Collector Tip: Beware of Wood
Updated: Sep 14, 2021
Most of us live with wood throughout our homes. We don’t even give it a second thought. Beyond its natural beauty, wood is durable, functional and an adaptable material for floors, objects of all kinds, and, of course, furniture.
But wood is not a good material for safely storing or displaying your rare, fragile or valued collections.
Why? The problem is that all wood contains organic acids, and wood composition products such as plywood, particleboard and Masonite, contain adhesives, peroxide and formaldehyde as well. Even antique wood pieces carry risk, especially those made from oak, which contains acetic acid.
Natural environmental conditions in your home (heat and humidity levels) can cause these chemicals to vaporize and create dangerous gasses that interact with and cause damage to many types of art and objects. For example, metal objects can corrode, and paper-based collections (including books) can stain, discolor and become brittle through both direct contact with wood and the harmful gasses, which get trapped in enclosed spaces like cabinets, drawers, flat files and closets. So it’s wise to avoid storing objects and art in wood cabinetry or on wood shelves if possible. Even if you've safely stored your collection in archival boxes placed within wood furniture, why expose them to an invisible risk?
The safest storage furniture for housing your collection is steel. It may not fit your aesthetic, but steel is inert and stable when coated with solvent-free powder enamel coatings. Avoid “baked” enamel coatings on steel, which also off-gas formaldehyde, so check the specifications of steel products when purchasing. Steel storage cabinets and shelving with powder enamel coating are widely available, and are used by museums and archives.
However, if you’re intent on using wood storage, display cabinetry or shelving at home, you should take two protective measures: seal the wood with a painted-on sealant, and line surfaces like shelves and drawers with a barrier material.
If you’re installing custom cabinetry, specify safe sealants like water-based polyurethanes (not oil-based), acrylic latex emulsions or two-part epoxy resins. They all create vapor barriers that seal in chemicals inside the wood. A furniture refinisher can advise on whether the application of a sealant is safe or suitable for a unique or valuable wood cabinet or chest of drawers. You may want to consult an appraiser, too, as alternations to the surface may affect value. One important note: after sealing, make sure the wood air dries for several weeks, allowing any chemicals from the sealant to dissipate.
For additional protection, line wood cabinets, drawers and shelves with barrier materials such as polyester film (Mylar or Melinex brand), Marvelseal film, or 4-ply 100% cotton rag board. These products can be purchased from archival suppliers. Marvelseal provides an excellent airtight seal but is a little trickier to install. While not airtight, polyester film and rag board provide a surface barrier that prevents chemicals from migrating to your objects.
These measures may seem over-the-top, but if wood storage is a central part of your interior design, they're steps worth taking to effectively protect your collection and reduce risk.
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