Tips of the Trade
Preserving Your Garden Ornaments
Even the stateliest of garden ornaments will suffer the ravages of time and weather.
Like all outdoor vessels, stone birdbaths must have any water removed from them before the first frost sets in.
Sometimes it takes more than a single coat of white paint to cover rust on old iron benches such as this one.
You can remove algae from statues using the nozzle on your garden hose, and perhaps some gentle detergent.
Almost every day Barbara Israel, of Barbara Israel Garden Antiques in Katonah, New York, is asked: How do I get that green algae off my marble cherub? Should I repaint the rusty wrought-iron seat in my backyard? Or, What do I do with my urn—or birdbath—come the first frost?
The elements vs. the ornaments: How to save your garden antiques
All these are variations of the same question: How do I protect and preserve my garden ornaments from the elements? First, Israel says, "You're dealing with antiques that go outside, so you can understand why people get anxious. ... Prevention is a lot cheaper than the cure. Besides, if you have to repeatedly repair a piece, its intrinsic value deteriorates. Outdoor ornaments are actually very easy to take care of if you anticipate the problems."
Here's some advice from Israel, author of Antique Garden Ornament: Two Centuries of American Taste, to ensure your outdoor garden antiques will last for generations. "I've learned all this," Israel says, "because I've made every mistake you can make."
Ice is the enemy of stone
Perhaps the number-one enemy of all stone garden pieces is ice. A winter freeze alternating with thaws can crack or crumble any kind of stone, artificial or real, including granite. "There's a reason you see terra-cotta jars used in Italy," says Israel, and the reason is that frost and ice never damage them in that Mediterranean climate. If you live where winter temperatures dip below freezing, all containers that can hold water, such as urns, birdbaths, and fountains, should be drained before the first frost. Turn them over, or bring them inside, if possible. With fountains, empty the pools. If it's not possible to move your urn inside, you can easily create a circular cover of sheet metal to keep out water.
Statues are less susceptible to ice than vessels, yet water can get into cracks, especially in composition stone. In Great Britain, where garden ornaments go back centuries, gardeners often build wooden shelters called sentry boxes to protect valuable statues. They also wrap statues in canvas or burlap stuffed with hay. Ideally, Israel says, you should wrap your statues in a breathable waterproof covering, such as a polypropylene, though this can sometimes be hard to find in large sheets.
"Don't use a plastic garbage bag," she says. "It's not good because the plastic keeps the moisture inside, and you want the pieces to stay dry."
You also want to get your statues, and even benches, off the ground to prevent snow and ice from damaging their bases. Israel recommends building a level footing made of brick, cement or cinder blocks to elevate your treasured statue or furniture and prevent frost heaves from toppling them over.
Preventing rust in iron
With sculpture or furniture made of iron—whether fences, urns or seats—water, rather than ice, is the enemy. "Sometimes people will buy a cast-iron piece that has a soft rusty finish," Israel says, "and they get it home and put it outside, and suddenly that nice patina begins to corrode." Owners of iron furniture often ask Israel whether they should repaint what they think might be original, or leave it alone.
Don't worry, she says: It's next to impossible to find antique iron garden furniture or sculptures that have only their original coat of paint. To illustrate she adds that an 1870 cast-iron Civil War monument on Martha's Vineyard was found to have no fewer than 21 coats of paint prior to being restored.
Stripping or gentle sand-blasting can restore detail that has been lost because of the build-up of too many coats of paint, but this requires the removal of the existing paint first, a process that may need a professional's touch. Owners also paint their iron garden pieces to stem the destruction caused by rusting. To remove rust, take a wire brush to your piece and the surrounding loose paint, coat it with a primer, and then paint it. Because rust bleeds through white paint more easily than through darker colors, she says you often need multiple coats of white paint to cover a rusty surface.
An alternative to paint that won't further dull the detail of your piece is wax, which should be applied at least once a year, if used. A new kind of paint called a powder coat finish should also be considered. It's a resin and pigment that is applied to the surface with a spray gun and then baked on with high heat. This surface lasts far longer than paint. The downside to this treatment, Israel says, is that it never gets that "look of age" that paint provides and which many collectors prefer.
Keep fragile things inside
A mistake that garden ornament collectors often make is to take what belongs in the living room out-of-doors. Alabaster and plaster pieces, for example, shouldn't come outside, because plaster is water-soluble and alabaster is too fragile. Furniture that uses wood—such as the slats in a garden seat—should be covered in wintertime. And don't expect ordinary wood to last for very long outside. "If you are adding wooden slats to a bench," Israel suggests, "use teak or mahogany."
And for those other garden ornaments ...
Marble is susceptible to high humidity and rain, especially acid rain. "So if you're buying a statue for a garden in Houston," Israel says, "you probably need to have its surface professionally sealed." And never put iron ornaments on top of marble. "If somebody puts a cast-iron urn on their marble-top table," Israel says, "they'll find a rusty round imprint that will be very hard to get rid of because the stain goes deep."
If you want to remove organic matter from your ornaments, never use bleach, which can damage stone. Simply rely on the jet from your garden hose to remove slimy algae, and a mild detergent if necessary. Israel says she likes the look of moss and lichen, which are common companions to stone statuary, noting that the same piece will usually sell for more if it has a bit of moss or lichen on it. "It's like a patina," she says. "How do you make a new garden look old? You put out a piece with moss on it and it immediately gives the impression of age."
Finally, be careful about how you move your garden ornaments. If you try to yank a cast-iron chair stuck in ice, for example, you can easily snap off a leg. Once, someone advised Israel to move one of her terra-cotta oil jars by rolling it on its side. She took that advice—and learned from the results. "My enormous oil jar," she remembers, "split in half like a giant egg."
To learn more about collecting decorative arts, Barbara Israel recommends:
The Maintenance section on Barbara Israel's Web site
Antique Garden Ornament, Two Centuries of American Taste, by Barbara Israel, 1999.
If you wish to locate a conservation professional in your area, a free referral system is provided by the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC). By phone (202) 452-9545 or e-mail info@aic-faic.
Dennis Gaffney is a freelance writer in Albany, New York. He has been a regular contributor to ANTIQUES ROADSHOW Online since 1998.