How to Care for Ironwood Carvings

By John Peterson

Ironwood is a generic term for several different slow-growing trees that produce very dense and hard wood. It is this density and durability that have made it a popular wood for beautiful carvings and furniture. Because ironwood comes from slow-growing trees, and due to its popularity, it is becoming scarce. Ironwood carvings are made throughout the world, particularly in Indonesia and Mexico, and ironwood is prized by artisans worldwide because it is a challenge to work with. Caring for ironwood objects is similar to the care of all wooden artifacts.

Environment

Monitor humidity. Extreme and sudden changes in relative humidity are the primary cause of deterioration of wooden objects. Excess humidity will cause the wood to swell and can lead to mold growth. The lack of humidity will cause shrinkage and cracking. Relative humidity levels between 30-50% are recommended but it is more important to prevent sudden and frequent changes. Use a hygrometer to monitor levels.

Avoid exposure of the ironwood to sunlight from windows and fluorescent lights. UV light breaks down the cellular structure of wood, even ironwood. It also bleaches the wood and will ruin the carving's finish.

Monitor for pests. Unlike other types of wood, ironwood is resistant to termites but it is not entirely immune. Pests can also leave undesirable residue on ironwood surfaces, so it is best to monitor regularly for pests.

Handling and Cleaning

Handle ironwood carvings carefully and avoid touching them with your bare hands. Although ironwood is harder to nick and scratch than other types of wood, careful handling is still recommended. Use clean cotton or latex gloves to help keep oils and dirt from fingers off of objects. Encourage people to look but not touch.

Keep cleaning to a minimum. Ironwood normally needs little attention and nonaggressive cleaning is better for the carving. Dust occasionally with a lint-free dust cloth. Use a damp cloth to spot-clean grimy, oily areas. Seek advice from a conservator before any intensive cleaning and avoid commercial products, as they may be harmful to the object’s finish.

Use microcrystalline paste wax on rare occasions to maintain the “shine” on ironwood carvings. When used sparingly, this type of wax will be less likely to cause irreversible changes to the object’s finish. A heavy coating of wax will attract dirt and grime.

Tip

Remember that collectors expect and value objects with their original finishes, even if they are not pristine looking. Do not attempt “restoration” without first seeking the advice of a competent conservator.

Warning

Avoid using any sort of commercial products to polish ironwood. Altering the original finish will greatly reduce its value for collectors.

About the Author

John Peterson published his first article in 1992. Having written extensively on North American archaeology and material culture, he has contributed to various archaeological journals and publications. Peterson has a Bachelor of Arts from Eastern New Mexico University and a Master of Arts from the University of Nebraska, both in anthropology, as well as a Bachelor of Arts in history from Columbia College.