Any serious collector wants his or her prized collection to be in tip-top shape. But when you're dealing with items that are well over 50 years old, you're bound to have to work around some of the inevitable issues that come with aging. And that rings true for composition dolls, made of a unique blend of wood, wax and lacquer that require the proper care to make them last.
Composition dolls came about in the early 20th century, when American manufacturers wanted to offer a stronger alternative to the fragile dolls made with bisque and china by the Germans. Early composition dolls were made of glue and wax and then manufacturers starting adding wood to their secret recipes. They were sealed with a hard lacquer and then their features were painted on. So, while these dolls were made to last, their condition often depends on how they've been stored and displayed through the years. Here are five tips for cleaning composition dolls to bring their beauty back to life.
Avoid "Miracle" Products
All dolls are not created equal, but the self-proclaimed "miracle" cleaners on the market claim that they'll work for any of them. These miraculous products range from cleaning fluids to restoration materials, and they falsely provide novices with the confidence to clean up their collections all by themselves. The problem is that often the products do more harm than good. Composition dolls, particularly, have a finish that really shouldn't be altered by anyone but a professional.
We strongly advise you to not attempt to alter your composition doll's visage, but if you do, then the only thing you should use is acrylic paint. This type of paint won't dry out the surface, but it will conceal some of the crazing and cracks that are bound to have happened to your doll by now. Plus, it will add a little shine to your doll's complexion. Be sure to find a paint color that closely matches your doll's skin tone, and apply it with a soft, cotton rag in very small patches. Rub it on and then buff it off before it dries, being careful to avoid the entire eye area including the brows and lashes.
Less is More
While a mint condition composition doll would surely be a most prized possession, most are going to come with their fair share of wear and tear, and most collectors understand that. The problem with the materials used to make composition dolls is that they absorb oils and waxes, which will alter their appearance. So generally, unless a doll is in super bad shape or really dirty, you shouldn't attempt to restore or clean your doll's appearance. The most you should ever do is use a piece of tightly woven cotton to gently buff the finish.
Prevention is the Best Medicine
As with most things that matter, the best case scenario for a composition doll is to take care of it so that it doesn't need to be cleaned or restored. Because composition dolls are made of wood, they're affected by temperature changes. Wood expands and contracts in extreme temperatures, which can cause the crazing that you'll see in many dolls; heat will also cause the paint to flake. Because of this, you should never store them in an attic or basement. Your best bet is to display them in a glass case away from vents and direct sunlight.
Call a Doll Doctor
If your composition doll is important to you or a collector's item of some value, you may want to leave cleaning and restoration to a professional. Just be sure it's someone who actually has experience and not someone who bought a miracle product and calls himself a doll artist.
Before choosing a doll doctor, it's acceptable to ask about his or her background and for photos of prior work. And after describing the issue, ask what materials the doctor works with and how he or she would most likely approach the repair. Doll doctors don't have degrees, so don't be afraid to do your due diligence.
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- "Care of Composition Dolls." Louiseslittleladies.com. July 6, 2012. http://www.louiseslittleladies.com/care.htm
- "Composition Doll Makers 1899-1949." Dollreference.com. July 6, 2012. http://dollreference.com/composition_dolls.html
- "Tips For Conserving Your Composition Doll." Mnhs.org. July 6, 2012. www.mnhs.org/preserve/conservation/reports/compdoll.pdf