Tips for Sucessful Doll Restoration

Dolls Against Wooden Wall
Lawn Walker / EyeEm / Getty Images

The following tips apply to repair and restoration of many types of dolls, including bisque, leather, and composition. 

Washing Doll Hair

You cannot always wash 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 the hair. You can also use fabric softener (since its not really hair!). Use mild ivory liquid soap as a shampoo, or baby shampoo.

When you wash a doll's hair, take care to NOT get wig cap wet! Put tin foil and plastic on the doll to protect the doll. 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.

Filling in Missing Pieces of a Doll 

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. It is hard to find, but it can be obtained from Susan Sirkiss (The Wish Booklets) and also "The Caning Shop" which has gourd art supplies. 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 in order to restore the doll. For conservation purposes, the most important thing is that you should 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).

Cleaning Bisque

A good item to use to clean bisque is Orvus soap. You can get a gallon of this stuff (sodium lauryl sulfate) at a feed store or tack-supply house for $17 a gallon. Another great item to clean bisque, composition, paper dolls and almost anything is Renaissance Wax. This item is used by many museums in their conservation efforts. Just use a little bit for each job.

Treating Cloudy Eyes in Composition Dolls

You can treat the cloudy-eye look on a composition doll with Renaissance Wax, a drop of machine oil in the doll's eye or a drop of 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 as it can take off paint and hurt the composition.

Combing Hair

Metal combs can be used to comb the rooted hair on vinyl dolls. For very fine hair, a flea comb can be used.

Pin-Combing Mohair Wigs

You can pin comb mohair wigs, which may be your only option for sprucing up a messy, fragile wig. Use a t-pin or a hat pin//large tapestry needle. You fluff and separate the curls with the pins. Start at the bottom with the pin on long hair and section it. This can be a lengthy, time-consuming project.


Do not use nylon covered elastic for stringing plastics and compos--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 that way) or even break fragile composition parts.

Misshapen Composition

If you have 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 band the piece and twist it into shape just a little bit each day. This is not a process for the weak-of-heart.

Gluing Composition

To re-glue a broken composition piece, you can re-glue with PVA glue. PVA is archival, PH neutral glue, and it is fully reversible. You can obtain it from Gaylords and other suppliers.

Wood Doll Cautions

Wood dolls can split and crack and are very susceptible to termite and woodworm damage.  

Making Molds to Replace Doll Pieces

You can use Cernit 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. 


Just about the most fragile material a doll can be made out of. It is susceptible to disintegrating (or exploding!) from a strong light bulb light held close or rodents chewing on it.

Building up an Area for Repair

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 the hole where the material is missing--you can secure in place with glue, wood dowels, etc. Then, Darwi can be applied over this. 

Paper (Paper Dolls, Related Paper Doll Ephemera)

A Knox pencil (a white vinyl eraser) will take marks off paper and some cloth dolls. If you frame a paper doll or a paper item, use UV filtering Plexiglas. There are additional helpful items available from Gaylords and Light Impressions for archival storage and restoration of paper, including Fimoplast which can be used to make emergency repairs for paper dolls.

Cleaning and Preserving Leather Bodies

For cleaning leather bodies, try the British Museum Leather Dressing which is available from the Conservator's Emporium.


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 12 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.

Chlorine and Ceramics

Never use chlorine to clean ceramics because a salt can form that won't be evident until years after the cleaning.

Jubilee Wax and Ponds Cold Cream

These items should not be used to clean dolls, despite their popularity with certain doll restorationists.

Ethics of Selling a Restored Doll

If you sell a doll, you must disclose any changes made to the doll--any repainting, repairs, and added materials (new eyes, wig). For certain vintage dolls such as vintage Barbie, even restyling the hair effects the value and should be disclosed; so does 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.