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A conservator at work

A conservator at work

Most major museums have a restoration department to restore, repair, preserve and conserve the artifacts that fall under their jurisdiction. This work, while of great interest, is seldom seen by the general public, although articles appear from time to time dealing with the restoration of a specific item.

Each museum develops the knowledge and skills necessary to carry out restoration on objects in its field. So one museum becomes expert in restoring paintings, another, statues or urns, and still another, wooden ships that have been buried or sunk for hundreds of years. The science of aeronautics is a young one, with the first unmanned balloon ascent taking place in 1782. Few relics of the balloon era have survived, so aeronautical artifacts usually date from the beginning of the heavier-than-air era at the start of this century. As they are relatively young in comparison with the relics of early civilization, it might be assumed that there would be few problems with aeronautical artifacts. However, this is not so, for while they are remarkably strong to resist the forces of flight, they are also light and fragile and easily damaged in the hands of unknowledgeable persons. Consequently their survival rate is not high, and surviving items usually require considerable work to bring them to condition suitable for display.

Nieuport 17 restoration

Nieuport 17 restoration

Restoring aircraft components presents difficulties not usually encountered elsewhere. First, probably no other object of human origin has embodied so many different types of material. Most types of wood have been used in airframe construction, usually in their highest grades, which are often difficult to obtain today in appropriate sizes and lengths. Most metals have been used, usually in the most advanced alloys available at the time of their construction. A wide variety of fabrics including linen, cotton, silk and synthetic fabrics, and varnishes, paints, enamels and other finishes have been employed, along with an assortment of cements and adhesives.

To restore aircraft correctly, the characteristics of all the different materials must be understood, together with the proper methods of working with and storing them. The restoration department can usually make or repair most parts that are required but it is not practical to equip the workshop with specialized tools that might be needed only occasionally. Sometimes a part will be encountered that cannot be made with the general-purpose tools in the museum’s shops, and, in these cases, it is necessary to call upon outside help.

In most cases old airframe parts can be restored, repaired or, if essential, replaced by skilled and diligent work; the difficult job is finding original equipment that has been removed or replaced by more modern equipment over the years. In these cases, all that can be done is to make extensive inquiries to try to locate the necessary items.

Most museums welcome the donation of obsolete aviation equipment of all types, which almost always will in time be put to good use. Tires, for example, have become a very difficult item to replace. Original tire molds are seldom available and the cost of making a new single set of tires is usually prohibitive. As a result, many tires on older museum aircraft, including those of the Canada Aviation Museum, can no longer bear the weight of their specimens and are therefore suitable for display only.

Curtiss JN-4 cockpit

Curtiss JN-4 cockpit

The basic practices followed by the Canada Aviation Museum in its restoration programs were established in their first restoration, the Curtiss JN-4 (Can.), carried out from 1962 to 1964. These may be summarized as follows: parts should be preserved rather than restored, restored rather than replaced, and replaced only when essential. Thus, original parts, including wooden parts, are used wherever possible. In some cases a piece of new material will be spliced into an old part to preserve as much as possible of the original. The original type of material is used in the replacement part when necessary, and all details of the original construction are followed even if more modern short cuts are available. Replaced parts are marked for future reference. Modern paints and varnishes are used, as are modern adhesives which are a great improvement over the old glues. Fabrics to cover the wings and tail surfaces are linen or cotton as on the originals, not modern synthetic fabrics.

A.E.A. Silver Dart

A.E.A Silver Dart

The only exception to the use of original material other than the paints and varnishes mentioned above is the substitution of the modern methyl methacrylate for celluloid or pyralin as windshield and window material in early aircraft. This is because the early material aged and became yellow and opaque while the modern plastic remains clear and is not otherwise distinguishable from the original product. Also, the A.E.A. Silver Dart used rubberized fabric as its covering material, while the Museum’s reproductions, built by the RCAF, have doped fabric.

Most restorations require considerable research to ensure a satisfactory and historically correct result, for any or all of the following: damage to the specimen; missing parts or components; modifications during the specimen’s service life; unknown original colours and markings; and construction processes and skills that are no longer in use. When such conditions exist, locating the necessary information can be a difficult and time-consuming job. Usually the original drawings no longer exist, so they cannot be used for reference. The Museum’s fine reference library and photo collection are invaluable for this work.

Before the Museum started on restoration projects, standards were set to ensure a high quality finished product. First, the colour values of all finishes had to be recorded so they could be duplicated; similarly the style, size and location of all markings had to be recorded. Notes were made of all markings, dates, etc., found on the various parts, as they are helpful in establishing the aircraft’s identity and early history. All parts removed are to be retained for future reference. All fabric must be removed in large pieces and retained for reference, as they are invaluable in determining the original covering practices, stitching type and pitching, etc. On completion of the restoration the parts and fabric are usually retained for future reference. A record of all complicated assemblies had to be made before disassembly so that reassembly to their original state may be done with confidence. This is usually done photographically. Finally, a photographic record of all components should be made where feasible, both as a record of what was done and as a record of the specimen’s internal structure for historical purposes. This latter procedure is historically important, as the specimens restored are usually rare and sometimes unique.