As Good as New... Conserved Fire Engine on Display

on Tuesday, 14 October 2014. Posted in Conservation

In late August this year CMAS conservators were privileged to work on an exciting project to conserve a 19th century fire engine prior to display at Athelstan Museum, Malmesbury. The fire engine is constructed mainly from wood, which has been brightly painted in blue and red. A large trough houses a central pump in a wooden box the whole engine sits on four chunky wooden wheels reinforced with iron tyres. Folding handles extend from the body of the engine which would be used to pump the water from its source through the machine and onto the fire. Measuring 2 metres long x 1.4 metres high the fire engine is of an imposing size. Although it is still relatively easy to manoeuvre the engine with a small team of people the response times would still have been much longer than we are now used to!

This project proved challenging from the start. Due to the size of the machine and the limited space available in the museum, it was decided to carry out the work required at a local storage facility where the fire engine had been stored for the last year. Although the team were at first apprehensive about the space it proved a wonderfully light and spacious work place.

Although worn with age the fire engine was in relatively good condition. There were heavy deposits of dirt and debris which will have built up on the surface of the object during its life. The machine was cleaned with vacuum cleaners and soft brushes. Smoke sponge, a rubbery sponge like material, which draws dirt from surfaces was used to remove heavier more ingrained deposits.

Interestingly, cleaning revealed that in addition to leather gaskets which had been expected in the pump mechanism, rubber gaskets were also present. Although the iron sections of the pump mechanism were in good condition the gaskets were heavily deteriorated and needed to be stabilised with a layer of dilute adhesive, called a consolidant.

In some areas the wood of the engine had shrunk and cracked disrupting the painted finish. It was important to use a flexible material to secure these areas as it is likely the wooden sections will continue to move with changes in the humidity and temperature of the display environment. A mix of Japanese tissue paper and a flexible adhesive was used to fill and secure the cracks in the wood, allowing movement, but strengthening these weak areas. A heat activated adhesive was teased under the lifting and cracking paint, a heated spatula was then used to secure the weakened paint to the wooden body of the fire engine.

After a little TLC the fire engine looks brighter and even more appealing, and will make an interesting addition to the displays at Athelstan Museum, drawing visitors in from its position in the window of the tourist information office. As the object is to be on open display the CMAS conservators have constructed simple but effective devices to immobilise the pump mechanism preventing and nips or knocks to the viewing public. The museum is currently researching the history of the object to create a display to go with it and the engine should be on display soon. 

Beth Werrett, ACR
Acting Senior Conservator

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