Maintaining The Gates of Hell

By Ellen Bechtol

This being my first blog post, I find it appropriate to introduce myself.  I joined the Outdoor Sculpture Crew in November 2010 and I’m currently completing a graduate degree in Museum Studies at John F. Kennedy University.  After graduating from William and Mary, I moved to Palo Alto a couple of years ago.  Besides working with Oliver, I also volunteer at the Cantor Arts Center, helping to update the museum’s exhibition records.  I hope you find this post informative, thanks for reading!

Over the past few weeks, Oliver and I have been performing routine maintenance on the Rodin Sculpture Garden.  Last Thursday we tackled the largest piece in the Garden, The Gates of Hell.  While working on The Gates, several visitors approached us to ask what we were doing to the sculpture; this post explains how we maintain most of the bronze sculptures in the Outdoor Sculpture Collection.

Buffing the wax with nylon bristle brushes

By regularly cleaning, inspecting, and waxing the outdoor sculptures, we hope to prevent the need for more invasive conservation work in the future.  To clean the bronze, we initially spray it from the top down with water to soften and remove the top layer of dust, grime and bird droppings.  Then we look to see whether or not the water beads on the sculpture’s surface.  In areas where water does not bead, the previous wax treatment has worn off.  Next the sculpture is washed with a mild soap using soft sponges and brushes and then rinsed clean.  Following that, we use absorbent towels to dry the sculpture thoroughly.  It is important that the sculpture be completely dry and warm before applying wax to ease application.  Once we are sure that the sculpture is dry and the sun has gently heated its surface, we apply a hard, high melting point microcrystalline wax called Be Square 175—the number 175 refers to the melting point of the wax in degrees Fahrenheit.  Mineral spiritsa mild solvent often used as a paint thinneris added to the wax in order to produce a thin fluid which can be readily applied to the sculpture.  When the wax has dried, we buff it twice, first with large nylon brushes, and then with a piece of fine nylon stocking.  Buffing compresses the wax into a thin, hard film, providing lasting protection, a shine to the sculpture’s surface, and a richness to the color.

The sculptures in the Rodin Sculpture Garden are cleaned every other month with wax treatments applied as needed, generally twice a year.

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