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 either a hard paste wax (which will produce a surface shine and can be removed with turpentine), or Finish Feeder, which impregnates the paint and "feeds" the wood.
We have used Finish Feeder for 25 years without any ill effects. We have seen no evidence that Finish Feeder darkens the paint, unlike linseed oil, which was popular in the past and should never be used. If you use Finish Feeder, apply it with one rag, and immediately rub it off with another rag. Do not wait 10 minutes as the directions suggest. The object becomes sticky if the Finish Feeder dries 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. Finish Feeder should be used only when necessary.
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.