Tintype Care, Storage and Repair

Most families have one or two tintypes, passed down from generation to generation. A tintype (or ferrotype) was an early form of photograph. It dates back to the 1850s, and many Civil War era images were done on tintype. In essence the photographer took a piece of metal (i.e. thin iron) and then coated one side with a chemical. The camera would expose that chemical, some would turn black, and you had a relatively fuzzy black and silver image as a result. The problem is that the chemicals decay over time, the metal itself decays, and things like fingerprints can cause serious damage. Paper images became very popular in the 1920s, so this also means that most tintypes we are trying to take care of in modern times are quite old.

Basic Storage
Tintypes are extremely succeptable to damage. You can easily scratch off or wipe off the image. The metal should be stored in a glass container so that it is not touched by anything and does not need to be dusted. Even a soft dusting might wipe away portions of the image. If the tintype is not currently in a glass container, it's time to talk to someone about giving it a professional cleaning and then enclosing it.

I *highly* recommend scanning all of your tintypes. Then, email a full copy of all of the tintypes to your family members and ask them to back up their copy. That way even if your entire house is destroyed in a hurricane or flood, you have copies of all of those images. As long as you have a digital version saved, you have something to pass down to future generations. If you don't have a scanner, there are many services that can do this for you for relatively little money.

Basic Damage Repair
Most damage to Tintypes comes from improper storage. The tintype is metal, so it can't really burn or get mouldy. However, it can get rusty and the chemicals can get washed away from the metal base. Most of the time, the damage comes from scratches or fingers brushing away the chemical. You really need to get the tintype into a container that keeps all damaging objects away from the surface of the print.

Before you start any storage, get a scan or photograph of the tintype. That way if things do get worse, you can digitally recreate the image and at least have a "Photoshop version" of the image. In fact, there is now an entire industry of people who will give you a "fixed up" digital version of your image. That is, you send them the original damaged tintype. They scan it in and then fix it up in Photoshop. They aren't actually fixing your original tintype - but they are giving you a pretty, new version of it that is worthy of display.

Fixing Damaged Tintypes
I really haven't found ANY advice at all, anywhere, that is reasonable for a home user to try on their tintype. Tintypes are very fragile, historical objects. It can easily cost $200 or more to properly repair a tintype. You need to look at this object as a permanent, irreplaceable component of your family history. Put together a fund, save up the money, and bring the tintype in to a trained conservationist. Your future generations will thank you, when the tintype is still viewable and gorgeous centuries from now.

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