JAIC 1997, Volume 36, Number 3, Article 9 (pp. 263 to 267)
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Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC 1997, Volume 36, Number 3, Article 9 (pp. 263 to 267)



ABSTRACT—Paper can be a very effective support material for housing objects. Historically, works of art and artifacts on paper have been stored in paper enclosures with great success. If housings are properly designed, paper can also be used to store small objects. Papers are available in a wide variety of weights, textures, and chemical compositions. They can be used with different adhesives to create inexpensive, conformal supports that can be tailored to the physical and chemical needs of the object. Designs are described here for scrolls, mixed collections, fans, and objects with fragile edges and irregular lower surfaces.

TITRE—Les Supports en Papier. RÉSUMÉ—Le papier peut servir de support très efficace pour le stockage des objets d'art. Depuis longtemps, les oeuvres d'art sur papier ou les objets d'art en papier sont conservés avec beaucoup de succès dans des coffrets de papier. Si ces coffrets sont bien conçus, le papier peut aussi être utilisé pour de petits objets. Le papier existe dans une large variété de poids, de textures et de compositions chimiques, et il peut être utilisé avec des adhésifs différents pour créer des supports peu coÛteaux conformes aux normes et adaptés aux besoins physiques et chimiques de chaque objet. Cet article décrit les différents types convenants à des rouleaux, à des collections mixtes, à des éventails et à des objets aux bords fins ou fragiles et aux bords inférieurs irréguliers.

TÍTULO—Soportes en base a papel. RESUMEN—El papel puede ser un soporte muy efectivo para alojar los objetos. Históricamente, las obras de arte y los artefactos de papel han sido almacenados con mucho éxito en sistemas de almacenamiento de papel. Si los sistemas de almacenamiento son diseñados apropiadamente, el papel también puede ser usado para objetos pequeños. Los papeles están disponibles en una amplia variedad de las pesos, texturas, y composiciones químicas y pueden ser utilizados con diferentes adhesivos para crear soportes económicos ajustables a la forma, los cuales pueden ser hechos a la medida de acuerdo a las necesidades físicas y químicas del objeto. Se describen diseños para rollosos, colecciones diversas, abanicos, y objetos con los bordes frágiles y superficies bajas irregulares.


Paper can be used to create support structures to house a wide variety of works of art and artifacts. Albums, window mats, and folders have protected works of art on paper for many years. When proper designs and adhesives are employed, paper can be used to support solid or nonplanar works. The available range of weights, textures, and chemical compositions increases the utility of paper in the creation of housings that provide steady, inert, nonconstrictive support. Papers can be bonded with many different types of adhesives to accommodate the chemical requirements of the work.

Conservation-quality papers are made of cotton and cotton linters, linen, abaca, alpha cellulose from purified wood pulp, and bark-derived fiber such as kozo, gampi, or mitzumata. These fibers differ in strength, absorbency, and texture, but in their lignin-free forms they provide a simple material that has been shown to be inert over long periods. Chemical buffers such as calcium carbonate enhance the longevity of a paper and interact with acids. Scavengers such as active carbon and zeolites built into papers and boards will adsorb a wide range of harmful substances. Adhesives can complicate the task of creating a housing in which all the components are simple and well known. Some boards are not laminated, and thus they have no adhesive layers. Those that do have laminate layers should be evaluated carefully. A board that has no calcium carbonate would not be able to protect against a PVA laminating adhesive that has not been properly handled and could off-gas acid. Some of the best-known adhesives, such as starches and modified starches (dextrins), are polysaccharides, as celluloses are. These adhesives can be used in settings in which chemical simplicity is sought. Unfortunately, starch, like methyl cellulose, has a low tack and cannot be used when significant strength is required. Synthetic adhesives can provide greater bonding strength, but PVA and EVA emulsions and thermoplastics may off-gas and should be isolated from the housed object by an alkaline layer. Thermoplastic polypropylene and polyethylene or nylon adhesives that require an industrial, high-temperature gun present a less volatile adhesive choice, but they cannot be used in all cases due to their thermal activation mode. If artist's acrylic gloss medium is painted on two layers that are to be bonded and allowed to dry, it can be used as a thermoplastic when heat is applied to the two layers.

An object that may contain highly reactive constituents such as proteins can be housed in an enclosure made of a simple lignin-free cellulose without an alkaline buffer. The components of the enclosure are joined with starch or an appropriate thermoplastic adhesive. Objects made of materials that may themselves off-gas, such as celluloid or wood laminates, could be housed in a structure made of paper or board that can scavenge those pollutants. When the object requires isolation from an unstable or deleterious environment, a barrier layer such as a plastic and metal foil laminate or plastic impregnated with a metallic sacrificial scavenger can be placed outside the primary support structure. The barrier may be used or not, as conditions dictate.


The designs to be considered here are slings, paper-lined cells, cut and folded paper supports for fans, and contoured bases to fit objects with irregular undersides. The sling is the simplest of these support structures to build, and it will take the shape of a rounded or columnar object. The sling begins with a box made of an appropriate material such as lignin-free corrugated board, which has been designed so that its interior dimensions exceed those of the object to be housed. Many objects, such as scrolls, may have delicate materials at their ends, which should not be allowed to bump against the ends of the box. A set of paper strips at either end of the box can serve as cushions. Create each strip from a sheet of paper that has parallel cuts made perpendicular to one side and the uncut side bonded to the outside upper edge of the end of the box. Gather the cut strips and bond them to the center of the box bottom (fig. 1). The sling should be slightly longer than the box, and it should have cuts made in each end, which will meet the cushion strips. Bond the sling to the outside upper edges of the box sides so that its lowest portion hovers above the bottom of the box and its cut ends curve up along the cushion strips (fig. 2). This housing will give maximum distribution to the weight of the object in the sling and will prevent damage to the ends of the object even if the housing is tilted. It can be made more quickly than a carved polyethylene foam support cavity and will cost less. If the object to be housed has substantial weight, several layers of paper can be used, or a primary layer of paper with underlayers of spun polyester. These layers can be engineered so that the first might give way if the housing receives an impact while the lower layers will not, so that the blow is absorbed by the housing (fig. 3).

Fig. 1. Cut strips gathered and bonded to the center of the box bottom.

Fig. 2. Positioning of the sling

Fig. 3. Layering within the housing

When objects with differing shapes are to be housed together, a tray with individualized cells can support and stabilize them. This tray begins with the objects to be housed laid on a support board so their positions can be traced in graphite with a mechanical pencil. Then bond strips of conservation-quality board to the support board along these lines to create the individual cells (fig. 4). Lay a sheet of paper over the tray and massage it into each cell. Lift the paper and bond it to the upper edges of the strips that form the cells. Where complicated shapes are encountered, individual lengths of paper can be substituted for the sheet to allow for less distortion of the paper (fig. 5). This tray will keep the objects that it houses from shifting during transportation, and the individualized shapes of the cells will facilitate the replacement of items that have been removed. The paper liner has advantages over wadded paper that might be used to cushion and stabilize the objects. The liner will not catch on the surface of the objects; it will not compress and lose its shape over time; and it cannot be lost as the wadding might.

Fig. 4. Individual cells created

Fig. 5. Finished support with paper covering

Folding fans are particularly challenging to house. Storing the fan in the open position avoids exercising its joints but yields a complicated and delicate shape to be supported. A tray covered with paper folded to fit the back of the fan can be made with surprisingly little time and effort. Cut a support board to a size larger than the open fan, and draw an outline of the fan on the board with a mechanical pencil roughly one inch from the fan's edges (fig. 6). Cut strips of conservation-quality board and attach them to the support board along these lines (fig. 7). Secure a sheet of paper to the back edges of the support board closest to the curved wall, and draw it over that wall. Attach the paper to the bottom of the V-shaped wall where it meets the support board and in a line across that wall that ascends toward the arc wall. Finally, fold the paper over the V-shaped wall and secure it to the outside of the wall. Once the adhesive has cooled or dried, lay the fan into the paper-covered cell. With a mechanical pencil, mark the points at which its low or “valley” folds meet the paper of the cell with a mechanical pencil. Then make cuts that radiate out from the center of the cell to the points marked at the curved outer edge. Gently fold the paper between these cuts between the thumb and forefinger so that “mountain” folds are created between the cuts corresponding to the location of the “mountain” folds in the fan. To secure the fan, attach a lashing of cotton twill or twisted paper to the bottom of the support at the point at which the vanes of the fan intersect (fig. 8). Add a lid made of rigid board to protect the fan from light, dust, and injury.

Fig. 6. Walls outlining fan perimeter

Fig. 7. Fan support with paper covering

Fig. 8. Fan secured to support with lid

An object that has an irregular underside and delicate edges can best be stabilized in a housing that is contoured to fit the shape of the underside. The creation of this conformal support structure begins with the placement of the object on a large, soft sheet of paper resting on a support board that is larger than the object. Temporarily support the parts of the back of the object that do not touch the paper surface with blocks of polyethylene foam placed between the paper and the support board. Tear pieces of progressively thicker material—first paper, then two-ply board, and finally four-ply board—and shape them to fit the cavities in the underside of the object. Tack these layers in place to the surface of the support board (fig. 9). Trim V-shaped ribs of folded four-ply board so that they will fit in the space between the back of the lamination and the support board. These ribs may have to be tested in various positions before a proper fit is found. Then fold the soft paper under the object around the sides of the support and secure it to the support bottom. The resulting structure may resemble a model landscape when the object to be housed is removed (fig. 10). The weight of the object in combination with the conformal shape of the support structure should help to keep the object in place. This design is the most time-consuming and can only be justified when the object to be housed has delicate margins and a nonplanar underside.

Fig. 9. Layering of paper skin, heavier paper, and board support

Fig. 10. Finished conformal paper-covered base


Modern polymers in sheets and foams can, of course, be used to create many useful support structures. It may be difficult to choose materials that are chemically inert and physically accommodating for long periods, carve them, and adhere them. Paper, which is easy to form and comes in numerous varieties, can be an inexpensive alternative. It accepts a wide range of adhesives and adapts to diverse designs and combinations of materials, accommodating the needs of many objects. Paper is one of the oldest storage materials and still one of the best.


HUGH PHIBBS is the coordinator of graphics conservation services in the Department of Exhibitions and Loans, Conservation Division, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. He has a B.A. in philosophy from Cornell University, and an M.F.A. in painting from the University of Michigan. He has taught workshops for AIC, the conservation programs at Winterthur/University of Delaware and the State University of New York at Buffalo, the Smithsonian Resident Associates Program, and programs of the Professional Picture Framer's Association. He was co-compiler of the matting and framing section of the Book and Paper Group Outline and has written four preservation supplements and a monthly column, “Preservation Practices,” for Picture Framing Magazine. Address: National Gallery of Art, 6th St. and Constitution Ave., NW, Washington, D.C. 20565.

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Copyright © 1997 American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works