Too much cleaning can damage fine art onboard

Jun 30, 2014 by Guest Writer

Have you ever wondered where the term “stewardess” or “steward” comes from? In commercial maritime industries and in air travel, it is used to describe the department responsible for the comfort and safety of others. A large part of our duty requires that we take charge of keeping house.

As yacht stews, one function of running the household concerns the proper care and maintenance of the many beautiful, expensive, museum-quality fine furnishings, paintings, sculptures, ceramics, and other wooden, metal or glass art pieces. Most yachts have a treasure trove of museum-quality art objects onboard that we are responsible for taking care of.

If you have ever prepared for a cleaning project, chances are you were uncertain how to handle certain pieces. Sometimes we are working with a cup or vase or pitcher and we wonder, how should I hold this? Should I be wearing gloves? What tools are safe to use to clean this, and what products are gentle enough to use?

According to many captains I’ve known, most of the damage that occurs on yachts is the result of mishandling of materials by interior staff. Our daily schedules will always include dusting, polishing and detailing many fine art pieces. The problem is, we clean and dust and polish too often. We damage surfaces by using cleaning supplies or polishes that are too strong, and we unintentionally break fragile items as we are moving them around for cleaning.

One of the most common mistakes that results in breakage is improper handling of items. Mishandling can cause obvious examples of damage, such as shattered glass in a frame, broken ceramics, or dents and scratches in metal objects. Paintings may crack as a result of careless bumping and jarring during movement.

We should handle objects only when necessary, and know the condition of each piece before moving it. Don’t rush, and don’t take unnecessary risks. Move only one object at a time. Treat each object as if it is irreplaceable.

Here are other tips to avoid damage:

• Do not lift objects by handles or rims, which are often structurally weak.

• Do not lift or move furniture pieces alone if you cannot properly support them. Lift chairs by the bottom edges of the seat, not by the back. Do not drag chairs across the room. Ask for help when you need it.

• Small and fragile objects should be given additional support and cushioning. Items can be carried together on a tray or other container if they are separated and supported by padding.

• Wear clean, appropriate gloves. Metals can corrode after being handled without gloves.

• Keep hands clean, even when wearing gloves. Do not touch your face or hair or otherwise soil the gloves.

• Wear white cotton gloves when handling most objects. Wear plastic gloves (latex or nitrile

gloves) when handling these types of objects:

— slick objects such as ceramics or glass

— objects with oily or tacky surfaces that can attract cotton fibers

— fragile or damaged paper or other organic materials that may catch on cotton fibers

— some natural history specimens

• Never smoke, eat or drink while handling objects.

• Avoid wearing anything that might damage objects by scratching or snagging the surface (for example, rings and other jewelry, watches, belt buckles, etc.

Many of the products we use to clean with are too harsh for fine art objects and may be unnecessary. A clean, soft brush, such as a makeup brush is all that is needed to gently remove dust particles. Plain old water is often the safest thing to clean with, if washing is needed at all.

A mild soap-and-water solution may be harmless if the article is in perfect condition but if there are any cracks in the glaze, it could penetrate the surface and cause damage. Wipe gently with a damp cloth if needed, and dry carefully with a clean, soft, lint-free cloth. Consult a conservator if a piece is very soiled. Do not submerge pieces in water.

As for metals, in normal home situations, we would not clean and polish them so frequently. Some metal art pieces are never meant to be polished at all. Each time we polish, we remove some of the metal.

However, the silver flatware used for setting the table will have to be polished regularly, and you will have to make a decision about what product to use. Most experts recommend avoiding fast acting “instant dips” on silver. These work so fast because they add more acids and abrasives into the mix, which strip more of the valuable metal off of your silver pieces each time you polish. And while it’s possible to re-plate silver that’s been reduced down to its base metal, it is an expensive process.

Instant-dip cleaners also create another problem: if not removed properly, the products can leave a milky finish on your silver that is difficult to remove. Use gentler polishes made by reputable companies. These polishes require more time and work, but a slow polish is safer and brings out the natural brilliance of a piece.

Brass is also meant for polishing, however, check to see if it has been lacquered. Lacquer is often added to more modern brass to provide protection from the elements and prevent tarnishing. Sometimes the lacquer will be rubbed off, and once it is removed, the brass is exposed to oxidation and will require regular polishing.

Bronze is usually meant to be washed, but not polished. A finish is typically put on bronzes by an artist or at a foundry to give the metal a darker patina or to shade the metal to accentuate its three-dimensionality. Sometimes bronze is even coated with gold. That’s why it’s best to avoid polishing bronzes. Doing so is like vigorously scrubbing the surface of a masterpiece painting. In both cases, you’re removing a layer of the piece that the artist intended to be there. Such damage diminishes both the integrity of the piece and its value. Simply washing the piece is recommended because bronzes don’t corrode in water as do many other metals.

As the person in charge of running the household and being responsible for the maintenance and protection of everything on board, it is our duty to master proper preservation techniques for a variety of different materials and classes of extremely valuable items. The big lesson is: When in doubt about how to clean or polish valuable pieces, get advice from a reputable specialist.

Alene Keenan has been a megayacht stew for more than 20 years. She teaches at MPT in Ft. Lauderdale and offers interior crew training through her company, Yacht Stew Solutions ( Download her book, The Yacht Service Bible: The Service Manual for Every Yacht, on her site or Comments on this column are welcome at


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