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How To Deal With Wood-boring Pests That Ruin Your Antiques, Artifacts and Artwork.

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By Guest Blogger, Arianna Spiller, Art Conservation Intern

Imagine turning over a painting done on wood or a wooden piece of furniture passed down in your family for generations to find that is has now become the home and food of bugs and pests that are not so slowly ruining them without your knowledge. Woodboring pests will have a huge impact on the item’s value, the structural strength and long term preservation. This article will help you deal with this devastation/shock these bugs can bring about that is so common to antiques and artwork.

Important tip for you to know: If you bring an infested item into your storage area or display area, the wood pests will spread to other items.

Types of wood boring pests that could be a potential danger to your wooded artifacts and keepsakes are a multitude of beetles, moths, lice and cockroaches. These pests burrow and bore into wood and can potentially ruin your precious and expensive wooden antiques, furniture, and art. The majority of these pests are attracted to human food, animal products (furs, pelts, hides, certain upholstered furniture etc.), and a variety of woods. But they are also attracted to natural adhesives used in making the items (or old school restorations) like paste, hide and rabbit skin glue.

Tell tale signs of infestation are any sort of fecal matter, larvae, or bug itself in the area of concern. Others bugs will shed their skin or wings and traces of these will be left in the areas of boring or infestation. Some pests will leave a frass or “insect created sawdust” outside of the holes they have burred into. However, if you see frass it does not mean there has been recent activity… but there has been activity in the past. Another good tip: The color of the frass is important to note: if the color is light and the saw dust looks fresh then watch out! If its dark brown then its probably from an old luncheon appointment. Other signs of infestation are damage, holes and unknown markings to your wooden artifacts.

Interesting note: wood boring insects usually come to the surface at a 90 deg. angle. If you see tracks of open channels/holes

Damage by insects in a painting on panel

Note how insects come directly out of the wood and don't dig or eat along the surface.

running along the surface, then the wood has been trimmed, shaved and modified. It possibly means the wood was taken from another older (infested) item and reused to make a new item.

If any of these signs are spotted, take action against these pests right away before the damage is too extensive or the bugs spread to other wood objects. If the pests are active, the situation will not get better by ignoring it and the bugs will not go away on their own.

What the professionals do: Last week in the lab we had come in a painting by Edgar Payne with a newish Richard Toby frame that had holes and frass and we followed these steps: At Fine Art Conservation Laboratories, when an artifact is received with wood damage due to pests, it is immediately wrapped in plastic and sealed. An eye is kept on it to see if new frass or other debris appears to prove that the infestation is active and how bad the infestation is. The infested item is sent through a gas chamber first using a gas called Sulfuryl Fluoride, a pest killing gas, that is made by the company Vikane. Here is what the Vikane pdf handout says: “Drywood termites and other wood-destroying insects can cause significant damage as they feed on materials containing cellulose found in structures, such as wood, paper, textiles, furnishings, and works of art. Because these insects live most of their life cycle within their food source, the exact distribution and extent of infestation is often difficult to determine. Therefore, localized treatments using physical methods or conventional insecticides may not eradicate all wood-destroying insects infesting a structure. To solve this problem The Dow Chemical Company developed sulfuryl fluoride, the active ingredient of Vikane® gas fumigant, to be used exclusively by professional fumigators for structural fumigation (Dow AgroSciences 2010). Vikane is also used to control bed bugs, cockroaches, clothes moths, rodents, spiders, carpet beetles and other structure-infesting pests .”

The most frequent question I get when I discuss gassing pests is whether the gas affects art, antiques and other contents in a

Wood boring pests that damage paintings

Note channels dug under paint.

building. The product that used to be used almost universally was called methylene chloride and it was considered safe. But I, personally, has not heard anything about Sulfuryl Fluoride directly associated with museum artifacts and artwork so I called the company. Several references in their literature and the person in customer service say that there has been ample testing and evaluation since 1961.

The wood item goes through this gassing process over several days before it is removed from the gas chamber. When it comes back into the lab, the item is then consolidated and sealed with a consolidant (to strengthen the weakened wood structure) that has a low viscosity so it will be able to absorb into the pores of the wood.  The consolidant also helps inhibit (prtect against) reinfestation. If nothing is done to the wood after an item is gassed and all the pests are dead, the wood item can be immediately reinfected again if it is exposed to pests.

Hopefully this article encourages you to be aware of how dangerous these pests can be and inspires you to take some preventative actions against them. Some helpful tips are:

  • Wood boring bugs thrive in warm moist places… but to tell you the truth, they live in all climates. But the optimum general temperature and humidity for collection care is 55% relative humidity and 65% deg. Fahrenheit temperature and keep the fluxuations of these numbers to less that 20 points per a 24 hour period. Gor an article on this subject go to:
  • Keep an eye out for fresh frass. Vacuum cracks and crevices, of wood especially, every so often to make sure you see the newly formed deposits.
  • Try and isolate infested items from non infested items: but keeping them all in the same room (even if they are divided) will not work.
  • Pesticides and insecticides may work, especially for items like silverfish/firebrats (not wood boring but  bad for items on paper and fabrics).
  • You can also introduce pest traps to an area for certain types of bugs.
  • Call a fumigator and ask about a chamber you can take your infested item to for gassing. After an item is gassed and all the pests are dead, the wood item can be immediately reinfected again if it is exposed to pests.

To learn more about what you can do at home to take care of your stuff, download now a copy of Scott Haskins’ book, How To SaveYour Stuff From A Disaster at 50% off! CLICK HERE to know more:

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For art conservation and painting restoration questions call Scott M. Haskins 805 564 3438 or

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See short do-it-yourself videos on collection care and emergency preparedness for art collectors, family history items, heirlooms, memorabilia at Youtube Channel “preservationcoach

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