Care and Feeding of Indian Rosewood Carving?
August 27, 2017 5:12 PM   Subscribe

I recently salvaged this gorgeous carved fretwork panel from my grandmother's headboard. Can anyone share their expertise in how I can safely clean and revitalize this piece of rosewood?

It's one of six other matching panels and likely to be at least from the 1950s if not earlier. After my grandmother's passing we all were looking at her lovely king sized headboard and being sad that nobody could take it and we'd have to trash it. Well I wasn't having that so I took it apart and the panels have been distributed throughout the family. I'm the one with the most free time and the most crafty/woodworking knowledge so I've sort of taken it upon myself to research and figure out how to care for/spiff up mine so I can share that process with other family members.

As you can see in this picture, it's "sheshamwood" which is Indian Rosewood. The smaller pieces of fretwork are free-floating between the long pieces of the frame. It's been in use for at least 60 years so has had an unknown amount of various dust, dirt, cleaners, polishes, and who knows what else, but it's still incredible and all the detail remains. It feels like practically raw wood on the front, but a bit of a smooth polish remains on the back, like it was once lightly shellacked. Along the sides is a bit of something from where the panel was connected to the others, and the bottom shows some ancient glue where it was glued and nailed to the base of the headboard.

So far all I've done is take an old soft toothbrush and a microfiber cloth and with plain water worked as much of the dust off as I can. The photos were taken after I did that. As you can see, there is still plenty of dust and grit stuck into the grain of the wood, especially on the unfinished interior edges. We have an airbrush so I'm going to blow it out but I don't think it will do much of anything.

Online research is giving me bupkis. Most things are geared towards traditional Chinese rosewood furniture which is usually coated in like fifteen layers of shellac, or about guitar fingerboards which are focused on removing oils from human touch and not about carvings. Also there's a lot of terrible misinformation as well as people trying to sell their stuff and keeping things mysterious, and loads of poorly translated pages.

When I went to my local Woodcraft store here in Seattle the guy I asked for advice was seemingly scared to even touch it. He kept telling me to speak to an antiquarian furniture seller or a museum restorer but had no leads on anybody like that. Further, he barely knew was shesham wood even was. A few other employees came by to check in and everyone was similarly baffled.

My plan thus far is to use my empty airbrush to see if I can dust it a bit better, and then using very fine grain sand paper begin working off the old glue on the bottom. I'll test the back with some alcohol to see if it has shellac on it. What I'd really like to do is be able to apply some kind of oil to it because it feels extremely dry and brittle right now, but there is so much conflicting information about what's right and wrong to use on rosewood! What about waxes?? I would also maybe like to go in and very lightly sand down some of the rough interior edges of the carving from the back. And then I would like to build a thin frame to attach it to securely on the base and sides and attach hanging hardware to that.

Does anybody have experience with something like this? Are there any huge don'ts? Are there any bloggers/internet people out there I could contact for advice? Maybe some art restoration people? Part of my concern is that I need to be able to tell other distant family members how to care for their own panels, so I can't just have someone else do the job. I have tons of free time, a lot of basic woodworking and craft tools, and a willingness to do tedious tasks by hand.
posted by Mizu to Media & Arts (8 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Non-expert, but familiar with lots of wood stuffs, I think you are on the right track with dusting and oil. I would place extreme caution on applying anything other than non-drying oils or waxes. Avoid linseed/flax and tung oils.

If this were mine, I would have cleaned and applied food-grade mineral oil without much further thought.

It is very pretty stuff, I'm sure it can look great and last a long time with many different treatments, enjoy and good luck!
posted by SaltySalticid at 5:56 PM on August 27, 2017

It looks pretty good to me and I would actually to NOTHING to it other than your airbrush cleaning, lightly. It has probably had no staining, oiling or waxing, ever. Anything you do in that way is going to change the color, but is not going to strengthen it in any way or remediate the brittleness you are perceiving. Oil will soak into it, darken it, and would be irreversible. Just don't. If you mount it and hang it on the wall, out of harm's way, brittleness is not an issue any more than the fragility of an oil painting would be once property framed and hung. I simply would not touch it, not even those "rough interior edges" you want to sand. Appreciate it for what it is, just like your grandmother did.
posted by beagle at 6:11 PM on August 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

My uncle was an antique dealer and taught me to use a 1:1 mix of boiled linseed oil and turpentine. It cleans the wood and leaves a very light finish when it dries. Next time you clean it, you dissolve most of the old finish and dirt, and deposit a small amount of new finish. I've cleaned a lot of pine, walnut, oak, etc., but never rosewood. It's quite lovely & sorry about your .
posted by theora55 at 6:23 PM on August 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

Here is an article all about the benefits of drying and non-drying oils and waxes to treat wood. I cannot claim to know the exact best wax, oil or mix for this specific item.

But oils and waxes certainly do strengthen wood, and generally protect and preserve wood products, as evidenced by thousands of years of usage. While it is true that oil will slightly darken this or any given piece, in my experience it also brings out richer, more luxuriant color and grain. I have seen dry wood furniture crumble and flake away due to lack of maintenance, and I have seen near-crumbling furniture last for many more years after good oil or wax treatment.

Here is an article from the Smithsonian about preserving and restoring wood furniture coatings. Nb., it doesn't say much about non-drying oils. I suggested that above because it may need re-application every few years, it is very low-risk and fault-tolerant. You can top off with linseed or tung oil or varnish later if you desire, but once you do a drying finish, you have to sand it off if you want to ever change tactic in the future.
posted by SaltySalticid at 6:53 PM on August 27, 2017

I don't see any point in a non drying oil. If it never dries, it will only continually collect dust, won't it?

Shellac originated in India and you're probably right that it started life with a few thin coats. I'd email Wood Essence and ask them which dry shellac would be best. You dissolve the flakes in the purest denatured alcohol you can find and apply with a brush. It dries in minutes. There's no compelling need to do more than a couple coats.
posted by bonobothegreat at 7:25 PM on August 27, 2017

(non-drying oil means it doesn't harden like oil paint or varnishes. It's a misnomer, it has to do with polymerization and cross linking or "curing" of molecules via auto-oxidation, not "drying" in the literal sense of removing moisture. Wood treated properly with non-drying oil is dry to the touch, and attracts no more or less dust than untreated wood, or wood treated with lacquers or varnishes. The point is to preserve and beautify wood products without slathering glossy hard layers on top. The oil sinks in to the wood and replaces many of the sundry fatty compounds that were originally there. Sorry, I will bow out now but wanted to clear up any misconceptions due to the conventional-but-confusing nomenclature.)
posted by SaltySalticid at 7:56 PM on August 27, 2017 [2 favorites]

Call your local museum for advice! Or call a big regional museum, they get enquiries like this all the time and are usually really helpful.

I have restored a lot of wood. In general I clean wood with Murphy's Oil Soap and treat as desired. The thing with wood is that there is no right or wrong way to do it, it depends of the finish you want.

If you don't want to affect the color or finish at all then clean the carvings with an electric toothbrush. Use water if needed. Then contact a restorer. If its never been treated it will dry out eventually but some woods only dry on the surface and not inside. I don't know rosewood so I can't say.
posted by fshgrl at 12:04 AM on August 28, 2017

Mm, how lovely.

If you want a professional to work on it, check in Port Townsend, which has a concentrated market of antiques-enthusiasts and a concentrated ecology of woodworkers. I had an inherited secretary squared up and strengthened to "current actual use, not museum preservation, no modern finishes" standards there; memail me if you want me to look for the shop's name. PT crafts tend to not much online presence IME. They're also expensive by the hour, being skilled hands paying PT rent.

My personal experience with old carving is that the right kind of fluff chucked into a Dremel will dust it and take off significant grime (do some test cases to find fluff that is gentle but won't break off and stick to the splinters). In general I like a coat of beeswax for minimal and reversible surface protection, but it's hard to buff into tiny fragile carving, *until* you master the Dremel.

Note: the useful Rockler link above says
While a wax finish can go on any type of wood, avoid putting oil (or Danish oil) on aromatic cedar or any of the dalbergia woods (rosewood, cocobolo, tulipwood). These woods contain an antioxidant that will prevent the oil from curing.
so I think it would be either wax or shellac.

In either case, practice on some other rosewood, yeah? If you can find old broken stuff online so that you're practicing on similarly aged rosewood, all the better.
posted by clew at 12:36 PM on August 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

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