Low Moisture Cleaning for High-Value Contents


Imagine a baseball signed by Babe Ruth, valued at $22,000, contaminated with tear gas. Picture a bisque doll from the 1870s, valued at $12,000, tainted with fire residues. Envision a Beatles vinyl record and album cover, valued at $17,000, affected by Condition 2 mold. Think about a modern Dior wedding dress, valued at $5,000, contaminated with fire suppressant foam. What do they all have in common? They were all successfully cleaned and restored using low-moisture cleaning methods!

Wet and damp cleaning practices can cause moisture-driven issues on delicate or sensitive surfaces, such as shrinkage, swelling, surface distortion, and dye bleeding. On natural cellulosic surfaces such as paper or cardboard and fabrics such as cotton, linen, and viscose/rayon, there is the potential for browning. 

Contents cleaning continually presents technicians with different restoration scenarios in which low-moisture cleaning practices are invaluable tools. The two low-moisture practices I often use in my studio are dry compound and dry foam cleaning.

In the intricate world of contents cleaning, technicians encounter diverse materials, surfaces, and fabrics that can present unique challenges. Effectively cleaning contaminated contents demands a deep understanding of contamination soil, soil penetration levels, surface porosity, and chemical reactions—how a chemical affects both contaminating soil and the surface of the item or object.

As always, before attempting any cleaning practices, a close inspection and extensive pre-testing must be performed, as many of the absorbent compound products contain solvents that can damage or dissolve surfaces. A hazard assessment will determine the level of PPE a technician shall wear during the cleaning process. 

Absorbent Compound Cleaning Method

Absorbent compound products utilize organic or synthetic media such as mineral powders, minced sponges, ground art gum erasers, or other absorbent granular carriers. These carriers are saturated with cleaning agents and solvents to loosen, dissolve, and attract soils. With certain compounds, the dry product is slightly moistened with water to activate the absorbed or adsorbed cleaning chemicals. 

The product is distributed onto the surface of the item or object (I usually use a common baking sifter or hand-held strainer) and agitated into the surface with a soft brush, sponge, foam-tipped swab, or in the case of larger textiles like an area rug, a machine such as a counter rotating brush (CRB) unit. The absorbent compound attracts or attaches to soils, and the soils and compound residues are brushed, blown (with the use of a low-pressure air compressor), or dry vacuumed away. The contaminated carrier must be disposed of appropriately based on the type of contamination and local laws or regulations. 

The absorbent compound process is very versatile, and if the item can withstand the practice, many technicians use the “shake and bake” or “seal and squish” process where the item is placed in a zip locking bag along with the cleaning media, moved around vigorously, then removed from the bag and excess absorbent compound residues and soils are brushed, blown, or vacuumed away. 

Dry Foam Cleaning Method

The dry foam cleaning method is a little more aggressive on soils and can be a more destructive cleaning process than absorbent powders–but it can be a great choice when cleaning delicate textiles and surfaces such as doll’s hair and clothing, taxidermy, some furs, hand painted figurines, collectibles, historical or delicate fabrics, and even paper or cardboard when used correctly. An extremely thick, dense, very dry cleaning foam is achieved with the use of a natural sponge or mixer (I like to use an electric whip) and industry-formulated products such as Prochem’s Fine Fabric Shampoo.

Be warned: many cleaning products used to create dry foam are loaded with solvents and can dissolve or damage solvent-soluble surfaces, paints, and inks.  Quality professional products, usually called “foam shampoos,” will foam well and remove soils through the process of emulsification, soil suspension, or encapsulation, sometimes referred to as crystallization. As the foam dries, specialty polymers in the product will surround the soil and dry to a fine, microscopic residue that is brushed, blown, or dry vacuumed away.

Dry Foam Cleaning Instructions

  1. Dilute and mix foam cleaning shampoo according to label directions in a plastic bowl or bucket.
  2. Use an electric beater, mixer, or a natural sea sponge to whip the shampoo solution until large bubbles, about the size of golf balls, form.
  3. Aggressively whip the bubbles until they create a fine, dense, stiff, dry foam with the texture of shaving cream. This may take several minutes.
  4. Using a very slightly dampened natural sea sponge, horsehair brush, natural fiber paintbrush, or foam swab, scoop up the foam—no wet solution, just the stiff, dry foam at the top of the bucket.
  5. Work in sections, applying the foam and gently agitating it into the surface, fibers, or fabric. Ensure gentle mechanical agitation in a direction that won’t damage the surface.
  6. Allow the foam to air dry completely or force dry with air movers or a hairdryer.
  7. Dry vacuum, blow, or brush loosened soils and cleaning solution residues.
  8. Repeat as necessary.

Low-moisture cleaning practices, such as absorbent cleaning and dry foam cleaning, can be highly effective for restoring delicate and valuable items. However, as with any cleaning approach, it is always important to proceed with caution and test a small area first. However, I have found that these two methods can help yield great profit and very satisfied clients. 

German stamp collection valued at $4,000.00 restored with dry foam
and foam swabs.
Cleaning time: 35 minutes
Tool & chemical cost: $2.09
Restoration charge: $950.00
Photo Credit: Jessika James

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Jessika James

Jessika M. James has been in the cleaning and restoration industry for over 37 years, opening her first cleaning, restoration, and bio-remediation company along with her brother in 1982 in the northern California bay area. Jessika is very active in the industry and has served on the Board of Directors of the IICRC, is the IICRC Cleaning Division Chair providing leadership for multiple committees, and volunteers her time speaking at industry events such as The Experience, ISSA, CFI, NADCA, NACA and other trade association and insurance related education events. Jessika is the Senior Education and Training Specialist for RestorationCertified.com, the industry’s leading online IICRC Approved School.

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