Collecting Rust

Following my participation in Battlefront Malta’s, Collecting War, podcast series, I thought of following up my episode by sharing my experience as a collector through this article. 

Throughout the podcast, I talked about my personal association of collecting war related items and one of my occasional jobs, that of collecting and selling scrap metals. Without going into a lot of detail, finding monetary value in scrap metal has shaped my approach in collecting War. 

From my personal viewpoint, collectors in general strive to acquire the best of examples, whether that is artillery shells, uniforms, field equipment, etc. Moreover, collectors are willing to put up extraordinary amounts of money (for me at least) to purchase perfect examples. 

Without exempting myself from such extraordinary purchases mentioned previously, my collection is mostly centered around items which were on their way to disintegration and be forgotten from history.

As you can imagine, the items in my collection were initially received in a state of decomposition and throughout this article, I aim to share my experience of preserving a few items as an amateur restorer.

Barbed Wire Stakes

Holding up waves of barbed wire along the Maltese coastline, around airfields, around defence posts, and infesting potential enemy landing zones, barbed wire stakes (for a time at least) littered the island of Malta. 

In the 80 years between World War 2 and today, barbed wire entaglements were cleared out to renew access to beaches and countryside for the local population. We can safely guess that most of the materials were recycled or left to deteriorate eliminating a huge quantity of war time material artifacts. What remained was either abandoned or taken by locals to be reused, the barbed wire stake itself being a strong angle iron, ideal for manufacturing rudimentary objects. 

A person walking in country areas today may spot several examples of barbed wire stakes incorporated as part of gates for fields, stands for bird traps, and simple obstructions to block off building entrances. Below is just one example. 

The following barbed wire stakes were given to me by a friend after his grandfather cleared them from his field. The stakes were in poor condition owing to the 80 years of exposure to all elements of the Maltese climate.

In the grand scheme of collecting these stakes are practically valueless, additionally they take up a considerable amount of space and require regular maintenance. Comparatively, these stakes may also not be as interesting to World War 2 collectors as other items such as uniforms, documentation, shells, etc. However, I do believe that even such ‘insignificant’ items played an important role in the story of the defence of Malta and deserve appropriate treatment and preservation.

The forthcoming restoration process is my preferred approach based on experience and available tools. The stakes themselves are relatively simple to restore and do not require much equipment to do so. 

Initially, the surface rust was slowly removed using a wire wheel/wire brush attachment which of course throws up clouds of dust and rust, so appropriate precautions such as the use of masks ought to be made. This was followed up by a painstaking process of chiseling away small hard flakes of rust (hiding rust underneath them) which if left in situ, would act like virus hotspots, promoting the spread of rust. Once all flakes were removed, a second brushing with wire wheels was carried out to remove as much remaining rust as possible. 

A small note here is that an ideal approach in restoring these items would be to leave them bare iron and oil them to stop rusting. However, considering the time and resources needed to carry out routine maintenance, applying coats of paint lends itself to better and long term preservation, and should the item be required to return to it’s original state, the process can be easily reversed.

White spirit was used to clean every surface of the stakes in anticipation of the first coat of paint. As the oxidation process starts immediately, the first coat of paint was applied after the remaining white spirit evaporated. Two coats of red oxide paint were applied as an under coat layer, leaving enough time for drying in between coats. This was ultimately followed by two coats of black paint as the resting colour of the project. Once the restoration was complete the stakes were given a thin coat of grease for storage.

The intention of this restoration effort is not limited to conservation and preservation, but through means such as photo recreations, reenactments and exhibitions these barbed wire stakes live on to share their story of the defence of Malta.

Artillery shell

In the duration of the war and the following half a decade, artillery shells, and mostly brass casings, were commonly acquired as house decorations. A mixture of appearance, history, and scrap value made such items desirable and whether by accident or by ‘accident’ (shells being fished out for cordite to make fireworks), shells and casings and on occasion entire bombs were fished out of the sea. Sometimes made safe and sometimes not, these items often ended up on mantle pieces or beside doorways in Maltese homes. 

This project consisted of a five-inch diameter shell projectile with a copper band, given to me by a relative after “it stained the floor tiles with rust”. One can see in the photos the projectile was in a terrible state – a deep layer of rust, fire damage (cracks), and of course several layers of sea life encrusted on the inside and around the copper band of the shell. 

Taking into consideration the depth of rust and the overall shape of the shell, wire brushing the rust off was substituted with electrolysis. After watching a few YouTube videos and buying some relatively inexpensive materials and finding a piece of scrap metal, I set up the process and let it run. Over two whole days (changing the water daily), the vast majority of rust attached itself to the sacrificial scrap metal, revealing a solid shell base underneath.

The shell was left to dry, after which any remaining rust was removed with a wire brush. Most of the encrustation dislodged itself as the rust underneath broke off during the electrolysis process. Around the copper band encrustations remained, and out of personal choice were not removed to preserve the probable story of this item having been fished out of the sea. The shell projectile was then cleaned of residual dust, rust, and oils with white spirit, and as with the barbed wire stakes, painted with two coats of red oxide undercoat and two coats of black as the resting colour. The copper band was not polished

Obtaining relics such as the ones in the above projects and stopping their deterioration also allows collectors and researchers to further puzzle together the story of war. These restorations were another small milestone in my journey of Collecting War and I whole heartedly encourage more people interested in World War 2 to undertake and appreciate the process of Collecting Rust.   

By Fabrizio Farrugia, 2023