Winter Woods: Wood Protection in Cold Environments

Winter is a season of great beauty, a time of celebration followed by reflection and quiet. Full of traditions, and with the seasonal change bringing reflections of beginnings and ends, winter is a challenge and a joy.

Our built wooden interiors–furniture, panelling, and other parts of the built interior environment such as chimney surrounds and wooden window framing, are also impacted by the changing seasons. Winter is especially challenging because of the way that both cold and heating systems impact living materials. As an organic, natural material, wood interacts with the environment. Wooden furniture and other interior wood attempts to remain in balance with the environment by equalising the degree of humidity and temperature.

Even wood with finishes that appear impervious to the elements are still composed of natural and organic materials that interact with the environment. In a very dry climate, the natural water that remains in all wood will migrate to the surface and diffuse into the air. In very humid climates, wood will absorb water from the air, attempting to develop some degree of equilibrium. Most of the time, these resulting changes are small. But the greatest difficulty for wood is when the environmental conditions change frequently or rapidly. In attempting to maintain an equilibrium with the environment, wood can crack, warp, or swell, glues can pull away, crack and crumble into dust. Joinery can fail as grains move in different directions.

The greatest challenge for fine wooden furniture and built elements is when the degree of temperature and humidity in the surrounding room changes rapidly. When the cold comes, humidity drops. This is a good condition for some valuable artefacts, but with the cold and low humidity, wooden furniture tends to crack and pull apart; textiles fade, glues turn to dust, and veneers lift and buckle. The effect is worse when the room is regularly cold with low humidity, and then is occasionally heated with a fireplace or a central heating system that can change the temperature of the room rapidly. Wooden window frames and other wooden objects that are very close to the intersection of interior and exterior have the greatest negative effects from rapid temperature changes.

Conservators who are knowledgeable and experienced in protecting and restoring fine wood can give specific guidance for protecting wood during the winter. For those rooms that will not be used during the cold months, furniture can be covered with insulated covers, and wooden windows and panelling can be protected by humidity or temperature controls that allow a safe equilibrium in the room. For particularly delicate or valuable furniture, especially those built in the round, such as spinning wheels, and furniture with extensive marquetry, consider moving these vulnerable pieces to a room in which the environment is stable.

Find out more about our wood furniture restoration.

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