Through conservation keyhole: The William Simons Ship Plans Preservation Project

Published on behalf of Colin Vernall.

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As 2015 marks the 150th Anniversary of the American Civil War’s fifth and final year, it seems appropriate to highlight the University of Glasgow Archive Services’ large collection of Clydeside shipbuilding plans related to vessels built to beat the Union blockade of the Confederacy during the conflict. In conjunction with this anniversary, a conservation project in University Glasgow Archive Services Preservation Unit preserved the ship plans of William Simons & Co Ltd; including plans for so called blockade runners from the civil war. 

The historical importance of these plans made their condition assessment a conservation priority for Archive Services. Leading the preservation project I want to share with you the project’s goals and in our blog series shows this project from different perspectives.


Hello, I’m Colin Vernall and in May 2014 I began a secondment to Archive Services in the role of Preservation Assistant on a project to preserve the ship plans of William Simons & Co., a Clydeside shipbuilding firm with a long history. The company’s plans include some of the oldest ship plans in Archive Services vast Clydeside shipbuilding collection, and also famously contain a handful of plans for four ships, ostensibly built as cargo vessels, but which were actually commissioned to be used as blockade runners during the American Civil War. Our work on the project was supported by a grant from the National Manuscripts Conservation Trust. Leading the preservation project was Ela Wiklo, Archive Services Preservation Manager and Paper Conservator. We were also assisted by student volunteer Luke Doyle, who helped repack and record many of the smaller plans during his placement here at Archive Services.


The project comprised three main stages. First the plans had to be unpacked, their old packaging discarded and then details of the plans had to be recorded, such as dimensions, scale and materials along with a more detailed description of the condition of each plan. Secondly, the plans had to be repacked according to current standards and any special packaging had to be applied to plans where the condition was more fragile or at additional risk of further deterioration. The collection includes many changes in the types of ships being built, as  sail was gradually replace by steam power; the materials used to build them; as well as changes in the materials used for the plans themselves, with many of the earlier plans being drawn on a heavy-grade paper, while over the years tracings and linen papers become more prevalent, and then many of the later plans are prints, particularly blueprints. At this stage the plans were still kept in their old packaging materials. Many of them were covered in the accumulated build-up of dirt and grime that had resulted not just from their storage as archival material, but perhaps more so from their past, working life in the drawing offices of ship yards. So, first of all the plans had to be unpacked and then their old packaging discarded. As I worked through the rolls of plans, for the most part in chronological order, the particular types and patterns of damage and deterioration became more apparent. The plan rolls themselves were unsupported internally, and so vulnerable to pressure, especially at the ends of each roll, with the edges of plans likely to become more creased, frayed and torn. Once unrolled the extent of other damage, such as tears, which in some cases had gradually extended, usually from the sides, across the support, also became clearer. Some of the longer plans had a tendency to curl at the corners of the edges, curling up towards a central point. In some cases this had gradually led to pressure on those central points, leading to, at first, small tears. In a few cases, after repeated pressure these small tears extended, sometimes quite far across the face of the plan. Another aspect of the plans’ condition which became clearer on opening the plan rolls was the level of dirt, and how that varied across the large numbers of plans too. In terms of any treatment prior to recording and repacking plans, it was this last aspect of the preservation of the plans, checking levels of dirt and then deciding how to clean the plans, which was the first thing to be dealt with. As the project involved a very large number of plans and cleaning was the single most time consuming task, priority was given to cleaning the plans with the worst levels of dirt and grime, particularly where this obscured the drawing itself. Once cleaned the plans could be recorded, and a spreadsheet was begun which allowed us to note various aspects of the plans details and condition.


Each reference number was entered in the second from left hand column, followed by the plan’s dimensions in the next. Other information recorded included, an entry for the ship’s name and number, the type of vessel, for example a brig, a screw steamer, a hopper barge etc. and the year that the ship was built. Then there were entries for the type of plan being recorded, whether for example, the plan was a Lines Plan, a Deck Plan or Rigging Plan etc. Scale was also recorded: this ranged from plans for large features, like lines, rigging or deck plans, drawn at an eighth, or a quarter of an inch to a foot; to plans for smaller parts, like rudders, drawn at an inch to a foot; some plans for the smallest parts, like Composite Bolts, were drawn as ‘Full Size’. A further column recorded the plans’ materials; including the support, which in many cases predated the widespread use of tracing and where heavy-grade paper was used instead. Drawing materials were also recorded and distinctions made between different types of marks, where lines, washes and textures for example, were sometimes used to indicate timber or metal parts. Another column was reserved for additional information such as further drawings on the reverse of plans, handwritten notes, dates, signatures, or any other details that might merit a separate mention. For the most part, recording this information conformed to an easy pattern of repeated phrases and standardised sentences. Where this became more complicated was in accurately recording the condition, deterioration or damage to plans. Here a free-style, slightly less reliant on a standard vocabulary, seemed a better option. This also meant that recording the extent of damage and deterioration for each plan, varied a great deal across the collection, from just a couple, to a couple of hundred words. For the purposes of a preservation project, this information was obviously particularly important and could highlight any need for more urgent treatment. Once recorded, the plans could be repacked in new, conservation grade materials, which would extend the life of the plans and also help enable better access to them. As plans had previously been rolled around each other with no internal support for the plan roll, many edges of the plans had become vulnerable to fraying and tearing at the ends. In order to arrest this type of deterioration and prevent further damage of this sort, the plans were to be rolled around an internal support tube. Support from inside the roll, helps prevent the suspension and erosion of plan edges.


At this stage, it was also possible to take any plans which were badly torn and place them inside polyester sheets. Two sheets of polyester were cut to a size significantly longer than the plans themselves, to allow for movement during plan rolling. Protected in this way, these torn plans could then be rolled with the other plans around the support tubes. As well as providing them with further protection, packing the plans in polyester sheets also helped make the torn plans as accessible as those in better condition: even those so badly damaged they were torn into separate parts, could be viewed as single plans, their parts held together inside the protective sheet.  Once rerolled, the plans could be secured together with cotton tape, which was also used to bind a note to the plan roll describing which plans it contained. Once rolled around this combination of cardboard tube, the plans could then be placed inside a Tyvek®bag.  Once a few plan rolls have been repacked in this way, they can then be placed in telescopic Cube Tubes.

Another aspect of the project was to enhance the global reach and reputation of the Simons’ plans. Given their age, the comparative rarity of some of the material, including plans of blockade runners, and the fact that many of the plans were so well drawn, there was quite a lot to work with.


Along with Preservation Manager and student volunteer Luke Doyle, I had photographed a large number of the plans in the course of our work, and we were able to use some of these images to compile a set of 53 images on Flickr. Many of the Simons plans were hand drawn, skilfully executed and in some cases highly detailed and coloured drawings, which all helped to make an interesting Flickr set. Lastly, in the later stages of the project some images of the plans were posted on twitter to highlight the project.


Thanks to Colin for sharing his experiences.

Categories: Archive Services, Library

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