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My mother in law gave us a wooden ornament that she suggests would look great hanging outdoors in our garden. It would be hung under the eave/soffit of the garage but would still be subject to sprinkler watering and sideways rain.

I do not know what type of wood it is made from.

Can anyone lend a suggestion as to how to treat it prior to hanging to best preserve its longevity outdoors without falling apart? I welcome a weathered look but would like to keep it intact for as long as possible.

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    Although it would surely look great outdoors, but with a piece this nice and intricate, I would recommend keeping it indoors under better ultraviolet, temperature and humidity control – Ashlar May 25 '16 at 17:03
  • It looks to me that it already has some sort of finish. Can you upload a high resolution of back? – Zak May 25 '16 at 22:46
  • Done, @Zak. It's hard for me to tell if there is a finish. It is definitely, however, two pieces of wood with the joint relatively horizontal in the back image. – Brenn May 27 '16 at 21:59
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    Whether it was oiled previously may or may not dictate what can be used now, it depends on the type of oil which unfortunately you may not be able to determine. Any oil that 'dries' will polymerise over time and turn into something that isn't oil any more, and after years you can almost certainly trust that this process will have completed, no matter how slow drying it is, But if it was a non-drying oil then it will forever remain oily. If the second type of oil was used probably your only safe bet is to oil it. – Graphus May 28 '16 at 21:48
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    BTW on the wood, we can't do an ID here (species identification Questions are verboten) but from the additional photos it certainly looks like it's made from a tropical hardwood, possibly mahogany. It's impossible to be sure from a few photos, especially without the end grain to go on, but if that's so it's good, because many of these look-alike wood species are naturally resistant to decay. – Graphus May 28 '16 at 21:54
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As always this sort of thing shouldn't be asked as "What's the best...", because it's usually the case that there is no best, many options may be equally viable. For this if you asked multiple professional woodworkers I'd bet each would have their own ideas about how this should be treated for the proposed location and there's no way to be sure if one is head and shoulders above the others without trying it.

Film finishes
This is varnish or what we can loosely refer to here as lacquer, which would include the epoxy as proposed by Stoppal.

Epoxy or the right type of lacquer (e.g. an automotive finish) on paper seem like the perfect solution as they can in theory provide a reliable and durable 100% waterproof coating.

But, and this is a big but, this assumes even and thorough coating — no voids, thin spots or pinprick holes. Best of luck treating something this intricate and avoiding every one of those potential weak points in the recesses! Spraying such a finish on (which is practically the only possible application method) would actually make complete coverage harder, not easier.

There is exposed end grain everywhere on a carving like this and if water can get to it it will suck it up like a sponge. If this does occur it will leading to areas of localised swelling and within short order you could have cracks forming and possibly delamination.

As such I think this is the least good of all the options, despite at first glance appearing to be the best.

Wood preservative
Just because this is a decorative piece it doesn't mean it has to be treated any differently to other pieces of exterior woodwork, so wood preservative as you might use on a fence is a perfectly viable option here. Clear/colourless and coloured versions are available.

In addition to commercial wood preservatives homemade options are possible, using for example a borax solution, something which is gaining renewed popularity in recent years as people look for non-toxic alternatives. You make up a concentrated solution and then brush it liberally on the wood, letting it soak in and dry. These retard microbial attack and deter wood-boring insects.

Oil
No oil finish is waterproof, let's start by saying that. But what they can do is provide some protection, help preserve the original look of the wood (prevents greying/silvering) while allowing it to take on and lose moisture. Over time the wood tends to age 'gently' or 'sympathetically', unlike what can happen when water eventually gets underneath a varnish and causes patches of ugly discolouration.

In addition to the older, more tradtional pure oils (most commonly linseed oil in the West, tung oil in parts of Asia) modern "oil finishes" for exterior application are a possibility. These generally have waxes and resins added to provide better waterproofing and longevity.

Note that the above refers to raw linseed oil, not boiled linseed oil which is normally what would be recommended. This is one of the few applications where the raw oil is to be preferred. Raw linseed oil is also sold as flaxseed oil although it is commonly more expensive.

Teak oil
Although I hate the name of this finish — it's not made from teak any more than Danish oil is made from Danes :-) — it has a long proven history of protecting wood, even with full exposure to sunlight and the elements.

No finish
As odd as it might seem some will advise no finish for this, letting the piece weather naturally. Although this does include the likelihood of cracks forming with no finish on the wood it is free to dry out as fast as possible when it does get slightly damp. Often I would be in favour of this but I don't think it's advisable here without knowing the wood and its characteristics. It might be a species that does not like being wet and will begin to break down faster than you'd like.


It's hard to tell from the one small photo but the piece looks pretty sizeable and might therefore not be carved from a single piece of wood. If it is glued up from smaller pieces there's a further unknown and that is whether the glue is soluble, water-resistant or waterproof.

  • Sadly, Girl Scout cookies are not made from Girl Scouts, either. So much for truth in advertising. ;( – FreeMan May 26 '16 at 13:17
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    @FreeMan, and baby oil is not made from babies.... where will the lies end??? – Graphus May 26 '16 at 15:03
  • wow @graphus, superb as ever. thank you for pointing out the weak spots in my answer, as it is of no value now, should I vote to delete or something? – Stoppal May 26 '16 at 17:03
  • I'm quite glad "Wiener Schnitzel" is not made from Viennese. – Stoppal May 26 '16 at 17:06
  • @Stoppal, no need to vote for a close or anything. As the SE format is not like a forum Q&As are always considered to have potential future value. On a forum the same or very similar queries are acceptable multiple times over but here, by design, duplicates are closed. So the first Question with a particular focus (here, options for exterior finish on carved wood) can become the canonical one to link back to in future. – Graphus May 27 '16 at 7:35
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With that much detail I would go for some "sprayable" finish and put on many thin coats.

As for longevity, some form of epoxy would probably suit you best. I quickly googled this and found that there is such a thing as ready-to-use-epoxy-spray-paint and a guide on what to consider when using such a spray. I haven't used anything like it and can't say how this will turn out though, probably very glossy.

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As mentioned, best is relative to what you want to end up with. Jamestown Distributors, a marine finish dealer, has what is termed a Penetrating Epoxy. A Fine Woodworking article several years ago now reviewed some of these with this type (with an over coat of varnish) being the longest lasting. I've used a similar product which leaches into the wood like an oil, flexes with the wood in weather, and for my front door in Texas, I wouldn't ever finish for outside without it. It does produce a gloss finish, and slightly darkens the wood as one would expect an oil or such to do.

Turners likewise use an epoxy (or epoxy like) product and vacuum to inject resin deep in wood pores. For this, such a setup would be difficult, and that requires 45 mins or more in an oven to cure the resin. But still an option.

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