Caring for Decoys and Other Painted
Wooden Folk Art Objects
Take a minimalist approach.
When in doubt, leave the object alone. Antique decoys and folk art are generally most appealing in their natural, as-found condition.
If the object is dirty, wash it carefully with a soft cloth and warm water. If necessary, use a gentle soap like Ivory. Then rinse thoroughly and dry completely with soft towels. Most of these objects were used in water or subjected to weather, and you are unlikely to harm them by washing them.
If the object is pasty or if the paint patterns are dull, try mineral oil (available at any drugstore). It impregnates the paint and "feeds" the wood.
We used Finish Feeder for a long time without any ill effects, but it is no longer manufactured. Mineral oil, which is inert and has no odor, works as well. We have seen no evidence that it darkens paint, unlike linseed oil, which was popular long ago and should never be used. If you use mineral oil, apply it with one rag, and immediately rub it off with another rag. Do not wait even 10 minutes. The object becomes sticky if the mineral oil is allowed to dry on the surface. While we advocate its use, we do not believe that it should be used on all decoys or painted wooden folk art objects. Use only when necessary. An untouched, natural surface always is best.
Dusting is generally unnecessary. If dust on an object bothers you, pick it up and dust it with your hands. We do not recommend that these objects be cleaned or handled by someone who is unfamiliar with them.
Natural sunlight, unless it is intense and direct, should not hurt your painted decoys or folk art. However, do not place an object on a windowsill in intense direct sunlight as it may cause blistering, fading, or other damage.
Heat, cold, and humidity.
Cold rarely causes any problems. Heat, on the other hand, can cause blistering and checking from expansion. Low humidity (dryness) may be the most problematic because it will produce shrinkage and checks. We highly recommend that additional humidification be added to your home, even if you live near the water, because dryness in the winter can cause many problems with wood and paint.