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Laser cleaning

conservator wearing protective goggles pointing the nozzle of a laser cleaning machine at a sculpture

A wealth of experience

For many years conservation technologies' staff have been actively involved in the development of laser cleaning systems, giving them a wealth of technical and practical experience.

Conservation technologies works closely with clients to assess the service that will best meet their particular requirements. Staff are on hand to carry out laser cleaning tests to evaluate the suitability of the technique. This can be on-site or at the National Conservation Centre.

What is laser cleaning?

Laser cleaning is a valuable addition to the conservator’s toolbox as it offers a highly selective, reliable and precise method of removing layers of corrosion, pollution, unwanted paint and other surface coatings.

It is also an extremely controllable alternative to help remove unsightly and damaging layers from the surface of artwork in a wide range of sculptural materials including marble, bronze, ivory and aluminum.

Lasers have been successfully used to clean prehistoric artefacts, sculptures and monuments, while preserving patina, fine surface detail and important surface coatings.

The team has undertaken the laser cleaning of the Eros Statue, Cenotaph, St George's Hall reliefs and Nelson monument, all in Liverpool, as well as the Manchester Cenotaph and Southport's Queen Victoria monument. They have also worked with regional and national museums, local authorities, fine art dealers, ecclesiastical organisations and private clients.

photos of the head of a sculpture before and after cleaning

Hellenistic marble head before laser cleaning (on the left)
and after treatment (on the right)

How does laser cleaning work?

A laser is a unique source of energy, providing an intense, highly directional, pure form of light that is able to deliver energy to a surface in a highly controllable manner.

Lasers can be found in everyday, almost mundane uses (including barcode readers and CD players), as well as the highly specialised (surgical tools used in eye operations). In fact, the laser cleaning systems used in conservation have been modified from medical systems developed for cosmetic surgery.

The most commonly used laser cleaning systems in conservation emit short pulses of infrared light, typically at a wavelength of 1064 nm. Light at this wavelength quickly heats the dirt on the artwork, which expands and comes away from the surface. In many cases, the light interacts only weakly with the surface of the artwork and the removal process stops as soon as the clean surface is exposed.

It is, therefore, possible for an experienced conservator to completely remove unwanted layers without over cleaning the valuable surface of the artwork. Patina, fine surface detail and important surface coatings can be preserved. Laser cleaning systems offer an extremely high level of control and precision.

end view of sculptural figure with one clean and one dirty side

Half cleaned figure from the Manchester Cenotaph|

Watch a video of laser cleaning

Watch a video showing conservators using laser cleaning on several items.

This video clip demonstrates the effectiveness and versatility of laser cleaning. It shows conservators working on materials including a detailed and fragile stonework frieze and the outside of an old building. The flexibility of the technique is really shown when a live rose is successfully cleaned.

The conservators are shown holding a pen-like structure which is used to accurately direct the short pulses of infrared light on to the area being cleaned. You can see the light flashing on the surface of the object. Once the pulse has faded you can see the underlying material is much cleaner, while the surrounding area is left unaffected.

Laserfest - celebrating 50 years of laser innovations

Watch a 6 minute video produced to celebrate 50 years of laser innovations on the Laserfest website|.

Contact us

For further information please email the conservation technologies department|.