Returning life to your treasured artefacts

Masonic Warrant for Lodge #142” A Parchment Document

Parchment is animal skin; usually calf skin, that has been de-haired, treated in lime baths, and then stretched to produce a robust and strong substrate for writing on. Parchment and vellum are indeed the same material. To make ‘parchment’ the skin is split into two layers, making a two sheets with a smooth side for writing, which is worked with pumice and chalk to prepare it for holding ink. Vellum is left thick and is used for drum heads and book coverings. Traditionally parchment is used for legal documents, land deeds, indentures, appointment certificates, diplomas, contracts and incorporation documents.  Usually these documents have been folded or rolled, and after a few hundred years can no longer be opened, requiring humidification followed by stretching to make them lay flat.

As you can see from the images above, this 1884 Warrant for Masonic Lodge #142 was in far worse condition than the usual parchment. The document itself was extremely thin for parchment, actually measuring 7/1000th of an inch, or thinner than computer paper. The framing technique comprised of adhering the parchment directly to a piece of glass before bordering it with gilded pieces of wood and then placing it in the frame behind another piece of glass. Over the next 100 plus years, the protein based adhesive used to affixed the item to the glass failed irregularly and prevented natural expansion and contraction of the parchment while it faced the extreme climatic fluctuations  of the Masonic Lodge. The document cockled and wrinkled, tearing within the frame in two dozen places and almost completely across the center.


 The first step to treatment was removing it from the frame. The filigree on the back had to be carefully removed with a plaster spatula.


The protein based adhesive had not quite failed completely yet, and the document was still adhered to the glass in a few sections. Using a scalpel to cut into the affixed adhesive, the document was released from the glass.


The large tear and the yellowing, uneven layer of protein adhesive on the verso was now very evident.


 The yellowing, and dried protein adhesive had to be removed to allow for even humidification of the document and stretching, so that the tears could be properly realigned for repair.


Using Methylcellulose, a clear gooey substance, to reconstitute and soften the adhesive, allowed for the yellowed glue to be gently scraped and wiped away. This was done in areas between 1”and 2” square so as not to over moisten the document in any one place and thereby weaken the parchment.


Once all of the adhesive was removed, the Parchment Document was humidified in a chamber to relax the material and allow for pressing and stretching reducing the wrinkles and creases. The humidification chamber is a Plexiglas container, a dampened towel is placed at the bottom and a polystyrene grid is laid over top of the towel. A humidity gauge is placed in the chamber, the lid is closed and the moisture from the towel is allowed to dissipate until a humidity of 80-90% is reached within the chamber. The document is quickly placed on the grid and the lid closed again. The document remained in the chamber for 5 hours, checking its state every hour to ensure it was not over humidified, which would compromise its strength.


After humidification, parchment documents are usually stretched by affixing padded clips with elastic bands around the edge of the document and then hooking the elastic bands around nails in a piece of plywood, adjusting as required and keeping the document taught until it has dried again. Due to the thin nature of this document and multiple tears this technique would have ripped the document to shreds. Instead the parchment was pressed between pieces of absorbent blotting paper and weights were strategically placed to stretch and manipulate the document into place. The humidification and pressing process was repeated three times. Although the creases and wrinkles could not be removed 100% using this method, they were reduced and the tears aligned for repair.


 To repair the many tears, strips of translucent ‘Gold Beaters’ skin were applied to the front and back of the document over the tears, acting as a sort of bandage or patch. The gold beaters skin can be seen resting underneath the scissors in the image. Gold beaters skin is sheep intestine that was historically used to pound small pieces of gold into gold-leaf for gilding. The intestine (gold beaters skin) is adhered using animal gelatin, kept warm in a Petri dish on the hot plate. It is extremely important to use compatible materials when making any repair so that they age appropriately and expand and contract at the same rate. Art on paper and paper artifacts are repaired with paper and wheat starch paste – all glucose based materials; skin, being protein, must be repaired with protein based materials hence the intestine and gelatin.


To make the repair the adhesive is applied to the intestine on a piece of blotting paper and then lifted and tacked over the tear. The intestine is then smoothed with a ‘bone folder’ to ensure there are no air bubbles and that the adhesive is spread evenly. The repair is left to air dry. All of the small holes and losses were also covered with gold beaters skin applied only to the back side of the document.


To in-fill the small holes and losses a piece of scrap parchment which matches the thickness and colour of the document was chosen. The small holes in the document were traced out onto a piece of ‘Mylar’ (plastic sheet). These tracings were used as a pattern to cut out the in-fill material from the matched piece of scrap parchment. The in-fills are always cut larger than required so that the edges can be ‘pared’ (cut on an angle) to create a fill that is smooth in transition. 



The in-fills are adhered and applied in the same manner as the tear repairs, this time using parchment size as an adhesive, literally melted down bits of scrap parchment.


The Document is placed in a humidification chamber for a final relaxation, followed by a final pressing.



Since the entire top edge of the document was torn away and lost, it was in-filled with a long piece of Parchment to facilitate framing. This strip was not tinted or dyed to blend with the Document, as the owner wanted this repair to be obvious, illustrating the life and history of the document.

The document was then ‘hinged’ to a piece of acid-free mat board. The excess in-fill material at the top edge was folded over the top of the mat board and adhered in place with parchment size. At the sides and bottom, small squares of parchment were folded in half with one half adhered to the back side of the document and the other half to the mat board. Since parchment reacts readily and swiftly to changes in the climate, expanding and contracting, this hinging system allows for the natural movement of the document eliminating major waves and wrinkles from re-occurring.


Dents and nicks in the original frame were in-filled with wood filler and painted to blend with the original colour. To avoid excessive acids from the wooden frame, the rabbet area was sealed with Poly Varathane and left to off gas for 30 days. The back of the original gilded spacers were sealed with frame sealing tape, also preventing the acids from the wood damaging the Parchment. The Document was installed in the frame, behind UV filtering glass, and a facsimile of the note that had been on the back was adhered in the same corner.

 The Warrant, which belongs to the Masons, is currently on an extended loan to Upper Canada Village Historic Site, and will be proudly displayed in their 1860 period Masonic Lodge.