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Preservationists raid the pantry

Simple products - soap, candles, bread - often work wonders in historic restoration.

From atop 30-foot-high scaffolding, Dayton Spence works his way across the vaulted ceiling of the 113-year-old City Opera House in Traverse City, Mich., painstakingly cleaning the Victorian mural with ... a loaf of Wonder Bread.

Yes, you read that right. Mr. Spence, an architectural preservationist and president of New Millennium Inc. in Suttons Bay, Mich., uses all sorts of everyday household products to restore vintage buildings. And so do most of his fellow preservationists.

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To make a Wonder Bread poultice, "take any white bread, cut the crust off, then mush it up into a ball and dab it on the painting," explains the 35-year veteran of the preservation business. "It gently draws out any impurities, but won't hurt the pigments or varnish."

Sure, there are plenty of commercial products available to clean and restore architectural treasures, but quite often, preservationists turn to items such as Ivory soap, candles, sponges, spatulas, tea, and eggs. It's simply a matter of using common sense to determine which products work best, says Spence, who has overseen such restoration projects as the Helmsley Palace in New York and Chicago's City Hall.

Often, his workers come up with ingenious solutions to problems they encounter. Once a female employee suggested using Pam cooking spray when Spence's team ran out of their usual relief agent - wax - while making angel-shaped plaster moldings during a church restoration.

"We were having a fit because it was Saturday and we had to get these things made, and we didn't know what to do," recalls Spence. "When someone suggested using Pam, all the guys were telling her she was out of her mind, that nothing but wax would work. But we bought a case of Pam, put the plaster cast on it, and let it set up for about 20 minutes. The mold popped right off, without damaging the original at all. Now we use Pam all the time."

While most of us dread tea stains on anything, Hyman Myers has an opposite view. As program director of the historic preservation department of Vitetta, an architectural and engineering firm in Philadelphia, he instructs his crew to brush tea on stonework to make it look old.

"When you add new sections of stone, they often look very white compared to the original pieces," he notes. "Tea works great to tone down the color and make it look like part of the original wall. You just make the tea with ordinary tea bags, then brush it on. You can add more water to lighten it up." Tea also darkens too-white grout and sealing joints in brick and marble surfaces.

Low-sudsing household cleansers are the preferred cleaning agents of Mr. Myers and his colleague, Nan Gutterman. "We often use Bon Ami or Fab to clean interior stone that's not very dirty," she says.

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Spence favors Ivory soap for washing paintings, murals, and other surfaces with a fragile patina. "It's just pure soap with nothing in it, so it makes a nice, mild cleaner for those delicate surfaces," he says.

Feathers are one of the common materials used for "graining" marble, wood, stone, and other surfaces. "You dip the feather in paint and just wash across the surface with it," explains Myers, who has worked on such buildings as Philadelphia City Hall and the National Gallery of Art in Washington. "It makes it look like the veining in marble. Same thing for sponges - they give the feeling of stone or an uneven, old-looking finish."

Candle smoke can also create marble effects on wood. "This works great on lacquer finishes that are very tacky," explains Thomas Kronenberger, owner of Kronenberger and Sons Restoration Inc. in Middletown, Conn. "Just light [the candle] and turn it sideways, so it starts to smoke. As you run the candle over different areas, the smoke creates light and dark grainy effects on the surface."

Mr. Kronenberger has restored everything from outhouses to covered bridges to the homes of Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Nathan Hale, and P.T. Barnum. He notes that many simple techniques from the past are still in use today, such as using a broken piece of glass to shave off the fine "fuzz" on wood after it has been sanded. Or using vinegar to make cheap wood look expensive.

"That was a trend during the Victorian Age, where you'd take less-expensive woods like pine or poplar and make it look like oak or mahogany," he says. "They combined vinegar with colored powder - like our Rit dye these days - and applied it to give the wood a grainy appearance, even though there was no grain there."

Eggs are often included in the repertoire of preservationists, who combine eggs, paint, and water to create a protein-based "egg tempera" that Spence says will last 2,000 years. "In the 12th century," he says, "they poured sour milk on sheets of cotton, let it dry, then crumpled the cotton over a container. All this white powder would come off, and they'd add pigment and a little water."

Spence depends on spatulas to shape plaster and gently clean anomalies - "like Holloway suckers thrown on a mural inside a theater during a movie in 1946," he says with a laugh. "We also use spatulas to pry up tomatoes, another favorite throwing object during the 1930s and '40s. Buttermilk works great to clean off tomatoes, too; it penetrates the acid without pulling out the pigments."

"It doesn't have to be complicated," he says of the "tools" he uses. "it just has to work."