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Artifact of the Month: Lake Phelps Canoes
What a Difference a Year and a Half Makes

Tim talks about his efforts re-conserving the sugar-treated canoes from Lake Phelps.

Author: Tim Smith, Lake Phelps Canoe Conservator

Tim misting the canoes
Tim misting the canoes

Almost a year and half ago, you may have read about the Lake Phelps canoes and their history. Today we are happy to announce that the canoes have been re-conserved! Through careful work, we were able to dissolve back into the wood or remove nearly all the sugar that had reappeared on the surface of the canoes. Not many organizations have previously addressed the problems associated with sugar-treated wooden artifacts showing signs of sugar leaching to the surface and causing such destruction. Without documentation of other successful efforts, we had to come up with a solution to this problem ourselves. Through research and collaboration with other conservators and scientists, we devised a relatively simple strategy to combat this problem.

Microscopic view of sugar on canoes
Microscopic view of sugar

The process for treating these artifacts was multi-phased. First, we used a fine mister filled with reverse osmosis (RO) water to dissolve many of the larger deposits of sugar back into the wood. We did this by gently misting the surface until it was damp, and then we let the artifact dry again. Next, we used a poultice of tissue paper folded three or four times soaked with RO water. The poultice was applied for about three hours to areas that still had some sugar remaining, before allowing them to dry. This often removed the remaining sugar. Finally, if necessary, we mechanically removed sugar from the pores and cracks in the wood with tweezers and dental picks.

After this process, the canoes are looking better than they have in many years with very little sugar left on their surfaces. They are currently stored at the Queen Anne’s Revenge Conservation Lab in a room where the temperature and humidity are carefully controlled to prevent more sugar from migrating to the surface. This treatment will likely have to be repeated in some form every year or two, because even in controlled conditions, some sugar is bound to make its way out. We would like to thank the Institute of Museum and Library Services for providing us with the grant that allowed us to retreat these canoes. Hopefully someday soon they will be on display at a local museum for all to enjoy our shared history!

Canoe fragment before and after treatment
Canoe fragment before and after treatment

Tim misting the canoe fragments. Image by NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.
Microscopic view of sugar deposits. Image by NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.
One canoe fragment before (left) and after treatment (right). Image by NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.

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