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Removing Graffiti from Historic Masonry (Part B)

By The Old House Web

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A variety of treatments are available from which to choose the most appropriate method of graffiti removal that will not damage the surface of historic masonry. Removal techniques, which are chosen according to the type of graffiti and the masonry, range from simply erasing pencilled graffiti with soft erasers, or removing chalked graffiti with soft brushes,to poulticing with water (with or without detergents), poulticing with organic solvents or alkali-based paint removers, or applying bleach to remove painted graffiti. In very limited situations, it may mean using very delicate and controlled abrasive means. Successful graffiti removal often requires a combination of cleaning materials and methods.

Poulticing. The most effective method of removing graffiti from masonry usually involves the use of a poultice. A poultice consists ofan absorbent material or powder-inert clays such as kaolin or sepiolite, diatomaceous earth (fuller's earth); or cellulose products such as fluff pulp cellulose or shredded paper-mixed with a cleaning solution (a liquid reagent such as water, organic solvent, paint stripper or bleach) to form a paste or slurry. The purpose of a poultice is twofold: it enables a cleaning solution to be kept in contact with the stained area as long as possible,while allowing the cleaning solution to pull the staining material out of the substrate via the poultice without redepositing it in, or restaining, the masonry. A poultice is often covered with a plastic sheet to retard evaporation (Fig. 5). With some extremely porous types of stone, suchas marble, although a poultice may remove a stain from one side of the stone, stains can pass completely through the stone and be redeposited on the other side of the masonry slab. Thus, caution should always be exercised in stain and graffiti removal.

Water and Detergent. Graffiti removal from historic masonry should always begin with the gentlest means possible. In some instances, this means low-pressure water washing. Fresh graffiti-one or two days old-made with water-soluble markers may sometimes be removed with water, possibly aided by a neutral or non-ionic detergent. (Non-ionic detergents whichdo not ionize in solution, do not deposit a solid, visible residue.) Ammonia can also be effective in removing fresh graffiti. Any detergent should be approached with caution and tested before using because most commercial laundry detergents are not neutral and contain substances which may leave undesirable residues on masonry materials. Usually, the water and detergent should be mixed with an absorbent material and applied in the form of a poultice. Although water washing is often likely to be the gentlest cleaning method for historic masonry, it may not be as effective for removing graffiti because many graffiti materials are not soluble in water.

Organic Solvents and Paint Removers. Most graffiti can be removed without damaging the masonry with proprietary graffiti-removal products and commercial paint strippers containing organic solvents. But, these products should always be tested and used in accordance with manufacturer's instructions included in the product literature. Normally, solvents should be used in a poultice form to prevent them from penetrating into the substrate,and permanently discoloring or staining the masonry. A number of paint-removers are manufactured as thick gels or pastes that cling to the surface, and some commercial paint-removal products include a tough fiber-reinforced paper or cloth backing that retards evaporation and also facilitates neat and clean removal of the used stripper. The advantage of using organic solvents is that they evaporate completely, leaving no residual material in the masonry. However, organic solvents may present a severe health hazard,and workers using them must wear adequate protection. "Off-the-shelf" aerosol graffiti removers generally should not be used because the dissolved paint being removed may run down the wall "staining" a previously clean area; or pigments may also be redistributed by the rinsing and scrubbingrecommended by the product manufacturer (Fig. 6).

Alkaline Compounds. Alkaline compounds may be used to removesome oils and greases, and waxes from non-alkali sensitive masonry.Like organic solvents, alkaline compounds should generally be used in conjunction with a poultice when removing graffiti. The use of alkaline compounds shouldalways be followed by a weak acid wash and a water rinse in order to neutralize-orremove-all the alkaline residues from the masonry. Strong alkalies (pH13-14),such as sodium hydroxide-based paint removers (caustic soda or lye), generally should not be used as they can cause efflorescence and staining on masonry surfaces, if not properly neutralized. Potassium and other hydroxide paint removers may react with iron compounds in some masonry, particularly Indiana limestone, to form dark brown (rust-colored), or black ferric hydroxidestains, which are very difficult to remove.

Bleaches. Alkali-based bleaches such as calcium hypochlorite can sometimes be used very successfully in a poultice to bleach or decolorize certain dyes contained in some paints and inks that cannot readily be removedby other means.

Mechanical or Abrasive Methods. Mechanical treatments includedry or wet blasting, using abrasive grits, such as sand, dolomite powder, aluminum oxide, ground-walnut shells, sodium bicarbonate (baking soda),and others; high-pressure water washing; and mechanical sanding or grinding. All of these abrasive methods will cause damage to masonry and, in most instances, should never be considered as a method of removing graffiti from historic masonry. Abrasive methods used mistakenly by untrained workers to remove graffiti usually result in etching the outline of the graffiti permanently into the masonry (Fig. 7). Some historic masonry materials can be easily damaged by pressure washing even at low or moderate pressures(100-400 psi). Occasionally, however, under very controlled circumstances,a micro-abrasive technique may be appropriate for removing graffiti from delicate masonry surfaces, if used at low pressures of 35-40 psi with fine abrasives. This treatment, which must be done very slowly and carefully to avoid damaging the masonry, should be tested first, and undertaken only by a professional conservator. Another exception, even though it is not strictly an abrasive treatment, is using a razor blade as a first stepto remove spray paint or felt-tip marker from polished granite. However, this too, should be undertaken only by a professional conservator,and only on polished granite, which is very hard and generally imperviousto scratches.

Laser Cleaning. Although not in general use as a cleaning technique,laser technology offers great promise in the future as a non-damaging methodof graffiti removal.

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