RESTORATION, SERVICING AND REPAIR
OF ANTIQUE COMPASSES
AND SCIENTIFIC INSTRUMENTS
I NO LONGER SERVICE COMPASSES CONTAINING RADIUM
Paul restoring a Stanley MkIII Liquid Prismatic Compass
There is much discussion and controversy as to whether one should "restore" old scientific instruments or leave them with their patina, their badge of age and supposed "use".
My personal opinion is that a small amount of patina signifies use, but a lot of patina signifies neglect. This opinion, however, is not shared by everybody.
When you buy a classic wrist watch such as a Patek Philippe, to name just one example, the retailer will recommend you send it back for annual servicing and while it is being serviced they also clean the watch and polish out any scratches and make any necessary repairs. I believe that the same principle should be applied to scientific instruments, especially as not so long ago a chronometer such as a Patek Philippe would have been very much regarded as a scientific instrument.
Veteran, vintage and antique motor cars and motorcycles are always restored to as near concourse condition as possible, and no criticism is made that such restoration takes away the "patina" and decreases the value.
Where necessary I clean, restore, repair and refurbish many of the antique scientific instruments I buy and I put them into full working condition as they were made to be. My feeling is that these instruments were not made to put under glass and develop a patina of disuse or misuse, but were made to be used and loved, and to withstand hundreds of years of use.
Brass looks beautiful when cleaned. If the original makers had tried to sell their items already dulled and bearing the patina of time they would not have been very successful. People bought the instruments for many reasons, but one reason was that they looked impressive, all shiny wood, brass and glass.
I think it is a very sad sight to see excessive patina, and I have no problem stating publicly that the first thing I do when I get my hands on a 200 year old telescope, compass or other scientific instrument, is to assess it carefully and decide if the patina is actually really patina or if it is a sign of neglect. If the original lacquer is scabby and unsightly I have no problem removing it and polishing the brass. Sometimes I re-lacquer the item, other times I let the brass develop a slight patina, but then clean it regularly with alcohol to maintain a nice colour.
Re-lacquering is not difficult. There are modern two-part epoxy lacquers that work beautifully; or you can mix up some original 19th century lacquer, the recipes for which can be found in the Internet and in several publications, and try it yourself. Brass is resilient and if you get it wrong you just remove the lacquer and try again in a different way. Never be afraid to experiment, though experiments are best carried out on an old piece of brass that has no value.
Many antique collectors and dealers will tell you that it is sacrilege to clean and restore, and maybe they have a point, but personally I disagree with them and thoroughly enjoy having a fully serviced, fully functional and very beautiful instrument that draws attention and encourages conversation, much like an eighty year-old car in concourse condition, or an old Patek. Nobody EVER lets a wristwatch develop a patina, so why are opinions so contradictory for antique scientific instruments?
Obviously if one finds an almost pristine antique instrument then it should be enjoyed without tampering. When, however, time has taken its toll on a 100, 200 or even 300 year-old instrument, then careful cleaning, repairing and restoration, in my opinion, is not just acceptable, but a duty.
The choice of whether to restore or not lies with the owner of the item, but they should read as many books and take as much advice as possible before embarking on a cleaning or restoration, or even consider having it done professionally if the item is of high financial or emotional value, or if the item contains Radium paint or arsenic (1800s green dial compass cards and makers’ labels - the colour was achieved with arsenic).
Replacing broken glass is not difficult these days. Watchmakers usually have watch crystals of all shapes and sizes and it is usually fairly easy to find one. Lenses can be made up by any High Street optician. I have asked them in the past and although their initial response was "I don't think so", they were kind enough to make enquiries and in the end were happy to do the work.
Old missing brass screws and many small parts can be found in modelling shops and available by mail order from many model maker's magazines.
Missing or damaged Morocco leather can be replaced by buying old, empty instrument cases at low prices in eBbay or at markets and stripping the leather off for future use, or by scanning the item with a colour computer scanner and then printing the scan onto paper. The paper is cut to size and glued on, having the same colour and pattern as the surrounding leather.
Many of the parts of the Mk III and even earlier compasses can be adapted from spare parts made specifically for the modern Francis Barker M73 or the now discontinued Stanley G150 compasses, especially the sealing gaskets. If the compass requires a smaller sealing gasket then simply cut a section out of an M73 or G150 gasket and bring the ends together with silicone adhesive. Beware however that the modern gaskets are thicker than the old ones, and when you screw down the clamping ring you must not tighten the screws too much, so that a gap remains between the clamping ring and its seat, or the screws will simply strip their threads.
Any compasses or wristwatches manufactured prior to the mid 1960s will probably contain Radium paint used for the luminescence for night use. Victoria green card compasses and green makers’ labels were coloured with arsenic, and are dangerous even to touch. If your compass has thick brown, red or pinkish marks on the dial then it can be assumed it contains Radium and should not be opened. Please read the following Compass Repairs section of this page.
RADIATION AND ARSENIC HAZARDS
FROM OLD COMPASSES
A very important word of caution for restoring, repairing or opening old compasses.
Green compass cards from the 1800s and their respective makers’ green labels stuck inside the boxes were dyed with arsenic, and are hazardous even to touch, as arsenic can enter the blood stream through the skin, as well as through inhalation or ingestion. Arsenic poisoning can have similar symptoms to cholera.
The luminous paint used up until the 1960's was based on Radium, which is highly radioactive and VERY DANGEROUS. The Radium will remain lethal for up to fifteen thousand years, and besides the fact that radiation is invisible and odourless, and can even pass through metal, it must also not be ingested or inhaled as fine dust particles. This work should only be carried out by trained and qualified personnel. Current U.K. compass manufacturers simply REFUSE to handle compasses containing Radium due to the risks involved.
I cannot overstate the dangers of opening these old instruments. If your compass has thick brown, red, or pinkish marks on the dial then it can be safely assumed it contains Radium and SHOULD NOT BE DISMANTLED.
A Geiger counter is advisable if you intend to collect old compasses to give an indication as to which you can dismantle for restoration, and which should be left alone. It is important to understand that the danger is both in the actual radiation and in the inhalation or ingestion of contaminated dust or compass fluid.
Below is a photograph of a Geiger counter reading on a 1915 British compass and you can see 9.99 micro Sieverts. This reading would actually be very much higher if the counter didn't scale out at 9.99.
Maximum recommended dosage for personnel working in the nuclear industry is 20 milli Sieverts per annum. Treat these items with respect. More detailed information can be found in the Internet from many official sources.
The UK Health and Safety Executive states:
The practice of luminising the hands and dials of clocks and watches dates from early in the twentieth century and traditionally used the radioactive material Radium-226. This material emits both alpha and gamma radiation and as a result has a considerable "radiotoxicity" associated with it. The radiation risks from work with luminised materials can broadly be divided into those from internal radiation that results from radioactive materials becoming absorbed into a person's body, and those from external radiations from persons being in the vicinity of or handling radioactive materials.
Below right is a compass from 1940 clearly showing the brown / pink paint typical of Radium-based luminous paint used in the past. This compass, like the compass below-left, drives the Geiger counter right off the scale.
All the Radium in this compass is safely behind glass and as long as the compass remains intact there is little chance of inhaling or ingesting Radium dust. It is, however, advisable to not keep such items within five metres of where you spend long periods of time, such as near where you eat, work, sleep or watch television.
The danger can also come from incorrect handling of breakages. In the event that you should drop such an instrument and the glass breaks, DO NOT USE A VACUUM CLEANER to clean up the pieces. This will suck in the Radium powder and blow it out into the room for you to breathe. Instead, spray a fine spray of water everywhere and using gloves and a protective face mast clean the area with damp cloths to ensure you collect all the dust and then safely dispose of the gloves, mask and cloths.
Remember also that any liquid inside the compass will also contain and emit substantial quantities of Radon gas due to contact with the Radium for many decades, and should thus be treated as if it were actually Radium. Radon has a half-life of around 18 hours, so if the fluid is left open in a safe, well ventilated place, for about 5 days it will then be safe to dispose of as non-radioactive waste. This is not the case for the actual markers, they will remain highly radioactive for many, many thousands of years, even though they no longer glow in the dark.
The best advice, however, is that if you suspect your compass or old watch has Radium paint, even though it has lost its luminescence, DO NOT REPAIR, RESTORE OR GENERALLY TAMPER WITH IT. Just treat it with great respect, handle it occasionally, and keep it away from where you spend long periods of time. If you really do have to repair or restore, then seek expert and qualified assistance.
Please email with a description of your compass and the work you wish to be carried out and I will be pleased to provide you with a quotation, but do not email for quotations for compasses containing Radium.
Please do not email me regarding compasses containing Radium. I no longer work on other people’s hazardous compasses.
I WILL NOT PUT RIGHT OTHER PEOPLE'S BAD WORKMANSHIP. IF YOUR COMPASS HAS PREVIOUSLY BEEN WORKED ON IN AN UNSATISFACTORY MANNER PLEASE DO NOT ASK ME TO REPAIR IT. I WILL ONLY REPAIR GENUINE BREAKAGES AND WILL ONLY RESTORE COMPASSES THAT ARE STILL IN THEIR ORIGINAL CONDITION. IF YOUR COMPASS HAS BEEN PREVIOUSLY "SERVICED" OR "REPAIRED" BUT HAS DEVELOPED PROBLEMS AS A RESULT OF, OR SUBSEQUENT TO THOSE "REPAIRS" THEN YOU SHOULD REVERT TO THE PERSON WHO CARRIED OUT THAT REPAIR OR SERVICE.
SAMPLE OF RESTORATION WORK ON A 200 YEAR OLD J. B. LE ROY COMPASS
WWII MkIII COMPASS BEFORE AND AFTER RESTORATION