What You Need to Know About Doll Restoration

Find out how to get vintage and antique dolls back in tip-top shape

Woman working in a doll repair shop, Dresden, Saxony, Germany

Felbert+Eickenberg / Getty Images

Collectors and sellers know that a ​vintage or antique doll that's photo-ready with a perky dress, brightly painted features and a neat hairdo is going to sell quicker than a doll with aged-looking clothing, faded paint and obvious flaws—especially online. To give their vintage dolls makeovers, collectors curl and style the hair; wash, bleach and starch the doll costume (or replace it entirely); and repair tears and repaint facial features. 

There is a right way to restore a doll that preserves its originality and historical value without doing damage. Careless restoration can reduce the value of the doll and also destroy any historical value it might have. So heed this advice: "Do nothing that cannot be undone."

With the tips that follow, get the facts on proper restoration and conservation alike.

Restoration vs. Conservation vs. Preservation

Simply put, doll restoration means replacing something missing that's from the doll, or fixing or improving something on it. This includes cleaning dirty outfits, adding a new finger, restyling or adding a wig, or repainting a doll.

Conservation, on the other hand, is to preserve dolls by fighting against the damaging forces of temperature, light, insects, dirt, dust and time. Try to conserve a vintage doll before you decide to restore it. Conservation includes stringing a doll, treating an insect infestation, re-setting eyes that have fallen out or stopping further melting of silks on dolls. Properly done and understood, conservation will help dolls last a lifetime or, perhaps, generations.

The terms preservation and conservation may be used interchangeably. Preservation is to protect a doll from destructive forces: heat, light, insects, dust, and dirt.

General Principles

The most important principle of doll restoration is to do nothing irreversible to dolls of historical value or vintage dolls. But, if you have a vintage Barbie that's a mess—no face paint, vinyl splits, hair in disarray and no original clothing—the doll likely has little value and makes a perfect candidate for no-holds-barred restoration, including treatments and repainting that cannot be undone. If you choose to do so, however, be ethical and note all such restoration upon the sale of the doll.

Hand-washing plays a key role in the restoration of vintage dolls. You may also wear gloves. These cautionary moves are important because oils from your hands can be transferred to dolls and may attract bugs, mold, and dirt. Another reason to use gloves when working with dolls is to protect yourself from unknown substances, such as pesticides, that may be on dolls unfamiliar to you. 

Use white cloths to clean dolls so you can see what the effect is. Are you lifting just dirt from the doll or also paints? And only work in a very well-lit area; if you have daylight corrected bulbs, that is ideal.

Be prepared. Have everything with you (tools, materials, etc). before you start. Don't eat or drink while you are working and only repair dolls in areas with proper ventilation. Some substances used for cleaning and restoring dolls can give off harmful fumes. 

Keep a trail. If you take a doll completely apart, sketch a plan beforehand, so you can get it back together again (this is particularly important for dolls with complicated bodies that need restringing).

Why Lighting Matters for Your Doll

Natural light can cause huge problems for vintage dolls, such as rapid fading of costumes or even fading of skin tones on plastic dolls. Keep all-natural light off your dolls—the heat from sunlight can be damaging as well.  

Artificial lights will also fade dolls and doll costuming. The further away all lights are from your dolls, the better off your dolls will be. All lighting should be indirect. You should not have lights directly over or under your dolls. Incandescent bulbs are less damaging than fluorescent bulbs. You can protect your doll cases from all lights by using UV lighting sleeves. You can also drape sheer curtains over your display cases so dolls are not affected by light when you are not viewing them (this is a less-expensive solution, although admittedly not as an attractive one).  

Finally, do not have lights in your doll case unless they are cold lights with UV filters. You may also reserve lights for the brief periods of time when you show dolls to visitors.

creepy vintage dolls
Carol Yepes / Getty Images

Your Doll's Environment

Bare wood contains an acid called lignin. If you put dolls on a bare wood shelf, the fabric they're wearing or dolls themselves may start to brown. So, never put anything on or in wood unless there is a cloth barrier. You can use a material barrier on shelves. A simple muslin fabric would work fine as a lining. Also, be careful if you frame paper doll ephemera with a wood backing. This can leave burn marks on the paper over time.

The ideal temperature for dolls is approximately 65 to 70 F. Recent research has shown that temperature can vary about 10 percent up or down without doing permanent damage to dolls. Whatever you do, don't store dolls in a hot or cold attic or basement. Keep your dolls in a temperature-controlled environment.

Much has been written about the proper storage of dolls. To properly store dolls, keep them away from acidic items—use acid-free tissues. Keep the dolls away from cardboard boxes (even original boxes), which can cause damage because of the acids in them. If you wrap dolls or doll clothing for storage, use acid-free tissue paper (light impressions). It is often best to store a doll and a costume separately.

In any event, never store a doll with jewelry—this can cause green ear and wrist marks. Finally, don't store dolls in plastic that cannot breathe. Some plastics give off gasses that can damage dolls and fabric, and many plastic containers and bags can trap moisture, encouraging the growth of molds.  

Doll stands can do a lot of damage. Coated metal stands are better than bare-metal stands, but can still cause harm. In addition, composition easily cracks because of moisture, cold and heat. The best storage temperature for composition is an impractical 60 Fx, with 40 to 55 percent humidity. The worst thing for composition is rapid changes in temperature. Best to keep dolls on an inside (instead of an outside) wall to help keep temperature changes more gradual.

Keep your dolls in a closed case. Atmospheric cleanliness is also important, so no open windows, as outside air pollutants can be damaging. So can inside pollutants. With that in mind, don't use oil paints next to your doll case. If your dolls are dusty and dirty, you can use a mini vacuum or compressed photographic air to clean them. 

If insects infest your doll's wig or outfit, try freezing them. Micro-vacuums will suck up bug eggs and may prevent more infestations. You can also use brushes to get the eggs off. Cedar can deter bugs (doesn't kill them). Vacuum each moth hole, if you find moths. Do not let moth crystals touch a doll. And be sure to inspect your dolls yearly for evidence of bug infestations. Wood dolls can split and crack and are very susceptible to termite and woodworm damage. 

You can use a pH testing pen to tell if paper products are acidic. If so, you can use a product to help preserve them for longer. If you wish to frame a paper doll or other paper ephemera, there is special archival glass available for framing, as well as archival mounting boards.

Toys On Seat With Person Sitting In Background At Home
Sarah Köster / Getty Images

Making Your Doll Look Like New

You may need to wash your doll's hair and clothing to restore her. But you cannot always wash materials such as mohair successfully. It depends on the grade; sometimes, it will disintegrate. For synthetic hair, hair conditioner can be used to de-tangle and de-mat. You can also use fabric softener (since it's not really hair!) Use mild liquid soap as a shampoo or baby shampoo.  

When you wash a doll's hair, take care not to get the wig cap wet. Put tin foil and plastic on the doll to protect it. If you get the wig cap wet, put it on the doll immediately or the cap will shrink. Also, water can damage some dolls, like composition or cloth, so keep it away from the doll.

Metal combs can be used to comb the rooted hair on vinyl dolls. For very fine hair, a flea comb can be used. You can pin comb mohair wigs, which may be your only option for sprucing up a messy, fragile wig. Using a T-pin, hat pin or large tapestry needle, you can fluff and separate the curls. Start at the bottom with the pin on long hair and section it. This can be a lengthy, time-consuming project.

You can fill in missing doll pieces in bisque or composition with Darwi air-dry modeling compound. This compound is also a favorite with gourd artists. Darwi modeling compound doesn't shrink—what you mold is what you get. 

After the pieces are modeled, they can be painted to match the background of the piece. You should "in-paint," which means to paint only the area of color-loss to restore the doll. For conservation purposes, the most important thing is that you use some sort of barrier (for instance, white PVA Glue applied thinly on a wood doll) so that any painting you do can be undone later (doesn't permanently alter the doll).

A good item to use to clean bisque is Orvus soap. You can get a gallon of this stuff (sodium lauryl sulphate) at a feed store or tack-supply house. Another great item to clean bisque, composition or paper dolls is Renaissance Wax. You can also treat the cloudy-eye look on a composition doll with Renaissance Wax or, alternatively, with a drop of machine oil or nail polish. This is irreversible!

You can also oil composition eyes with clock oil. Don't use vegetable oils. Do not get the oil on the dolls because it can take off paint and hurt the composition

Doll Composition

Don't use nylon covered elastic for stringing plastics and composition, as the nylon can cut into the doll. Use cotton covered elastic where available. Also, don't string dolls too tight (you can cave in necks) or even break fragile composition parts.

If your doll has a misshapen composition body, you can use a humidifier to help the piece absorb just enough moisture so it can be reshaped. It can take up to two weeks of slow reshaping. You don't want to crack the piece more in the process of fixing it. You can bend the piece and twist it into shape just a little bit each day. 

To re-glue a broken composition piece, you can use PVA glue. PVA is archival, pH neutral glue, and it is fully reversible. 

You can use Cernit clay to make molds for replacement doll parts (such as fingers or a part of a chin, etc.) modeled from Darwi. You can use water on your finger or on a brush to smooth the Darwi after sculpting. 

Celluloid is about the most fragile material of which a doll can be made. It is susceptible to disintegrating (or exploding) from a strong light bulb light or rodents chewing on it. You can build up areas in celluloid and other dolls by putting a piece of Pellon or felt impregnated with white glue into the doll through a hole where the material is missing. You can secure in place with glue or wood dowels. Then, Darwi can be applied over this. 

A Knox pencil (a white vinyl eraser) will take marks off the paper and some cloth dolls. If you frame a paper doll or a paper item, use UV filtering Plexiglas. There are additional helpful items, including Fimoplast which can be used to make emergency repairs for paper dolls. For cleaning leather bodies, try the British Museum leather dressing. 

When you paint as part of your restoration efforts, use water-based acrylics (they are less damaging than oils, more forgiving, and they dry the same color as mixed). Use a neutral barrier such as PVA glue before painting. Mix your paints in daylight at noon, because the light in the morning and late evening is very yellow in tone, and if you mix your paints there, they won't look right. You can also mix paints using a color-balanced daylight bulb.

Never use chlorine to clean ceramics. A salt can form that won't be evident until years after the cleaning. Lastly, Jubilee Wax and Pond's Cold Cream should not be used to clean dolls, despite their popularity with certain doll restorationists.

Disclosing Information

If you sell a doll, you must disclose any changes made to it, such as repainting, repairs, added materials (new eyes, wig). For certain vintage dolls, such as vintage Barbie, even restyling the hair affects the value and should be disclosed; this also goes for washing the clothing. However, you do not have to disclose basic conservation measures such as cleaning dolls. For antique dolls, washing of clothing and restyling of wigs are generally not required to be disclosed.