Looking after Ceramics
Ceramic is a broad term covering all types of fired clay. The main types are earthenware, stoneware and porcelain. Ceramics may be glazed or unglazed. Decoration can be hand painted, transfer printed, enamelled or gilded.
The good news is that compared to many other materials, ceramics are less likely to be affected by light, heat and damp. The most common type of damage is breakage during washing, transport or display. Ceramics are often knocked off shelves by pets, children or curtains. Fortunately, you can do a lot to prevent this happening.
It's important to remember that some ceramics are more delicate than others; for example, damaged or unglazed ceramics shouldn't be washed. Bear this in mind when reading the advice below.
- Keep handling to a minimum. Use both hands, and don't lift objects by knobs, handles or rims, as these are the weakest areas. Use cotton or vinyl gloves when handling unglazed ceramics (which absorb dirt) and gilded pieces.
- Pack ceramics carefully before moving them to avoid breakages. Use a box lined with bubble wrap and generous amounts of acid free tissue paper.
- Think about how you display your ceramics. Display cabinets offer the best protection. Don't prop pieces up against one another or overcrowd shelves. Use good quality Perspex stands to support plates stood up or hung on walls. Avoid using springy wire holders to hang plates on the wall, as these can cause damage.
- Wash ceramics only when necessary. If they are stored in clean conditions the only cleaning that should be necessary is an occasional careful dust with a soft sable brush. Dry dust and dirt won't damage ceramics, but greasy dust and dirt can cause problems.
- Use purified or cooled boiled water with a few drops of mild detergent to wash ceramics. Dip cotton wool in the water and wipe the surface of the piece gently - don't immerse the object in water. Use cotton wool dipped in clean water to rinse. Cotton buds dipped in water can be used to get round handles and other hard to reach areas.
- Stack ceramics of different sizes, as this will exert pressure that will eventually lead to breakages. Also avoid stacking bowls, as each bowl will exert pressure on the sides of the bowl below. Items of the same size may be stacked; put a couple of layers of acid free tissue between items, and don't stack items so high that they're unstable.
- Use dry cotton wool or cloths to dust ceramics. These will catch on rough surfaces, leaving fibres behind and possibly causing damage.
- Attempt to wash gilded or unglazed items, or items with damaged glaze, chips, cracks or breaks. Avoid washing items that have been repaired in the past, for example with glue or staples. If in doubt about whether to wash an object, consult a professional conservator.
- Attempt to mend broken ceramics yourself - you may cause more damage. If something is broken, gather up all the pieces, wrap all the pieces separately in acid free tissue, and place them in a clearly labelled box. A professional ceramics conservator can repair items safely.
Materials to help you care for your ceramics:
Cotton and vinyl gloves are available from suppliers of conservation materials.
Acid free tissue paper is available from conservation suppliers, some stationers, office suppliers and art shops.
Mild detergent is available from conservation suppliers, or you can use hypo-allergenic washing-up liquid.
www.collectionslink.org.uk includes practical advice about caring for ceramics.
Use www.conservationregister.com to search for qualified ceramics conservators in your area.