Collection Care blog

Behind the scenes with our conservators and scientists

08 August 2013

Conserving a mould-damaged iron gall ink manuscript

Did you know that conservators often wash paper?

When paper is badly degraded, and especially when there has been mould damage as with the document below, it often needs to be washed. Washing paper helps to remove acidic degradation products and reforms the hydrogen bonds in the paper structure, making it stronger.

A mould damaged sheet of paper rests on a piece of Bondina, a non-woven polyester which is white in colour and often used as a barrier material due to its non-stick qualities. The piece of paper is very fragmented in the middle where mould has caused the bulk of the damage. Some of the fragments still lie crumpled on the piece of Bondina. Some reddish and blueish staining from the mould is visible.
Fig 1: Additional MS 70282. Prior to its acquisition by the British Museum this manuscript was water damaged and became mouldy. Although the mould spores are no longer active, the damage remains. The mould has eaten away at the paper, making the fibres soft and fragile. This manuscript is written using iron gall ink, which presents its own unique problems for the conservator.


Iron gall ink

Iron gall ink was the primary ink used in Europe from the middle-ages right into the 19th and even 20th centuries. It was often homemade and there is a huge variation in recipe, but its principal ingredients are tannins (usually extracted from oak galls), iron sulphate (also known as vitriol), and water. The different recipes result in inks with different levels of chemical stability, but in most cases there will be an excess of sulphuric acid and free iron (II) ions present, which result in a degradation phenomenon known as ink corrosion. Documents written using iron gall ink are very vulnerable to moisture, which can accelerate the degradation process.

In the case of Additional MS 70282 we have a manuscript which, after treatment to remove the inactive mould spores, needs to be washed in order to remove degradation products and strengthen the paper structure, but it is written using iron gall ink, which should not be exposed to excess moisture as this will accelerate its degradation. So what do we do?

Conservation options for iron gall ink

In 1995 a new treatment for iron gall ink was proposed by senior conservation scientist/ chemist J.G. Neevel at the Central Research Laboratory for Objects of Art and Science (CL) in Amsterdam. Known as the Calcium Phytate Treatment, it uses a solution of calcium phytate in partnership with a de-acidification wash in a solution of calcium bicarbonate and is designed to both remove excess sulphuric acid present in the ink and to chemically complex the free iron (II) ions, thus preventing further degradation.

Calcium Phytate Treatment

The first step is to wash the folios in a bath of reverse osmosis water until no visible degradation products (which cause the water to discolour as they wash out) remain. It may be necessary to change the water a number of times.

The folio rests on top of the water in its bath. Again this folio is very fragmented in damaged in the middle, with brown staining visible.
Fig 2: This fragile folio has been sandwiched between two sheets of archival polyester film and spot-welded before washing to ensure that fragile and mould damaged areas are not distorted and to prevent the loss of small fragments during the treatment.

A conservator lifts a folio out of the bath at an angle. The conservator stands at the left side (when facing it) of a double sink, and the photograph cuts them off at the head. They are wearing blue nitrile gloves.
Fig 3: A sheet of plexi-glass placed at the bottom of the wash bath provides a rigid support for the fragile sheets when they are being moved.

The conservator is full in frame now and continues to lift the item out of the bath at an angle so the water can drip off. Behind the conservator is a table and surrounding him are various tools.
Fig 4: The rigid support can be tilted in order for the water to drain away, taking the degradation products with it. Additional support is provided by sheets of Bondina®, a non-woven polyester fabric which has a smooth surface and will not stick to the manuscript folios.

The conservator places the folio into a white tray with the solution. The tray rests on a trolley and sits just to the left of the double sink.
Fig 5: The folios are then placed in the calcium phytate solution, which will complex the free iron ions and prevent further degradation of the iron gall ink.


After immersion in the calcium phytate solution, the folios are washed again in a de-acidification bath, which contains calcium bicarbonate. This alkaline-reserve will remain in the paper after the treatment and help to neutralise acidity caused by the natural ageing of the paper and the ink.

A drying rack is pictured with multiple folios resting on each shelf. One shelf has been slightly pulled out to show two folios drying on a support on Bondina. The drying rack is similar to a baker's cooling rack.
Fig 6: After wet treatment, the sheets are laid out on Bondina® and blotting paper on a drying rack and allowed to air dry before they are repaired.


Although washing will reform the hydrogen bonds and make the paper stronger, repairs are still needed to support tears and infill missing areas. The most fragile folios, such as the mould damaged folio shown in Fig 1, will need to be fully lined with thin Japanese tissue. Japanese papers have very long fibres which make them ideal as conservation repair papers.

Lining and repair

Wheat starch paste, which has been thinned to the consistency of double cream, is first brushed out onto a sheet of Bondina® using a Japanese brush.

The conservator is captured holding the sheet of Japanese tissue just a few inches above the sheet of Bondina.
Fig 7: A thin sheet of Japanese tissue is placed onto the pasted Bondina®, holding it by diagonally opposite corners to prevent creasing.

The conservator is using a brush to apply paste to the sheet of tissue that has just been laid down.
Fig 8: The tissue is then pasted out in the same way, ensuring an even coverage.


The folio to be lined is then humidified on a sheet of Bondina® and all the tears and small fragments are unfolded and aligned.
Two conservators hold the ends of a sheet of Bondina which has a fragmented folio on the underside, and is hovering just a few inches above the pasted Japanese tissue.   The conservator on the right side of the image has placed their side of the Bondina down, and the conservator on the left side is just following suit.
CC_by Figs 9 & 10: Carefully holding the corners of the Bondina®, the humidified folio is turned over and lowered directly onto the pasted lining tissue.

It is then brushed-out through the Bondina® using a Japanese brush to remove any air bubbles and ensure a strong bond. After air-drying, the missing areas are in-filled with a matching Japanese paper, before the other side is lined in the same way.

A closeup of an area of damage on a folio. In the centre of this sheet where the damage has occurred, you can see the white Japanese tissue from the lining process, but it is a thin piece of tissue and not visually jarring.   Another close-up of a mould damaged area, this time the sheet has no text and you can see the stains from the mould. Again the tissue from the lining process is just visible in the centre.
CC_by Figs 11 & 12: Details of two mould damaged folios after conservation treatment.

After all repairs were completed the folios were tipped to guards of archival paper, collated, and given a new binding to protect them.

This manuscript is part of the Portland Papers, which were originally housed at Welbeck Abbey and deposited in the British Museum between 1947-1967 by His Grace, the seventh Duke of Portland as 'The Portland Loan.' They were allocated to the British Library in 1987, having been accepted by the government in lieu of Capital Transfer Tax.

The conserved manuscript can now safely be consulted by readers in the Library's Manuscripts Reading Room.

Francesca Whymark

This manuscript was conserved by Timothy Nason and Gayle Whitby and bound by Douglas Mitchell.


"Although the mould spores are no longer active, the damage remains"&"after treatment to remove the inactive mould spores" - how exactly both of above has been achieved - 1. Proving that spores are not active any more? 2. Removing the spores? (and the control of the efficiency of the process of "removing"?)

Hi Iksu, thank you for your comment. I will try to briefly answer your questions. Firstly, we describe the mould as 'inactive' because it is dry and powdery. In this condition the mould spores are dormant and not actively causing degradation. Active mould would be damp, slimy, and would smear if brushed. Secondly, there are a number of ways to treat mould but the most common method we use is a combination of brushing and vacuuming (using a HEPA filtered conservation vacuum cleaner) while working under extraction in a fume-cupboard. PPE such as gloves, mask, etc. are also worn. Finally, because mould spores are always present in the air in small quantities, our collection storage environment is maintained between 13°-20°C and 35%-60% RH, with stability over time being the most important thing. See the following booklet published by the Preservation Advisory Centre for more information:

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