Through conservation keyhole: The William Simons Ship Plans Preservation Project

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Last week we have heard from Colin about his project experiences and now it’s time to share some conservation experience. It will be a difficult challenge to describe our project and about 125 conservation treatment hours in just one blog post, but let’s try!

In conjunction with 150th Anniversary of the American Civil War’s, this project was one of the most interesting conservation projects in Preservation Unit last year. The project was about preserving the 19th century plans of ships constructed by William Simons & Co Ltd.  Clydeside shipbuilders worked around international law, taking advantage of the economic benefits of building and supplying ships to both sides. Our project was about preserving and enhancing the accessibility of the ship plans of William Simons & Co. Ltd and has highlighted the importance of the so called blockade runners in this particular collection.

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The sintered glass wall board with plans at the start of the preservation project in the Conservation studio.

They were usually side-wheel steamers and were much faster than union ships. They were long and low often nine times as long as they were wide. They normally entered port on moonless nights at high tide using the light alignment system to guide them in, since the Confederates had darkened all their lighthouses to make navigation difficult for the Union navy. There were blockade-runners especially designed and built for the purpose and there were ships like Will-o’-the-Wisp which occasionally might have attempted to run the blockade to turn a quick profit. Its hull measured 238 by 23 feet and was constructed of 1-inch iron.

The significant historical importance’s of the four plans of the Paddle Steamer Ship No 117 Will o’ Wisp & Ship No 119 Julia (ref: UGD114/117/1-4) build by Simons during the American Civil War and their condition have combined to make their conservation a priority.


William Simons Ship Plans, the some of the most severe damage to plans in the William Simons Ship Plan collection.

All objects had several characteristic types of plans damage, therefore requiring a wide range of treatments. All of the plans have been tightly rolled and stored in varying environmental storage conditions for extended periods. The outsides of rolls ends were very dirty and crumpled, with some degree of surface dirt. The plans have been susceptible to tears, losses, and reinforcement with unsympathetic materials. The main conservation problem was related to the approach to these archival materials. As the industrial heritage collection, ship plans were working documents, and the meaning of plans with so-called “ready use” elements, and so due to their past storage and handling, many of them have large tears, major losses, and reinforcements with pressure sensitive and paper tapes. Plans have had also variety backings support from a single sheet of white paper to multiple layers of bond paper, Kraft paper and linen. 


UGD 114/117/3, detail of the plan with discolouration, glossy varnish before treatment.

 All of the plans have been drawn by hand onto a single sheet of paper. Some areas of the drawing have been scrubbed out.  Some areas of the two plans drawing (UGD 114/117/3 and  UGD 114/117/4 ) have been made underneath and some areas were above the varnish layer and the varnish layer itself had started to craze and has oxidised to a dark orange colour.  The combination of cracks, discolouration, glossy varnish and trapped dirt made the plans very difficult to clean. All four plans were badly discoloured and stained.


Part of the conservation treatment: the removal of backing material from one of the Simons plans.

In order to remove the secondary linen, the backing textile was removed manually as it was found that the linen was sufficiently degraded to simply break up. The underlying adhesive was tested and confirmed as a common starch paste adhesive. The adhesive on the back of the plan was removed manually. The old paper repairs were removed to allow for thorough washing. All of them were fully relaxed and lining were carried out using Japanese tissue and wheat starch paste adhesive, to give the support a secondary sympathetic layer. All of them were then repaired.

Treatment repair was carried out using the sintered glass wall board in the Conservation studio.  Infill and repairs of the plans  were carried out whilst the plan was on the wall board using the two layers of the Japanese paper Tosa Kozo senka-shi (13gsm) and Gampi Kozo Kongoshi  and wheat starch paste adhesive.  Larger areas of loss were filled with pieces of toned Japanese paper, but not fully integrated with the object.

UGD114/117/1 Lines plan of the Paddle Steamer Ship No 117 Will o’ Wisp & Ship No 119 Julia, photo collages before and after treatment.

After  repair, the some edge of the plan remained uneven, even though the repairs had been attached and now lay flush to the object. However, it was decided that some small places were retouching with watercolour creating a finished ‘square’ object.


UGD 114/117/4 plan of engine brackets of the Paddle Steamer Ship No 117 Will o’ Wisp & Ship No 119 Julia, photo collages before and after treatment.

After conservation, the best option for the long term preservation was that all of the plans remain flat. If the plans had been rolled, it could result in a strong likelihood that the cracks would reopen under such stress. Therefore, the conserved plans were repacked in polyester pocket and stored in planchest inside drawers. As the end result of these treatments, four important plans with greatly reduced paper deteriorations are now properly stored to keep them stable.

Included in Archive Services extensive collection of Clydeside shipbuilding records are plans, and many other records, related to vessels built to beat the Union blockade of the Confederacy during the American Civil War.

Future blog post will show a letter from 10th  February 1864 from Captain James Carlin concerning the building of three ships for blockade running purposes toWilliam Bee & Co, South Carolina, 1864.

Categories: Archive Services, Library

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1 reply


  1. Best of the Blogs – February | Conservation Conversations

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