DOFF machine used on bronze

The tools we use in bronze conservation often come from outside of our niche.

Today, I talk to Brian Crowe of Stonehealth. Brian and I became acquainted when Antique Bronze began to look around for a wider range of conservation tools that could serve us. 

Initially, we were a bit wary of air-powered tools. Back in the 1990’s, we had seen the popularity of blasting/peening grip the metal restoration industry, but time after time, we saw war memorials and sculptures which had been cleaned back to bright metal and in so doing leaving a mattish, unmetal-finished surface which resulted in sculptures that looked very different to their previous selves.

Unsure about the results we witnessed, we decided to stick with traditional hand-preparation techniques when dealing with  corrosion treatments. Hand-prep techniques had their critics too, but we had more faith in the method particularly as it was so controllable. 

To our minds, the oomph that machinery provided seemed to be at the expense of a bronze’s surface.  

However, there were certainly times, particularly when we had very large projects, when we felt the need of a power-assisted tool. This was when we came across Brian Crowe, and his DOFF and JOS/TORC tools. Unlike regular air-abrasion, JOS was something a bit different,  firstly it was wet abrasion, rather than dry, and it was designed to clean more softly, be controllable and less aggressive.

Today, you can Listen (or read this transcription) to Brian who tells us in his own words, the history of what and why Brian brought his conservation tools to market. 

Photo of Brian Crowe, founder of Stonehealth

Lucy: Brian, you and I have worked together for a long time. We’ve bought your products over many years and your wonderful tools. And so I’m very pleased to have the opportunity to chat to you today, not just because you’re such a nice chap, but also because it will be nice to be able to talk about some of the things that you have developed at Stonehealth, which I think are a big contribution to the conservation tools that we have for large objects.

I know that you probably sell mostly to the stone markets, stone conservation and restoration. But, we’re particularly interested in metals and large-scale metals particularly and, actually, we’re quite limited with our tools in this field, for a number of reasons because, obviously, we’re mostly onsite and so that’s why I appreciate the work that you do because it helps my job be a little bit easier very often. I know your background very well, but just for other people LISTENING in (or reading!), just tell us a little bit about how you started the company and your background?

Brian: Okay. Well, thank you for those very nice comments. First of all, Lucy. You made my head feel a bit bigger than it should be.

Lucy: Not so.

Brian: But, going back into the 1980s, I came to a particular point in my career where I’d been working for very large companies and also one or two smaller companies, mainly in the toy and the textile field. And I thought I wanted to do something on my own. I’d made one particular company become a very strong company just through some product developments. So, I decided I’d break out on my own. But, I wasn’t quite sure what market to get into. But I did find that there was a company in Germany that was working with some consolidants for stone, and that became quite interesting and I was talking to English Heritage about that and John Ashurst, in particular, was very interested in what that did.

In the meantime, another company approached me, which said, they had this machine for cleaning stone and it didn’t do any damage. So, I went over to Nuremberg to the stone fair to see what was going on. And I was quite impressed by it. So, I decided to arrange for some of ours in the UK for the system which we called JOS, Yoss, as the Germans pronounce it. So, I set up a demonstration in London, Bristol, Birmingham, and Edinburgh and the results were very startling and it impressed me a lot. But, what we found was that the contractors were saying,

“This will be a new thing. Here today, gone tomorrow. We’ll buy one if we need one.”

But it was the specifiers, the architects, in particular, who were showing some interest.

And I remember one of our first projects was a building called Saint John’s, right opposite Waterloo station. And, obviously, you have the old choo-choo smoke all over the building that’s 100 years old. The architect asked the contractor to carry out some trials, which included the Jos. When he came to look at it, the contractor said, “Well, that one is a bit too slow.” And, “I don’t like that. I don’t like that, but that one I do like.” And he said, “How much slower would it be?” And he said, well it would take another couple of weeks.

example of JOS tool cleaning stone

And this was quite impressive. The architect said, “I couldn’t care less if it takes another year. This building has been around for a few hundred years. It should be around for a few hundred more just for the sake for you to get off-site.” So, he specified it and, in fact, the job didn’t take any longer than using any other method, but it was done in a very responsible way. And strangely enough, that architect, or coincidently I should say, the architect was also responsible for St James’s Palace. So that was the next project that took place.

Lucy: Lovely.

Brian: In the meantime, the cathedrals became interested. And so Lincoln, Salisbury and Canterbury, as well as Westminster Abbey were starting to use it. So, it really did become a big thing. It wasn’t one of those things where it’s here today, gone tomorrow.

Lucy: As the contractor predicted, badly.

Brian: Sure, now I’ve been involved for 33 years, and though it was not really taken that seriously in the beginning, after that first three years when we realized we had some future, we formed Stonehealth Ltd and then started expanding away with this.

But we found a problem with the company that supplied us, and it was at the time when the wall came down in ’89. That’s Germany suffered a bit of a setback and the company that developed the JOS went down, unfortunately. I think it was partly due to a rags to rags in three generations where a grandfather who was a Dr. of chemistry, he started the company. His son took over, who was also very diligent and hardworking and then the grandson took over, and he was really only interested in things which were fast and that was cars, boats, and women.

Lucy: Expensive hobbies.

Brian: Well, it’s not the sort of attitude or type of person you want to run a company. So, suddenly left with being without the supplier of the most important project or the product that we had.

Lucy: Huge setback.

Brian: It was a big setback and very concerning, but one or two other companies in Germany that were supplying that particular company, approached us direct and we decided also to get some local supply. And so we got it up and going. Before this happened, the original JOS nozzle did have a problem of, unfortunately, wearing out pretty quickly. And it was quite an expensive item. So, together with the Germans, developed a way of making it modular so it could be…the wearing parts could be replaced, which made it a lot more economical and that’s where we then called it the TORC.

Lucy: Oh, I see.

Brian: So, that was a big step forward. The first time the TORC was being used was on the British Museum around the old library when it was covered over. And the contractors who were using it said,

“We’re finding that this is using less material and it’s a gentler clean, and it’s working quicker.”

So that was a big improvement over the JOS nozzle and so that was a big step forward.

In the meantime, people were finding problems in removing paints. Now, sometimes the Jos and then the TORC would remove paints such as limewash and also carbon, of course, but it wouldn’t remove the more modern paints, which were flexible. So, in talking with a friend, who I met through the business, a Dutch person, he said, “Brian, if we can get temperatures up to 30 degrees, I’m sure that’s going to destroy a lot of paints. So, the next thing is we’re looking at a system, which was developed for cleaning industrial machines, etc., and it was working at 150 degrees.” And we said to them, “Will it remove paint?” “Don’t know. Let us give it a try.” And it did. Paint just sort of came off very quickly…..in a very impressive way. So, we worked with that company for a bit until they were taken over. Then they went a different way. In the meantime, we developed the systems ourselves and we manufacture those now totally here in the UK. So, the TORC and the DOFF, between the two of them, will remove most unwanted matter. I’d say 90% either one after the other or all together. And the results are good without doing damage.

Lucy: I’ve got to say, one of the things we really like for the TORC or is it Jos/ TORC…I’m probably pronouncing it wrong “Jos.” It should be YOSS…

Brian: It’s okay. Really, you’re English.

Lucy: One of the things we’ve found is that we use it quite often on removing limescale on fountain bronze because bronzes in fountains, although they look magnificent with the waters cascading over them, it’s often when the water supply is turned off and on periodically, that you get a lot of limescale developing and hardening because what happens is it starts to bake in the sun.

And although the limescale deposit isn’t always reacting necessarily with the bronze, it’s relatively inert, it does really claw into the cast surface of the sculpture. And so Gosh, it’s hard to get off and we don’t want to use any chemicals because…particularly acidic chemicals for limescale because if it goes through that limescale layer and it gets to the patina underneath, it will strip that patina. Actually, we’ve found it really, really good for being able to, in quite a controlled way, thin out those limescale layers because, obviously, you’re using quite similar aggregates, aren’t you?

Brian: Mm-hmm, yeah.

Lucy: So…. I know that…the aggregates differs depending on if you want it coarser or thinner…finer. But we’ve had quite a lot of success with that. It’s useful for corrosion removal as well, but certainly, limescales are really one of those ones that very few tools will deal with very well. There’s all sorts of difficulties with limescale.

Brian: Yes, I can understan that. And I mean, obviously, in hard water areas, that’s likely to build up even quicker and as you say, it calcifies. And that becomes really hard. And what’s nice about the TORC is that it buffs away. It’s like wearing it away in a controlled way unlike grit blasting where the grit goes directly at the surface in a quite an aggressive way, this rotates on the surface and it buffs it away. And you can remove those calcium deposits and come down to, what I understand you want, is the bronze to look like a dirty penny and to leave that patinary in place.

Lucy: Well, it certainly depends on what the original finish was. Quite often, fountain statuary is quite diverse in its intentional finish or in the finish that has adapted. It’s just that lovely aspect of having the control there. To be able to stop and investigate, you know, where are we? What have we got here? Is this, this point we want to stop? Whereas, obviously, if you have another tool which just sweeps it all away, you haven’t got that thinking and transition period, really.

Brian: Yes. What’s the important thing is, as you say, you’re able to take away what you want to take away and leave what you want to remain or retain. I remember sort of layers and layers of old paints. And it was like taking one layer off and then the next layer off. And it was like steps. You could see the history of this particular piece of stone and what paints had been put on it over a period of time. And that just shows what sort of control you’ve got. And I…

Lucy: Well, that’s… one of those kind of things that a conservator dreams of, you know, to be able to have ultimate control.

Brian: Yes,

but whilst we may be able to provide good systems and products, it very much comes down to the person behind that machine

or that product who applies it. You know…

Lucy: Absolutely.

Brian: You know, you can give a good car to a good driver and they’ll drive even better. But, if an idiot is behind the wheel, a good car goes up and down curbs and knocks down lampposts, etc., you can’t blame the manufacturer. That’s why there’s so much emphasis on the training of operatives. I know it applies more to stone and masonry, in general but that’s the reason why we’ve now adopted this system of having an approval system with the rosette, which does at least give specifiers some form of assurance that, at least, hopefully, they will get a better job done.

Lucy: Well, absolutely, and I think the thing is that anyone with an ounce of common sense knows that that’s the case with all treatments, especially on historic objects. We’ve learned that from the past, haven’t we, with all the disasters that have happened? If you have somebody with experience and knowledge, then they aren’t going to be gung-ho with a technique that they’re not familiar with. It’s not within their scope – which is not the kind of ethics and principles that we try to uphold in conservation, obviously.

But I don’t think you can level that criticism just at, you know, your own tool. I think damage can be done by … well, lemon juice can damage bronze very severely. Coca-Cola and, I mean, no one thinks to be trained in drinking Coca-Cola, but the damage I’ve seen done by it is quite extensive. So, yeah.

Brian: Just shows how carefully one has to be.

Lucy: Absolutely. But tell us a little bit about the business model, Brian, because I’m quite interested in conservation companies. And I know that yours is…it’s, I think, a company that thinks quite a lot about the way it operates not only with its staff but generally. It’s quite an ethical company. And I kind of like that because I remember, a long time ago, somebody saying to me, “Oh, don’t you think there’s a kind of disconnect between making a living and also being an ethical company?” And I don’t agree with that, and I argued the case, but let’s hear what you say.

Brian: Well, good for you in arguing that because I mean there are a lot of people that just think that a company is there to make money and to do so at any cost. No, I’ve always found, from experience, that if you look after a customer well, they become a loyal customer. And sometimes even if you’ve got a discontented customer, if you put them right…tell them what’s wrong, they become an even much more loyal customer. And you used that word, “ethical,” and that’s a very important matter to us because we try to take a responsible way with, not only with the commercial side of the business but also the responsibility for making sure that people do the job properly.

I’ve had people who have said to me, “Can I buy so and so,” and then I found out what it’s for and I’ve said, “No, it’s not appropriate for that.” And they say, “We’ll still buy it.” And I say, “Well, no, I’m not prepared to sell it to you on that basis.” And so, there are people who would say, “Well, you know, you’ve sold it, so what does it matter?” And I remember one of the companies who was making some chemicals for us in Holland was taken over and the person who was running the business, he showed us how certain things worked and one of them didn’t go that well. He said, “Well, it doesn’t really matter as long as you’ve sold it.” I was disgusted with that sort of approach because, you know, you want to build up a good reputation, not only with your customers but with your staff as well.

And I always remember, back in my days with textiles, one of our large customers in the UK. This was an Italian company, but one of the large customers in the UK was John Lewis. And going to their offices, there was a notice up to say that, “Sir, we regard our suppliers as important to us as our customers. So, if there’s anything wrong, please let us know.” And I think that’s quite a challenging thing to put over to people because there are times, as I say, “When you don’t sell something, you don’t want to sell it to them because it’s not appropriate.” But they come back because they know you’re taking a responsible approach. And if you do say that is the product for doing something, then they’re more likely to listen to you rather than being sold to. That’s something that I’ve always felt. As a company, we prefer people to buy from us, rather than us selling to them.

Lucy: That’s definitely a very personal relationship you’re building then because they’re able to trust you. I think that, even though, in your case particularly, it’s being done for the best intentions, I also think it’s a good business strategy anyway.

If people can rely on you, they’re going to feel that you’re not going to lead them in the wrong direction.

And in the long run, that’s got to be better for them as them using the products. How does it benefit anybody to have that short-term thinking? I can’t see it myself.

Brian: Well, I think, you know, there’s been situations and examples of companies that have actually taken that more aggressive approach and they haven’t lasted that long.

Lucy: Yeah, for sure. So, you’ve also diversified though, haven’t you, because you have many products as well. I’m always interested to have a look at new products coming out in the market, and you’ve got quite a range now.

Brian: Sure. In fact, as I said earlier, 90% of the unwanted matter can be removed either with the JOS or the DOFF either separately or together. And there’s another 10% where one does need to revert to other methods such as chemicals. Again, we try to take the ethical, responsible, approach in products which are safe for the environment, the person, and anything else that…and the building itself.

So, you don’t want to do any harm. So, we try to do that. We’ve got a company, a local company in Holland, that produces some very good conservation tools under our own specification. They seem to work very well such as for the removal, in your case on metals, to get rid of the oxidation and on bronze, etc., and also moulds as well. Also salt is a big problem so we have poultices for poulticing out salts.

Lucy: Absolutely. We do like the Cuprid which, I know, is the poultice that we use to remove the copper staining that you get, particularly on plinths. And, obviously, on statuary that isn’t being maintained, which always should be, but often isn’t. And so then, not only is the statue degrading obviously, but the impact on the plinth or the surrounding stone on a building is incredibly negative visibly anyway.

Brian: Particularly when it’s just been cleaned. If you’ve got some carbon or some other soiling, and you remove that, let’s say on Portland stone, and all of a sudden everything looks green then…

Lucy: Everyone is shocked.

Brian: …And then even with the Cuprid, you know, you may need to use two or three different applications because sometimes that gets way down into the surface.

Lucy: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. But there’s no magic bullet with anything, is there?

Brian: No.

Lucy: As far as I’ve come across, you can’t treat everything in one hit?

Brian: No. And it’s all trial and error. You know, we say to people, “You know, it may be the answer to your question, but try a small area in an inconspicuous place to see if you get the results you need before going on to doing something which is staring you in the face.”

Lucy: So, you must be doing quite a lot of development work at Stonehealth because…I mean, we’ve all got to eat, so we’ve always got to deal with current projects that are on the docket. But there also seems to be quite a lot of forward-thinking in what you’re doing?

Brian: I think that’s necessary.

I always think that a company needs to move forward in order to stand still.

That sounds a bit funny but there’s always a natural wastage and a moving on. You know, customers come and go, and you need to find new customers and new products as well to actually just standstill.

Lucy: Absolutely.

Brian: So, yes we do both on the mechanical side. I mean, we’ve got an interesting new development going on at this moment. It’s being held up by some sort of technical hitch, but we had hoped to launch it back in July, but it probably won’t come out till next year now because we do want to make absolutely sure that it is going to work properly and reliably before it’s put on the market.

Lucy: How interesting.

Brian: …Because we don’t want people to feel let down.

Lucy: Well, no. I mean, I suppose though there’ll be some beta testing, first, I would imagine, getting feedback from people who…without marketing it properly?

Brian: Yes.

Lucy: You know, with that kind of thing. I think that’s always great advice. I always try to…even though it’s always a hard thing to ask, “what did you find wrong with it?”

Brian: Yes.

Lucy: Sometimes the answers are not as you’d like them to be, but on the other hand, if you just, you know, swallow the pill, you can often actually advance quite a lot from that.

Brian: I agree.

Lucy: Yes. Well, Brian, it’s been lovely talking to you. I know that we use the DOFF nearly every day with our treatments. A lot of our bronze work, it’s the initial stage nearly always, particularly for restoration projects. And our DOFF machine has been a real workhorse. It really does a lot of hours so, you know, it’s sort of a friend – definitely one of the team.

Brian: That’s great, Lucy.

Lucy: So, you know, we’ve been really pleased with it, but thank you for taking the trouble. I should say that Brian has been a very good sport because he has had to record this interview a second time owing to my inability to manage to capture it the first time. I had a tech gremlin interfere with the interview, so I thank you in particular, Brian, for having the patience to do it again.

Brian: My pleasure. We got there in the end, Lucy. That was nice.

Lucy: We did.

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