by Dr. Michael Echols
I am frequently asked about restoration of surgical instruments like those in this collection. In a word...don't. Don't even think about touching the instruments, wood, velvet, or any part of the metal unless you are experienced in restoration of historical artifacts. If you have any intention of selling the set at any time, especially to me.... NEVER, NEVER alter anything about the set, not the wood, not the brass, not the metal ....nothing!!! If you do, you run the risk of decreasing the value and doing irreversible damage to a piece with historical significance.
Against my better judgment, I'm going to discuss some of the restoration techniques used to clean surgical sets. The reason I'm hesitant to discuss this topic is because there are people who will attempt a restoration and totally destroy a piece of history or decrease the value of a set, instrument, or case. Unless you are skilled at restoring wood, metal, or antiques, do not attempt any of the techniques discussed below.
Now, that said, there are non-destructive 'cleaning' procedures that you can do if you want to 'preserve' the wood and metal of a surgical set you own and want to keep, and you don't care if you might ruin it....make that you WILL ruin it!
The most common and easiest method to clean the wood of the case is with a damp towel using warm soapy water. Do not use any ammonia products. Personally I use Murphy's Oil and Cleaner for furniture. It will take dirt and grim off the wood and leave a good surface for the next procedure. DO NOT use anything with a stain and never sand any wood or brass. NEVER clean brass. It's the patina that makes it valuable.
If the wood is dark, I prefer to use Tong Oil, which is made from the Tong tree and will restore some of the original luster of the wood. I don't use wax on the case if I'm going to use Tong Oil because it may take many coats of the oil to restore the original surface. Once the oil dries about three hours, I rub the wood to buff and polish the surface using an old T-shirt. I don't recommend using any shellac or lacquer.
If the surface of the wood is in excellent condition then I use Min-Wax to preserve the surface of the case.
NEVER EVER POLISH THE BRASS. Brass should not be polished or brought back to original shine. It should retain its patina (dark yellowed color due to oxidation) which is correct for its age. NEVER ever polish the brass!!!!! Don't remove the patina, it's part of the value.
I only vacuum the velvet with a brush tip on the vacuum cleaner to remove loose dirt and dust. I never try to restore the velvet. I have used scotch tape to remove balled up velvet or to lift off stubborn lint. If loose, I do re-attach the velvet where unglued from the wood. I use Elmer's white glue brushed on in very, very light amounts to avoid ruining the velvet. If the glue comes through the velvet, it's ruined. There are other fabric glues which work very well for velvet and I strongly suggest you research this topic.
Many fabric-lined instrument cases still have a maker label attached to the fabric. If the label is loose, a good-quality fabric glue in very small amounts applied with a toothpick or other small instrument will solve that problem.
The partitions of the case are frequently made of a heavy paper or wood covered with velvet. If they are broken or displaced, you can use a tiny bit of Elmer's white glue to tack the part back in place, but make sure it is only the smallest amount of glue necessary to hold the part in place because if you use too much, it will destroy the velvet. The same goes for tacking down the velvet, only use the lightest amount of white or fabric glue to tack the velvet down. I find using straight pins to hold the part in place is useful while the part is drying.
I use Elmer's carpenter's glue or Gorilla Glue to tack down wood parts , but not to glue broken case sides. Gluing the frame of the case is a major project which demands a craftsman and lots of tools to hold the parts in the correct positions. Don't attempt repair of major parts of the case. Find a furniture repairman and get some advice, because if you destroy the case, you destroy the value of the case adds to the instruments.
I personally do not touch any of the instruments in the case other than to wipe them with a light machine oil like WD-40 or a high grade light gun oil. After you wipe them with an oily T-shirt, re-wipe them with a clean T-shirt rag to remove any excess oil. You don't want to return the instruments to the case and stain the velvet. DO NOT touch the instrument after you wipe off the oil. Finger prints contain fatty acid and the acid will etch the metal.
Removing rust on instruments, saws, or knives is a process best left to a specialist. I am able to do it on a limited basis, with isolated instruments (not part of a set), but I use only very light steel wool, and polishing wheels on a lathe with iron rouge or whiting to polish the surface when damaged. I don't recommend this to anyone because of the possibility of one, damaging the instrument, and two, damaging your hand if you are cleaning a knife or sharp instrument. It is very dangerous to use a lathe under any circumstances. DON'T DO IT!
Knives and other metal parts: If the set is Civil War issue or historically important, don't touch the metal in any way. Use of these historically important pieces will have left marks and rust and they should never ever be cleaned in any manner.
Restoration of rusted instruments is a major undertaking and the odds are you are going to ruin the instrument if you try it. Same thing for the handles and non-metal parts. Just don't do it. Antiques are supposed to be old and grungy, and you have no reason to 'spruce up' an antique unless you are just interested in destroying a piece of history. Wipe off dirt, but don't go any further.
You are just the temporary caretaker of any historical piece and you should treat it as such...a piece of history which may or may not be important, but that is not for you to decide. You are just the caretaker for the time being.
Contact Dr. Arbittier or Dr. Echols
Last update: Monday, December 12, 2016