AIC’s 40th Annual Meeting, Revisiting Suction Table 101: Getting the Most from Your Table, Workshop by Robin Hodgson. May 8, 2012

Anyone who has seen either an RH Conservation Engineering tool or met Robin Hodgson in person will first be hit with a sense of inimitable style, and then realize what precision and detail underlies that surface. I’m not sure when I realized Robin gave workshops, but found myself quite jealous of some lucky student’s write up of theirs – probably at Winterthur some time ago. Writing from the perspective of a book and paper conservator of some 15+ years, I have worked in a number of labs with a variety of inherited suction equipment and tools ranging from the crafty conservator lab-made early designs, to Rube Goldbergian attachments, and early production models from Museum Services Corporation. Many inventive conservators have created interesting adaptations and and suggested designs along the way. Facing mechanical burnout on my current table that served my lab well for many years, I have been realizing that it is not enough to simply think the mechanicals are the only variable that cause a table or tool to work well – often the operator needs an upgrade too! With this in mind, I joined the workshop hoping to get some better understanding of the systems available and how they are used most efficiently.

Robin is a practicing conservator of wooden objects and furniture in Australia, and strove to develop a new range of tools after parting from conservation school, investing at least 5 years in product research development and design. While RH Conservation Engineering is one well known brand, a great effort was made in the workshop to discuss designs from other manufacturers with a non-competitive tone. In fact, Robin’s kind words for colleagues in the same market and openness to their work and innovations was a great pleasure, because this spoke more clearly to the participants’ needs for working and getting the best out of their current machines.

To a mixed audience of paintings, objects, textile and book, paper and archives conservators, Robin presented the technology and factor variables behind and the differences between such tools as hot lining suction tables, cold tables, and high pressure small machines such as fritted disc or other spot vacuums. This was extra useful from my perspective, to hear how different specialties approach the use of these. Hot lining tables were not traditionally part of my toolbox, but as book and paper, and especially photograph technology changes in contemporary art, I think we will be seeing more use and adaptation of these tools across specialties in the future and so found it exceptionally useful to understand the difference.

I was expecting more terrifying charts, graphs and calculations (perhaps a hangover from my training in interpreting HVAC controls, ASHRAE standards and hygrometric charts), but Robin sensibly minimized the use of complex physics and presented clean design/engineering specifications that showed the essential workflow of these types of machines, and where they can go wrong, or be improved. Some relative terms were discussed to better understand the language used in atmospheric pressure (hectopascals (hPa), (inHg), millibars (mb) and torr) so that participants could navigate from one manufacturer’s machine or country’s standard to another. Simple concepts and familiar tools (home vacuums) were used to relate comparable pressures available based on the sizes of the suction device.

Robin answered the participants’ many questions readily without needing to cut into the planned time for the hands-on workshop, especially considering my many probing questions, since blogging for others was on my mind! In retrospect, I now wish I had asked more about the workings of dipole and blower motors, horsepower, and how modular one can get with components. I certainly did get my money’s worth and look forward to improving performance on my table and devices when I get back to the lab, and recommend this workshop to any starting or mid-career or long time conservator.

Some links that may be of interest: