to maintaining your collection. The arms and armour we sell here at Nicholas Wells Antiques have all been checked in our workshops and are ready to be received in perfect condition. They do not require further restoration, but they will benefit from careful handling.

Here we give guidance on handling swords, maintaining the blades, keeping the right humidity levels, protection from sunlight/heat damage, and general storage tips.

Handling the Sword

All of our swords and metal-based antiques are shipped with a pair of white cotton gloves ready for you to wear. It is very important that the steel parts of the item are not touched with bare fingers. The natural oil on our fingers is slightly acidic and will over time corrode and etch into the steel leaving unsightly fingerprint marks and actually damaging the surface of the steel. This is only revealed after months of storage when the acid has had time to react. Fingerprints are very hard to remove and require careful attention. As a rule, no matter how tempting, never pick up a sword by the blade, and if you would like to, always wear cotton gloves.

There are of course ways to pick up a weapon without touching the blade. The hilt is designed for the purpose, the blade can then be rested on the back of your left arm sleeve for support.

Maintaining the Blade

When maintaining an edged weapon, avoid handling the blade without latex gloves on. It is advisable to keep them on throughout the process. Sparingly apply Renaissance Pre Lim cleaner to gently burnish and clean the blade then apply Micro-Crystalline Mineral Wax Polish by Renaissance onto the blade with a lint-free microfibre cloth. This provides the surface with a layer of protection and should be repeated every so often – and more frequently if you are handling them often.

It is best not to excessively cover the sword (or item) with wax, rather put on a small amount and wipe it through. You should not be able to see lumps of the wax applied! The wax can also be applied to gold koftgari or any silver work and the hilts which may be of ivory or horn. Allow it to dry for a few minutes and rub off the excess. This will leave you a polished surface giving attractive contrast and a blade protected from oxidisation. Just keep the wax off any scabbards that have fabric and velvet covers.

Inspecting the collection frequently is not only a pleasure to admire the incredible craftsmanship of a master, but also a great opportunity to check the blade for corrosion and active orange rust, early signs of rust can be swiftly dealt with using Renaissance De-Corroder gel. This can be applied accurately with a paintbrush and neutralised and removed with water. Ensure the blade is swiftly dried and apply some mineral wax to seal.


Three Ottoman Shamshir Swords

Enviromental Considerations:

Maintaining the blades is important, but so is the environment that you are keeping the collection in. Here are some considerations, based on a museum situation that is beyond the realms of most but definitely important to keep in mind and be aware of. Humidity levels should be easy to manage, as is avoiding direct sunlight. Insects are best kept at bay out of the house, let alone the collection.

Humidity

Storing the collection in a dry environment is crucial to maintaining rust free blades and this is very much dependent on your geographical location. The ideal humidity level for antique metals is 50%. Where the humidity is above this level, a dehumidifier should be used to both remove moisture and circulate the air. For storage or display, managing the humidity will be the key to maintaining a rust-free collection. The ambient humidity level will be universal to the room and its contents. If the item is stored in a cabinet or safe, the external humidity ideally needs to be maintained at 50%. Silica gell pouches are a good solution for localised humidity management within the storage drawer.

Sunlight

Make sure your items are displayed out of direct sunlight. Direct sunlight causes irreversible damage to natural materials, which are all common materials used in arms and armour production.

  • leather
  • horn
  • ivory
  • shell
  • mother of pearl
  • coral
  • fabrics

In addition to sun bleaching, it can also discolour, weaken and affect a material’s integral strength. Objects that are not on show, should be stored in the total darkness of a cabinet or chest. The ideal light level should be circa 50 – 100 lux – that is 1/2,000th or 1/1,000th of the power of the full sun at 100,000 lux/hour. Sunlight can be managed somewhat with the help of UV filters that still allow light to pass, curtains and blinds will of course manage sunlight.

Air Conditioning

Artificial climates created by air conditioning need monitoring as the humidity is removed from the air. In excess, air conditioning can cause desiccation in furniture and objects.

“A regulated consistent indoor climate is essential for collections of objects that contain
natural materials such as wood, fabric, ivory, horn, tortoiseshell, leather and shells.”

All of these materials have hygroscopic properties that adjust to their surroundings and can be adversely affected. Too dry and materials will desiccate and become brittle. Moisture within natural materials will be extracted by excessive air conditioning and eventually cause warping, splits and cracks to appear. Paint will lose its adhesion and lift from the substrate. The humidity of the room ideally should be 50%. This as noted in the Humidity section 50% is ideal for the storing of antique arms and armour. If the humidity needs managing beyond a dehumidifier, implementing systems from HygroMatik would be beneficial. The humidification unit would be an integral part of the room design. Maintaining 50% humidity one way or another is the key.

Central Heating

Position your collection away from central heating radiators. Constant nearby heat will affect natural materials and have similar effects to sunlight, and air conditioning. Objects want to be stored and displayed in an ambient temperature ranging between 60 and 70°F (15.5 and 21°C). Nearby repetitive heat sources will impact the stability of natural materials. This results in drying them out and will eventually cause them to become brittle, crack and split.

Acid Free Protection

Avoid placing items on top of each other to prevent any knocks and damage. Protecting your collection while in storage is crucial. Blades lying across each other is not optimal and will result in damage. Keep items separate with layers of acid-free paper or fabric. This will secure the object in place without the risk of sliding around or banging into other pieces. Poor handling of antique weapons will ultimately damage them. Cheap tissue paper is typically not acid-free, this will tarnish or discolour objects and is particularly noticeable on works on paper. It is always worth buying quality acid-free paper.

Insect Damage

Insects are not going to eat your Damascus steel blades, but they may well have a go at:

  • horn hilt plaques
  • leather
  • wood
  • tortoiseshell
  • fabric

It is advisable to make the storage unattractive to insects such as clothes moths and Dermestidae. Both of whom will quietly chew their way through anything available. Here in the UK, the main concern is the clothes moth. They can be deterred with camphor lined drawers and camphor wood balls in the drawers. Combine with moth pheromone attractant traps in the rooms will ensure they don’t become an issue. In hotter locations, the Dermestidae, which include carpet beetles, hide beetles, larder beetles may be more prevalent. Prevention is far better than letting them establish and cause damage.

The Collectors Cabinet

And of course, somewhere to store the collection, to enhance it, protect it and to keep it safe. As a collection grows you may want to consider a custom made collectors cabinet. How you store a collection is part of its enjoyment. Elegant storage adds another depth to the collection and the objects while also keeping them optimally. Typically collectors cabinets are made with sets of drawers of varying depths. Nicholas Wells Antiques has one exceptional collectors cabinet which dates to the late 18th century that would be ideal. This is a very heavy solid mahogany cabinet. The front doors lock and discreetly hide their contents. It would be perfect for a collection of daggers, pistols and smaller arms. For large weapons, such as swords, a chest of drawers or a bureau cabinet is better suited. These furniture pieces have wide deep drawers, perfect for swords or longer pistols. For a more secure solution, there is always the possibility to acquire a large safe, build a vault to house the collection, store pieces with a fine art handler or in a private vault.

Conclusion

In conclusion, a few simple rules to follow will keep your collection in long term good health. Avoiding touching the steel with bare fingers will ensure no unsightly and detracting fingerprints. You may want to a couple of spare pairs of gloves so that visitors can wear them too. Most people do not understand the long-lasting damage that can be caused. Waxing with mineral-based oil/wax is essential to protect the blade from oxidisation and rust. Spotting the active orange rust early is essential to managing it well and neutralising it. Keeping humidity at 50% with an ambient room temperature between 60 and 70°F (15.5 and 21°C) will afford the collection long term protection. Keeping objects out of direct sunlight will ensure the natural material condition is maintained. Finally, a few sheets of camphor wood veneer or balls in the collector’s cabinet drawers will keep insects at bay.

In short, a small amount of care bestowed upon the collection will provide many years of trouble-free enjoyment.

Would your collection benefit by being restored for any of the reasons above? If so, please do get in touch. We have some of the world’s finest antique and metal restorers who can competently bring your collection back to its glory.