This paper discusses non-adhesive fills for objects made of wood. Recently I have had the opportunity to treat a series of wood objects which have developed splits and other distortions. Most of the artifacts are of recent origin, and there was no history of the way in which the splitting would behave over time.
I was reluctant to create inappropriately rigid fills for wood pieces which might be still active, and I was equally reluctant to end with a failed system based on adhesives and fillers which could be difficult and possibly damaging to undo. I am also frequently reluctant to spend a lot of time on any one problem because, frankly, life is too short and the objects too many. These foam fills take minutes of concentrated time, compared to repeated intervals of time spent waiting for solvents to evaporate, smoothing adhesive-filler materials, and inpainting.
My work over the past few years has included many preventative conservation projects, i.e. packaging systems for storage and transit. These have given me experience with polyethylene and polypropylene in many forms and the ways in which these may be fabricated to meet specific needs. I commonly use foams, fluted sheets, films, tubing, and rods, and also frequently use these materials to make supports for objects during treatment. In storage, the usual white or translucent color of these materials is desirable for reasons of light reflectance, pest control, and generally sterile appearance.
Many of the physical attributes of the foams and other materials make them as attractive for use in treatments as they are in packaging solutions—reasonable cost, ease of fabrication, flexibility, and light weight. The problem with these materials in interventive treatments is that they are difficult to surface attractively because most of our adhesives, resins and paints will not adhere to the surface of polyethylene and polypropylene. It is clear, however, that if these foams could be made cosmetically acceptable, they could be valuable additions to our treatment arsenal for splitting and distorting wood.
Another problem is the lack of durability of foam fills which are soft and held in place only by friction fit. However, these same qualities made these fills harmless and totally reversible. During the course of the following treatments, I began to question the notion that I have held in the past that fills must be hard, color durable over the next 100 years, and resistant to damage from handling, washing, etc. Does it in fact matter so much if these mechanical fills fall out or become abraded as long as they can be easily and quickly redone with no damage to the object?