Caring for Your Wooden Family Heirlooms

Your family's wooden heirlooms are important treasures and well deserving of any care and attention you can give them. In this article, I've put together some thoughts on ways you can help protect your wooden heirlooms for generations to come.

Ensuring Your Wooden Family Heirlooms Will Last the Distance

The longest lasting objects are generally made from stone, stoneware (pottery), semi/precious metals, and glass, with numerous examples of each lasting several thousands of years. Solid wooden furniture and objects, on the other hand, can be used for 500 years or more, if sensible care is taken of them. Wooden objects have three primary enemies: sun, water and animals. Limiting contact with these will give your family heirlooms their best chance of a long, decorative, and useful life.

The first two agents of destruction for wooden items are sun and water. This might seem strange at first, since without sun and water there cannot be any wood. But growing wood, and prolonging the life of wooden items, are different aspects of the same material.

Sunlight has many beneficial properties, including the growth of trees. However, long exposure to the intense ultra violet light we have in New Zealand breaks down the cellular walls of wood, as well as any protectant you might apply, such as acrylic or oil-based paints, Tung Oil, etc. Unless you want to allow your items to weather, you will need to re-paint/oil every few years. The more opaque the covering, the longer it will last. You might not realize it, but items made from tantalized pine, if fully exposed to sun, rain, and soil, rarely last 50 years.

Repeated exposure to water also damages wood in several ways. It softens the fibers making them more susceptible to physical damage, it fosters fungal growth and rot. These encoruage cracks to develop which further encourages more damaging moisture getting deeper into the wood, a vicious cycle.

Wooden items that are to be exposed to full sun and rain are best made from timbers which are naturally resistant to such exposure, such as: Heart Macrocarpa, Western Red Cedar, Vitex, Indonesian Rosewood, Purpleheart, and NZ Totara (timber costs ranged from lowest to highest). Wooden items not made from naturally durable timber are best keep inside out of direct sun, or at the very least, placed on a veranda which offers some shade and weather protection.

Next we come to the damage which animals cause. Cats sharpen their claws on wood or fabric, dogs chew Queen Anne legs, and horses will gnaw away at the top of tantalized gates and railings. Cats and dogs can be trained to stop such activity. On the other hand, I’m not aware that horses can be trained to refrain from having a chew on fencing or wooden exterior furniture.

Finally we come to borer (wood worm). Many older furniture pieces in New Zealand have visible borer holes. These are exit holes from which the bug, in its flight stage, leaves your furniture and flies around your house looking for some yummy wood onto which to deposit her eggs. In time, the eggs turn into hungry larvae, feeding on the many woods which are susceptible to borer, even hard old oak. Therefore, you need to protect your heirloom furniture by killing the bugs and/or making it less attractive to them. Attempting to kill the borer by squirting poison down the escape holes is futile, they are no longer there. It is not practicable, once an item is made, to treat the wood to make it borer-proof. Totally coating new-build furniture, or fully refinishing the item using Tung Oil limits borer re infestation, they don’t seem to like it. If you have items with borer, and especially if you have an older home that has borer holes, I strongly recommend you set off a number of “borer-bombs” in the November- April period, when the bugs are flying about, singing: “Just looking for a home”.

I trust the above is of some help for you and your family heirlooms. If you have a wood topic that you would like me to cover, please get in touch and let me know about it. 



RoNZ Furniture Hospital
New Zealand
027 487 1152

Posted: Wednesday 18 August 2021


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