Basic care – Globes

Globes of the Earth, the Moon and the heavens have been found in classrooms, dens and living rooms for centuries. Martin Behaim of Nuremberg, Germany, designed the first terrestrial globe in the 15th century.

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Original construction

The art of constructing globes for sale in quantities was pioneered by craftsmen in the Netherlands. Initially, globes were made on two parts over a wooden form using layers of pasted paper. Once dry, the paper hemispheres were removed from the wood form and joined together at the equator. The paper globe was then overlaid with a mixture of whiting, glue and oil and turned between centres (as on a lathe) to carefully produce a perfect sphere.

The next challenge was to produce the cigar-shaped paper sections, called “gores,” upon which the map features were printed to such an accuracy that they could be pasted almost seamlessly onto the prepared globe. Once the paper sections had been adhered to the surface, the whole surface was painted by hand with watercolours and then given several coats of varnish. Later, lithographic processes replaced the hand work.

Types of globes

The largest common diameter for globes was 36 in. (91 cm). The smallest could be carried in a pocket.

Costly globes were mounted on table or floor stands so they could rotate around their poles and also so that the angle of the axis of rotation could be adjusted. A horizontal meridian ring showing the signs of the zodiac and other features was attached. In the more expensive versions, the globe was pivoted on a vertical metal ring, divided into degrees, through which the north/south axis could be moved. In some simpler versions, the globe was attached to a base and could be rotated on just one axis, at 23.5° from the vertical. There was either one pivot at the South Pole or a cradle that pivoted on both the North and South Poles. Hanging globes, equipped with a hanging hook, were created as another method of display.

During the last two centuries, globes have been pressed from tin plate (i.e. tin-plated steel) or aluminum or formed from plastic. On these, the geographical features are printed by using a form of lithography. Surface features such as the oceans depths and mountain ranges are also embossed in relief on more recent globes.

Recently, replicas of old globes have become very popular. Few of these, however, are close enough in construction and detail to fool the unwary collector, especially the globes that flip up to reveal glasses, bottles and ice-cube tongs.

Dating and identification

Dating a globe can be done fairly accurately, given a knowledge of geography and the materials from which they are made. In many cases the maker of the globe will have applied a label providing name and date. Sometimes this information is included on the map engravings, often in the Pacific Ocean.

Paper and plaster globes, still produced in the 20th century, were slowly superseded by ones made of tin plate and other materials. Paper and plaster construction is signalled by the hollow sound produced when rapped gently with the knuckles and also by the often very fine seams between the paper gores.

Tin plate can be detected easily with a magnet and by the seams between the two halves evident around the equator.

Plastic globes are sometimes translucent in strong light; although testing in this way should be done for only short periods to avoid any bleaching effect.

Care and handling

On traditionally made globes of cardboard and plaster, the axes of rotation and the poles are the weakest points. Continued rotation wears away the bearing surfaces, enlarging them and causing the globe to wobble. There is usually greater wear on the North Pole bearing because it takes more stress when the globe is rotated by hand.

The surfaces of all globes, whether paper, painted metal or plastic, are quite delicate and can be scratched easily. When moving, handling or turning your globe, keep this in mind. It is also important to have clean hands because the surfaces can become dirty very easily and are difficult to clean properly.

Globes with a meridian ring

If the globe is equipped with a meridian ring, the wobble can cause rubbing and abrasion of the paper surface against the ring. If your globe shows any trace of looseness or wobble, rotate it slowly and very carefully. If the globe does not rotate freely, do not force it because this can cause further damage. Do not lubricate the bearing surfaces with anything — cardboard and paper can be stained very easily and irreversibly. Other bearings positioned away from the globe's surface, such as gimbals, can be oiled with a light household machine oil.

Cradle-mounted globes

With cradle-mounted globes, be sure that the lower attachment, at the South Pole, is attached firmly to the base. Pick up and carry this kind of globe placing one hand on the base and the other supporting the globe around the equator. Ensure that the cradle is not free to rotate. In general, suspended models should only be hung up if the hook is secure and if the method of suspension can carry more than the globe's weight. Globes are very fragile. Once dropped and broken, a globe is almost impossible to repair effectively.

Globes on wooden floor stands

Globes on wooden floor stands should always be carried by the stand itself, not the meridian ring. Most gimbals on such mounts are lockable. Make sure that nothing can slip or rotate during moving. Gently pack soft foam plastic between the surface of the globe and the meridian ring.

Wooden floor stands, often made of mahogany or rosewood, should be treated in the same way as other pieces of fine furniture. Check some of the other artifacts on this website for details.


Printed and painted surfaces are very sensitive to light. Keep the globe away from direct sunlight, and protect it from sources of ultraviolet light such as fluorescent tubes. Globes should be kept away from sources of heat, such as radiators, fireplaces or space heaters. Display in a dust-free enclosure such as an acrylic or glass-fronted cabinet is recommended.

Cleaning and repairs

Paper on globes is usually coated with shellac or a similar lacquer-like material to protect it and make it easier to keep clean. A wide range of resins have been used for this. Even so, the surfaces of old globes are extremely sensitive to damage and should be treated very cautiously. Light dusting should be done with a soft artist's brush, brushing towards the nozzle of a vacuum cleaner. In general, avoid using water or solvents for cleaning. The varnishes on older globes are very soluble in alcohol. There is a danger of spilled alcohol attacking the surface while entertaining, especially for globes.

Tin plate globes can be cleaned with a soft, clean cloth slightly dampened with warm water to which has been added a few drops of liquid detergent. Ensure that the surface is intact and that the paint is securely bonded. Check that there are no rust spots that might be affected by damp cleaning. Slight surface rust can be removed with fine steel wool or an ink eraser, but be very careful not to detach any paint. Very small rust spots can be abraded away with a sharp 6-H draughtsman's graphite pencil. Plastic globes can also be cleaned with a damp cloth.

The paper gores sometimes become loose at their edges, especially if the globe has been rubbing against another surface. Loose paper can be re-laid with wheat starch paste. Make sure that the space between the paper and the body of the globe is clean and free from dust. The paste is brushed onto the loose paper, which is then pressed down with a finger. This should be done only if there is no damage below the paper and if the paper can be pressed easily back into place. The Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI) Note 11/4, Wheat Starch Paste, describes how to make this paste and use this method.

In repairing worn polar bearings, it is absolutely essential that any new bearing surface is exactly at the pole, the point of rotation. Consult a conservator who is familiar with this kind of work.

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These resources were published by the Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI). For comments or questions, including reproduction requests, contact the CCI.

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