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Tru Vue Blog: Conservation of tracing paper

Victoria Haddock is a paper conservator, working for the V&A as part of the Blythe House decant. Victoria received a Tru Vue Grant earlier in 2019 to enable her to attend the 'Conservation of Tracing Paper' course at the National Archives, led by Hildegard Homburger. 


During the interview for my current conservation job, the interviewers presented to me a box. I opened the box to find a sorry looking scrunched up ball of tracing paper … Suddenly I had to think quickly about what I could remember about how to deal with tracings papers! Well, I don’t remember what I said in the blur of interview panic, but afterwards I thought I better get to grips with the conservation of tracings papers, as this looked like a big clue to what I will be dealing with on this project.

Luckily, I saw that the revered course on the conservation of tracing papers taught by Hildegard Homburger was coming to the National Archives, and I was a very lucky recipient of a Tru Vue grant to attend in June this year at the National Archives.

hildegard_homburger_teaching_tear_repairs.jpg​​​Hildegard Homburger teaching tear repairs

I had read a lot about tracing papers, and there is a wealth of research and papers written about them. But sometimes it is difficult to sift through all this to the actual practical and effective conservation treatments to reach what could and should be done in the context of large scale, time pressured projects. This is where perhaps the luxury of research and experimentation is not available.

The two-day course began with a history of tracing papers and the differences in production between prepared paper, vegetable parchment, imitation parchment paper, natural tracing paper and glassine paper.

We then covered the complexities of ‘dried in strain’ and how moisture effects tracings papers differently, because of the overbeaten fibres and the way it was created and dried in the factory.

getting_ready_to_line_tracing_papers.jpgGetting ready to line tracing papers

Hildegard also showed us mending techniques and a range of adhesives. The most important thing is to remember transparent papers created by impregnating them with oils do not like any kind of solvent, and will loose their transparency. But identifying these types of transparent paper is also a challenge, so spot testing is essential.

We mainly experimented with using isinglass and RK02 tissue on the tears of our samples. Isinglass is used on tracing papers because of its flexibility, good adhesion, and it does not affect the transparent visual qualities quite as much as other methods. With all materials and tools close at hand, you have to work quickly, aligning the tear and brushing a miniscule amount of warm liquid isinglass either side of the tear and then place on a strip of tissue, leaving the feathered edges unadhered, as this helps maintain the transparency of the object.

But what was really great about the course and teaching style, was that the techniques we were being shown were not fixed in stone. This was a starting point to show that this particular method can work well and has proven credentials - but it is up to you to experiment and find what works best for your practice and collection.

i_m_going_to_need_considerably_more_weights.jpgI'm going to need considerably more weights!

For example, we may have to compromise on the adhesive or application method chosen to repair tracing papers dependent on the context of the collection we are working on. What works best for a large archival collection that will be regularly accessed and stored in a stack together may have to be different to treating a select group of tracing papers being mounted for exhibition.

We were shown why not to do certain things, or only do them if there was no alternative, such as lining tracing papers. This was really useful as we could see what the risks were to tracings papers if we did need to line them, without sacrificing a collection piece. Also, it showed me that if you do want to humidify or line a tracing paper then you need to invest in a lot of weights!

I left at the end of the two days with a much clearer (or transparent!) understanding of the treatment of transparent tracing papers. So I am ready now to tackle any of these tricksy papers that might make it my way in the future with much more confidence and knowledge.

I would like to thank Tru Vue and Icon for their generous support allowing me to attend this course. And to IAP for organising the course at the National Archives. Also thanks go to Hildegard Homburger for her excellent teaching, and to my fellow course mates who it was great getting to discuss some of the similar challenges we had found when dealing with these types of collections.


Since February 2019 Victoria has been working as a paper conservator on a two-year project to conserve and prepare the paper-based collections of the V&A at their Blythe House Store for their decant into a new Centre for Research Collections in East London.


The latest round of Tru Vue funding is now open to applicants, please visit the Icon Grants pages for further information. 

All images Victoria Haddock


The views expressed in these comments are the views of the individual and do not reflect the views of The Institute of Conservation. Any comments containing inappropriate language or copyright material will be removed.

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