Vacuum Cleaners & Associated Tools

Glass nozzles of various shapes ©AMNH/R.Riedler

Conservators have always been very creative in finding and inventing new tools. Equipment from the medical supply industry has been a bountiful resource for specific needs in our field. Before conservation supply vendors started selling vacuum cleaners equipped with High Efficiency Particulate Air filters (HEPA) and variable speed control devices (VSCD), conservators adapted household vacuum cleaners, purchased lung suction units or sought out dental vacuum cleaners. For example, Paolo Cremonesi, a conservation scientist, offers a guide how to build and adapt some useful cleaning tools (Cremonesi 2018). 

Our team commonly uses HEPA units with VSCDs and differently shaped nozzles to capture dust directly from the feather or in combination with brushes, brushing dust into the vacuum. However, for this dry-cleaning study we decided to investigate another option: a tabletop lightweight suction unit made by DeVilbiss 7305D-D with a VSCD. This particular model is designed for emergency airway management in home care and is offered by medical supply shops. The unit has a transparent container that contains materials captured by the vacuum. Compared to a canister vacuum, it is inexpensive, but would require some adaptation to insert a HEPA filter. And like any vacuum, it requires some modification 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 nozzles for testing. 

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


When used most effectively, nozzles were coupled with a brush of similar diameter so that they could effectively catch all the loosened dust. Numerous instructive videos which explain how to make glass nozzles can be watched on youtube.

Conservators use a range of 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 (polyester screen cloth) or attached to the nozzle (silk Crepeline™, cotton gauze, or nylon stocking). However, in some cases even contact with the screen can cause damage, the holes in the screen will not always 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 cloth, mesh opening 1.74 mm (diameter) ©AMNH/R.Riedler


Silk Crepeline, mesh opening 0.42 mm (diameter) ©AMNH/R.Riedler


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


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.

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