For the past 8 to 10 years, I have enjoyed a miniature freestanding carving of a bear that we brought from California. It was formed from a piece of redwood and has always been kept indoors. Recently, I noticed that it was rough to touch as if it was drying and perhaps needed some type of finish applied. Is it advisable to “seal” it with a urethane type clear coat, or does it need to breathe? Is there a finish you would recommend that would not darken the color? – Pete Gillian
Tim Inman: Quite simply put, your wood is changing due to the conditions around it, and the wood fibers are reacting and popping up. It could be caused by sunshine, but most likely the culprit is humidity changes. Any finish you might put on the wood will slow the exchange of moisture. It will not stop it, nor will it return the wood to its former smoothness. So to get the wood smooth again, you will need to do some abrasive work. This could be sandpaper, of course, but it could also be steel wool or, better yet, nylon abrasive pads like Scotch-Brite®. I would avoid varnishes because they will eventually fail and chip away. Correcting that problem is then a huge undertaking. Alternately, I would get the wood smooth again if you feel that is important, then apply a drying oil or an oil/wax combination. This will return the wood to a nice bright look and give it new “life.” Remember, though, that the wood is dead, and you are not actually giving it life — just the look of a lively piece of wood.
Chris Marshall: The carver might have used an oil finish on your carving when the piece was first made. Possibly, it was an oil that never really “dried” on the surface but rather slowly evaporated or rubbed off (mineral oil comes to mind), and now the wood feels rough. While an oil finish isn’t very durable, no matter what oil is used, it’s easy to understand why they’re used — especially on intricate and uneven surfaces like small carvings. All you do is flood the oil onto the wood, allow it to soak in for a few minutes and then wipe the excess off with a rag. It’s a simple approach (and a smart one for a carver trying to earn some money from those carvings), but unfortunately, not lasting.
In addition to the options Tim suggests, you might consider one of the easy “wipe-on” finishes (often they’re oil and varnish blended together), such as Danish oil. Or, Zinsser® SealCoat™ comes to mind — it’s clear, dewaxed shellac that will make the wood surface look a bit darker and shinier than it does now. SealCoat will also form a thin film on the wood, for a longer-lasting solution that won’t end up looking dry again. And, it’s compatible with whatever was used as the original finish, so it won’t peel off or feel sticky. Just brush or wipe it onto the wood and let it dry. Shellac dries very quickly. But whatever finish you try, be sure to experiment first — maybe on the bottom of one of the bear’s feet — to see if you like the end result.