Looking After Your Detecting Bits?

20th February 2017 — 20 Comments

Many detectorists have adopted techniques for cleaning their finds and these methods have often been passed down as good practice. Sometimes the results can be impressive, but professional conservators tell us that they can do more harm than good. I’m not here to pass judgement, but to state facts. I’ve never cleaned a find in several year’s detecting; Mrs John was my cleaner and conservator. From what I observed, the main tools she used were a tooth pick and a soft brush.

We see recommended on detecting forums all kinds of substances for enhancing and preserving objects. I’m sure that you’ve heard of vinegar, lemon juice, ketchup, brown sauce, Cola, table salt, paraffin wax, WD 40, light machine oil, Steradent, molasses, Dettol, Silvo, olive oil and so on. Indeed, soaking finds in olive oil is a firm favourite. But beware.

In February, Finds Liaison Officer Vanessa Oakden published a paper on The Dangers of Olive Oil. You can also download a PDF of Conservation Advice Notes from the PAS site. Click on the links and soak up the message. The use of barrelling machines, electrolytic and ultrasonic cleaning tanks are not recommended either. Unless, for example, you wish to clean modern coins before exchanging them at the bank or experimenting with older coins of little importance.

A fact that will surprise a lot of detectorists is that washing finds under a tap ( common practice ), is also not advised. I quote below from The Guide to Conservation for Metal Detectorists, first published in 2002, but the information is still relevant.

… tap water contains substances which could be harmful to finds, for example salts … fast running water can be very damaging to fragile objects, as loose parts could be washed away alongside soil and corrosion … if objects have been dried, then washing them under a tap is a harsh process which will cause a sudden and potentially damaging change in the object’s environment … the only type of object which might not suffer from being cleaned in this way ( with gently running water and a soft brush ) are good quality, well-preserved, gold and silver coins … iron finds should NEVER be cleaned with water.

So what, if anything, do you use? The next piece of information may come as a surprise 

Using Hairspray

I hadn’t heard of using hairspray for conserving finds until a couple of days ago. The idea was certainly different and grabbed my attention. Detectorist Daniel Spencer posted a picture of several bronze Roman items.

He said, “I have numerous finds like this, I love the blues and greens so have never cleaned them up other than enough to remove the soft mud. They are protected with hairspray and allowed to cure. These items are now two years old and looks the same today.”

Courtesy Daniel Spencer

Daniel went on to say, “I had the idea years ago from having to protect pieces of artwork. Hairspray is non acid and protects against oxygen, but can be soaked off if required. A good quality matt finish is best, because it enhances the colour and the detail is amazing. Everything of mine is protected this way and shows no signs of deterioration.”

Picture by JW

You may think that holding your partners hairdo (or yours?) was the only ordinary job performed by hairspray. But there are some extraordinary uses, as I discovered. Over 40 of them including exterminating houseflies, reducing runs in pantyhose, picking up pet fur from couch and carpets – simply spray the hairspray onto a paper towel or rag and then run it over whatever is coated in hair. Knowing how to preserve a shoe’s shine, stiffening a zipper and removing stubborn price tag labels are amongst some uses explained fully on the Reader’s Digest page. I understand that hairspray is also used extensively in the field of military modelling. Check up on the Hairspray Technique.


Though you commonly hear of people keeping pepper spray on them, who’s to say a miniature bottle of hairspray can’t do the trick? It may not be as crippling as mace or pepper spray, but it is still just as painful and burns when it gets into the eyes. If you ever feel you want to have some extra safety, a bottle of hairspray might be the way to go, especially if you search in sensitive areas like many of my overseas subscribers. 

Which reminds me. Mrs John’s aerosol of ‘professional quality’ highly flammable TRESemmé is festooned by warnings like those on the right and accompanied with lots of ‘cautions’. I must put it back where I found it, conscious of the fact that I’ll be sleeping in a room containing a potential time-bomb!

The Ingredients … your guess is as good as mine!



A little boy and his Grandad are raking leaves in the yard. The little boy sees an earthworm trying to get back into its hole. He says, ‘Grandpa, I bet I can put that worm back in that hole.’

Grandad replies, ‘I’ll bet you five dollars you can’t. It’s too wriggly and limp to put back in that little hole.’ The little boy runs into the house and comes back out with an aerosol of hair spray. He sprays the worm until it is straight and stiff as a board. Then he stuffs the worm back into the hole. Grandad hands the little boy five quid, grabs the hair spray and runs into the house.

Thirty minutes later, Grandad comes back out and hands the little boy another five pounds. The little boy says, ‘Grandpa, you already gave me the money.’ Grandad replies, ‘I know. That’s from your Grandma.’



No worms were harmed in the construction of this blog … and few artefacts or coins were abused. Sleep safely and don’t have nightmares! I remain neutral on this subject and am not recommending ANY of the methods of conserving items discussed in this blog. Yes. John sits on the fence and leaves you to make up your own minds on this controversial subject. Chicken!



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20 responses to Looking After Your Detecting Bits?

  1. Good Blog John, What to use when cleaning a coin or preserving a coin are two different things,
    Of course You never want to clean a valuable coin, as that will ruin tis vaule

  2. John from Ontario (AKA Geobound) 20th February 2017 at 1:35 AM

    Thanks for pointing that out John (no pun intended).

    I still haven’t a clue how to clean my coins, so for now I just keep adding them to the piles I already have. LOL…

  3. So, a list of things not to use. One item that somebody uses but you don’t recommend. I want my 5 minutes back. 🙂

    • Hello Gary. How delightful to hear from you again. No apologies for not showing your comments on earlier blogs. They were too obnoxious. It’s gratifying to see that you keep coming back and you MUST have found something to occupy your mind in my latest offering, as you were prepared to spend five minutes reading it!

      Love from John.

  4. Excellent and entertaining post….now I just have to find something worth preserving.

  5. Hmmm My wife read this blog before I got around to it. I now know why she has dumped all her hair spray aerosols in the garbage bin.

  6. I clean my finds with HF acid, doesn’t hurt our Gold nuggets but dangerous on most other things including body parts.
    ( Instructions say “may lead to death”.

  7. John my expressions below is not directed to you and I am sure you realise that.
    Of all the years I have cleaned and preserved coins and artifacts I have never found there to be any deterioration beyond what was there initially and quite a lot of my finds end up at the British Museum, I have some of my finds dating back some 37 years which I had cleaned and preserved and still remain in pristine condition. I honestly believe some of these conservators do try to help but some also talk out of the back of their heads and if olive oil is so detrimental on artifacts after a period of time how is it that the ancient Egyptians mummified their dead in these types of oils and here we are thousands of years later with perfectly preserved dead bodies.
    I have seen many coins and artifacts in private collections and in every museum and none of them are displayed with dirt left on them or in a state of decay and a great picture and appreciation is of how the Jersey hoard has finished up shining clean.
    I have for many years used the similar wax preservative which is used at the BM.
    Most bronze finds are suffering from some stage of bronze decay and without some form of stopping the progression of this decay the finder will not have them beyond a couple of years all they will be left with is a pile of green dust this decay is that bad.

    • Randy – you are a respected detectorist with lots of experience and great finds under your belt. Your comment is not only welcomed, but valued, and gives us a valid point of reference. Thank you.

  8. I too, like Randy, use small amounts of the wax treatment, mostly what I find doesn’t need any other treatment than chucking in the trash bucket ! that said I have a few nice items which are just washed in luke warm water and dried thoroughly before applying a wax coat and buffing off when thats dry. a great blog piece john, provoking food for thought, everyone ,i’m sure, has their their own personal way of cleaning stuff. One guy I know loves to use Genolite !! not my choice but a lot of the older generation will remember it.

  9. Love this blog and look forward to them. Always interesting.

  10. Not sure about olive oil but I do know that olive wood can rust chisels and knives.

  11. hair spray …ill give that a try john …love the joke lol …many thanks for this very interesting read ….my only fear now is how many men will be using hair spray in the fields lol

  12. Hi John, thanks for raising this practice I have adopted. If anyone wants to try it, take a Roman bronze, gently clean with distilled water and a soft brush… Allow to dry out completely overnight. Then take a matt hairspray and coat 1 side with a couple of sprays. Allow to dry… 1 minute… Do other side and allow to dry… You will be amazed at the way it sets off the coins detail. If you don’t want it on there any more. Warm up some distilled water and soak it off. I am enjoying reading other people’s comments. Cheers, Dan.

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