Sucker! Vacuums & Associated Tools

Conservators have always been very resourceful in finding, adapting, and inventing new tools. The medical supply industry has been a bountiful resource supplying tools that can address specific needs in our field. Before conservation supply vendors began selling vacuum cleaners equipped with High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters and variable speed control devices (VSCDs), conservators adapted household vacuum cleaners, purchased lung suction units, or sought out dental vacuum cleaners. For example, Paolo Cremonesi, a conservation scientist, wrote a guide for how to build and adapt some useful cleaning tools from existing equipment to fit a conservator’s needs (Cremonesi 2018).  

For cleaning feathers, our team commonly uses a HEPA filtered canister vacuum unit with a VSCD. We use different shaped nozzles to capture dust either directly from the feather surface or by brushing it into the nozzle. Many conservators use canister vacuums from a variety of sources. Some are documented in this useful a Conserve-O-Gram from 2003.  When surveyed, our respondents brought up the Nilfisk GM80 most regularly, specifically fitted with a HEPA filter and making use of a VCSD (commonly, but inaccurately, called a rheostat!) to control the suction strength.  

However, for this dry-cleaning study we decided to investigate several other options. The first is a lightweight tabletop medical suction unit, the DeVilbiss 7305D-D with a VSCD. This particular model is designed for emergency airway management in home care and is sold by medical supply shops. The unit has a transparent container that holds the materials captured by the vacuum. It is inexpensive compared to a canister vacuum, but requires some adaptation to insert a HEPA filter.  

The DeVilbiss Homecare Suction Unit ©AMNH/M.Paulson

Like any vacuum, it also requires modifications to the nozzle to make the shape and size appropriate for cleaning feathers. We lamp-worked short lengths of glass tube to make a range of nozzle shapes for testing. 

Heating and bending a Borax glass tube ©AMNH/R.Riedler

Glass nozzles of various shapes ©AMNH/R.Riedler

Nozzles can be coupled with a brush of similar diameter to effectively catch loosened dust.

Our team also recently began experimenting with a pen vacuum (pen-vac) and its attachments to test the cleaning efficacy on feathers. We purchased a PELCO® Vacuum Pick-up System with a pump, manufactured to assist in handling the tiny, delicate components that make up electronics. It comes with a flute-like “pen” that allows the operator to control the suction with their fingertip. The pen can be fitted with hollow metal needles of different diameters and rubber trumpet shaped tips that fit onto the needle tip. While the supplied pump and filter are not robust enough for our cleaning needs, we realized that the hose and pen could be secured to our medical vacuum! 

Image courtesy of

The highly controllable and sensitive pen handle is intuitive to use and can support other kinds of tips. The stainless-steel needles that come with the device are too sharp for direct contact with a feather, but the rubber ends soften the cleaning action. Alternatively, burnished glass tubes could be fitted to the pen opening. The opening is small, so this tool is most appropriate for cleaning small feathers or a specific area on a larger feather.  

Size of pen handle with pointer finger poised over hole controlling suction ©AMNH/M.Paulson

It is clear from the survey responses that many conservators use protective screens to prevent material other than dust (i.e. feathers and feather fragments) from being sucked in during vacuuming.  Screens are either directly applied to the feather surface (like the polyester screen cloth below that is slightly stiff with larger apertures) or secured to the nozzle with bands or tape (like the more flexible silk Crepeline™ with defined fiber edges and more elongated apertures, or the cotton gauze with small apertures, made smaller by the fibrous nature of the strands). However, there are sometimes reasons to avoid the use of screens. In some cases, contact with a screen can cause damage to the feathers, the apertures may not fit the size of the particulates present, and the use of a screen limits the orientation of the nozzle to positions primarily perpendicular to the feather surface. 

Polyester screen, mesh opening 1.71 mm (aperture diagonal) ©AMNH/R.Riedler 

Silk Crepeline™, mesh opening 0.42 mm (aperture diagonal) ©AMNH/R.Riedler 

Cotton gauze, mesh opening  0.40 mm (aperture diagonal) ©AMNH/R.Riedler 

We hope you’ve learned something new about vacuum-cleaning feathers from us today. Stay tuned for our next post about using sponges and cloths! 

We want to thank the Exhibition team at the American Museum of Natural History, particularly Kurt Freyer for his precision in bending and shaping glass nozzles. We also thank Dr. Murillo for recommending the DeVilbiss unit.   

Recommended reading

Cremonesi, P. 2018. Combination of a Liquid-Dispensing and Micro-Aspiration Device for the Cleaning of Sensitive Painted Surfaces. Studies in Conservation 63(6): 315-325.

One thought on “Sucker! Vacuums & Associated Tools

  1. Pingback: Sponges and cloths used to clean feathers: an ab(/d)sorbing post | In Their True Colors

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