Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Mold & Mildew on Wood Vehicles – Part 1

There are a lot of places in the world where the summer heat and humidity are hard to ignore.  It’s an oppressive combination that tends to put a lot of stress on anyone and anything it can surround.  To that point, most collectors of early transportation understand that leaving a wooden vehicle outside – in any season – can be harmful to the piece.  The negative effects are easy to see in countless rotted wagon and coach carcasses scattered across the pages of time.  The relentless hammering of the sun’s UV rays along with excessive and fluctuating temperatures have a way of overwhelming some of the most important parts of our nation’s history.  Similarly, accumulations of ice, snow, rain, bird droppings, insects, and other naturally-occurring phenomena can be equally challenging to an old set of wheels. 

Moving a vehicle inside may seem like the perfect solution to properly care for these irreplaceable treasures.  While it is a step in the right direction, it may also be premature to believe that just because it’s ‘inside’ everything will be okay.  Storing an antique vehicle indoors is just part of the process in protecting a survivor.  Properly guarding these rolling links to yesterday means staying abreast of things like temperature, humidity, and airflow as well. 

Years ago, I was visiting a large historical collection in another state.  The atmosphere of the building was reasonably comfortable since it included central heat and air.  As I walked through the dimly lit rooms, I noticed something on the back of a wagon on display.  Backed up to a wall, the rear end gates of the wagon box were covered in mold spores.  I was surprised to see it.  Truth is, though, no location or region is completely immune from these types of challenges.  There are a number of culprits that could have created this particular problem.  The air conditioning might have been funneling excessive moisture into the room.  Even more likely, since a concrete wall was just inches from the back of the wagon, I suspect it was transferring moisture to the rear end gates.  Combined with a lack of light and minimal airflow in the isolated area, this spot was a haven for mold spores to collect. 

Mold spores are a natural part of our world.  So, the fact that they’re in the air is not a surprise.  Allowing them to settle, collect, and feed as an indoor colony, though, can create real issues.  One of the most important preventative measures is vigilance.  I’m talking about a level of proactive watchfulness that goes beyond noticing problems.  For instance, how susceptible to mold is your vehicle collection in the first place?  Awareness of the makeup of wood as well as managing atmospheric conditions can go a long way in protecting a set of wheels and your health.

Someone coated this old spring seat in linseed oil.  Left to incubate in a humid and dark room, it became a feeding host for mold spores (see whiter areas).

Poor maintenance of temperatures, humidity, and wood moisture content as well as overly dark environments and other considerations can all collaborate to set the stage for the growth of mold and mildew.  Even more to the point – do you know how much moisture (humidity) is in the air around your early wooden vehicle(s)?  What temperatures are the vehicles regularly subjected to?  Are the wood fibers in a particular piece continually saturated with moisture/oil?  Answers to these (and other) questions have a way of highlighting levels of risk.  For instance, even if temperature levels are reasonably maintained, some oils – even those from your hand or soap residue – can actually provide nourishment for mold spores.  Vegetable oils – including linseed oil – can also supply a good nutrient base for the growth of fungi.  (This is just one reason I don’t recommend the use of linseed oil on an antique wooden vehicle) 

Looking beyond the poor visual appeal, what’s the harm in allowing mold and mildew to grow on an antique vehicle?  First of all, left in an unchecked condition, it will continue to grow.  Second, the fungi may destroy wood fibers or at least leave stains on and in the wood.  Third, and most critical, are the serious health concerns connected to colonies of spores.  Even though these spores are a part of nature, allowing them to grow unhindered while on and around antique vehicles is a situation that collectors want to avoid.  After all, it’s typically better to prevent problems than deal with them afterward.

Next week, I’ll cover some specific things we can all do to better protect antique vehicles and parts from the ill-effects of mold and mildew.  Talk to you then!

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