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Preservation on the Fast Track

August 10, 2012

by Kyle Jansson

Most heritage organizations preserve objects, documents and buildings for the long term, but also sometimes need to make fast decisions about how to do that. One organization is facing that dilemma this week and is looking for professional advice.

The item in question is a wagon wheel that was found submerged in a river in eastern Oregon. Approximately three feet in diameter, it has wood spokes with metal around the outer wheel. Currently, it is being stored under water in a “kiddie pool” until a more appropriate preservation can be instituted.

The Oregon Parks and Recreation Department, which has the wheel, has limited experience with this type of object. The likelihood that the wheel has been underwater for a century or more adds additional complexity to its preservation.The department’s staff is wrestling with exactly what type of wheel it is and how best to preserve it. Among its questions:

1.  Is it possible to determine the age of the wheel and, if so, what are the key clues? Is it significant or rare?

2.  How do you determine what type of wagon it came from?

3.  What are the best short-term preservation options that will help it keep its shape and integrity?

4.  What are the best long-term preservation options?

The department would like to hear information that will help it answer these questions, and you can do that by commenting to this post. You can even give clues on how your organization would successfully respond to an immediate preservation issue like this.

About the author: Kyle Jansson is the coordinator of the Oregon Heritage Commisison.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. August 10, 2012 1:53 pm

    Hi, I am with a large disaster recovery contractor. I have dried historic wood items that were submerged in river water for weeks. This includes museums with cultural artifacts, such as chairs, spinning wheels,etc. and building items such as wooden moldings, trim etc. The key is a gradual reduction of ambient humidity over a period of weeks. The spokes should be restrained with something rigid such as rigid aluminum to create jigs that will not allow the spokes to warp during the drying process. The wheel should have clamps installed to clamp the wood to the steel outer rim. The steel outer rim would in effect become the jig. We have freee drying chambers but i would not recommend them.

    You should try to remove the easy to remove sludge and debris while the wheel is in the water. Cleaning with ph neutral surfactants can help remove oils that may be clinging to the wheel. Change the water a few times.

    Others can comment on the restoration and preservation of the wood once it is out. Please call if i can provide further advice.


    Mark Rocco
    Vice President

  2. Jeffrey H. Smith permalink
    August 14, 2012 5:02 pm

    The fact that it is a composite object made up of wood and metal, it should get specific handling appropriate to each material type. The conservation lab at Texas A&M is very experienced in handling objects of this type. Keeping it wet would be the best suggestion for stabilizing it until proper treatments can be considered (assuming it is still wet). The lab in Texas has had good results with freeze drying.

  3. August 15, 2012 10:46 am

    As a world leader is freeze drying and with extensive experience with the emergency recovery of cultural artifacts I would NOT recommend freeze drying. My recent post explained the recommended method to dry the wheel with the least damage.

  4. August 15, 2012 11:10 am

    Mark and Jeffery, thank you both for your comments and sharing your expertise with us. We’ll take your comments into consideration as we work to preserve the wheel and may contact you with additional questions. Thanks again.

    Cara Kaser
    Heritage Outreach Specialist
    Oregon Heritage

    • Rocco, Mark permalink
      August 15, 2012 12:09 pm

      Perhaps the attached video will be of some value.

      Best regards;

      Mark Rocco

      BMS CAT

  5. the Oregon State Parks Team permalink
    August 16, 2012 9:32 am

    Reblogged this on Your Parks "Go Guide" and commented:
    What a great find!

  6. Calum Stevenson permalink
    August 16, 2012 3:17 pm

    Underwater archaeologist deal with wood and metal objects constantly. I would consult with East Carolina University in Greenville, NC for advise on long term preservation. They have a Maritime History and Underwater Archaeology program with a conservation lab. Texas A&M is also another underwater archaeology program that has a conservation lab. The short term is to keep it in water and do not clean it of mud. Mud will retain the moisture. Long-term solution that is used on wood from freshwater and saltwater shipwrecks is Polyethylene glycol (PEG). Freeze drying is an experimental technique that they have only recently been using on a shipwreck found off of Texas. It is only in the first stages of research so I would not recommend that at this time. The other issue is the metal which if it heavily rusted can be preserved through an electrolysis process. My experience with preservation has been through underwater archaeology and it has been awhile since I have worked in a conservation lab so there may be new techniques available. OPRD has had experience with preservation of the USS Shark carronade that was found on the beach and is now at the Texas A&M lab getting restored. It is not a cheap process to restore historical objects. You may want to talk with Dennis Griffith, Oregon State Archaeologist if you have not done so. As to the other questions they can be answered by consulting with the preservation department at UO. Wood leaves traces of how it was created by showing hand tool or machine marks and if the metal was locally forged (most likely). It certainly looks like a farm wagon wheel due to the size of the hub, but again a university history department with an emphasis on preservation may have someone that can look at it and determine age and how it was made.

  7. Pete Cecil permalink
    August 16, 2012 10:58 pm

    A great northwest wheelwright/historic preservation resource is Bill Twigg of Moscow (Idaho) Carriage Company. Bill will be able to tell you the intended use of the wheel (based on it’s construction details and component sizes), as well as an approximate manufactured date based on the number of spokes, size and style of the fellows, and the details of how the tire was welded. Bill also has extensive experiance in restoring historic wagon wheels.

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