Basic care – Wooden masks

Many Indigenous communities in Canada have a rich tradition of mask carving. Originally these masks were produced for special and sometimes secret ceremonies. However, over the last 30 years or so, many Indigenous groups, particularly on Canada's west coast, have begun to produce beautiful and elaborate masks for sale to the general public. Although museums house many examples of old as well as contemporary masks, more and more are now in private ownership. To safeguard wooden masks as they are passed from one generation to the next, proper care is essential.

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Causes of damage

The main causes of damage to wooden masks are careless handling and environmental conditions.


Light is a natural enemy of all organic materials. It is especially harmful for wood because the damage is cumulative (it gets worse over time) and irreversible. Light can turn light woods dark and bleach out dark woods. It can also affect painted decoration on the surface of a mask, leaving it discoloured and faded. Many masks have attached decorations made of textiles, feathers, hair, bark, skin or leather.

These materials can be even more susceptible to light damage than wood and can soon become faded and brittle.


Wood is composed of cellulose (a molecule with an affinity for water). As well, it is porous. As a result, it is vulnerable to humidity. When moisture in the air increases (i.e. the level of humidity rises), wood absorbs water and swells a little. When the air dries out (i.e. the level of humidity decreases), wood gives off moisture and shrinks. These responses to changes in humidity can cause wood to split or crack and may damage its finish. High humidity can also promote the growth of mould.

Water spills can cause cloudy white patches on wood surfaces.


Insect infestations are another problem. In favourable conditions, some insects will burrow into wood, eat their way through the wood grain and lay eggs. As the larvae mature, they tunnel out to the surface leaving exit holes. Any sawdust-like material found under a wooden mask could signal active insects.

Storage and handling

Before moving a mask, always check it for damage or decorations that may have become loose. Try to handle the mask by the wooden portions and not by any attached decoration. Make sure any rings, bracelets or watches you are wearing will not catch on the mask or on any of the attached materials. You should avoid hanging or storing masks in the following areas:

  • in direct sunlight — use blinds or curtains to help limit direct sunlight falling on the mask;
  • next to fireplaces or baseboard heaters, or over heat vents;
  • in narrow hallways where they could be accidently knocked off the wall; and
  • in attics, basements and garages because of fluctuating temperatures and humidity.

Cleaning and repairs

Clean masks by dusting with a soft paint brush directed towards a vacuum cleaner nozzle that has been covered with a piece of plastic screening or cheesecloth. Take great care with brittle and loosely attached decorative elements.

Avoid applying oils and waxes to the wood as recommended in many "how to" and "self-help" books. These treatments may make the mask look good in the short run, but with time they frequently produce discolouration and stickiness on the wood surface.

Do not remove attached decorative elements such as hair, feathers or bark.

If a mask is infested with insects, isolate it and wrap it in plastic. Then consult a conservator for advice. Masks that need extensive repair or cleaning should also be referred to a conservator.

Use and display

It is important to find out all you can about any older Indigenous masks you own. As mentioned in the Introduction, some older, traditional masks have sacred functions. It is, therefore, important that Indigenous wishes are respected about how masks are stored, displayed and used. A logical first step in finding out more about older masks you own is to contact your local museum or the closest Indigenous organization.

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These resources were published by the Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI). For comments or questions, including reproduction requests, contact the CCI.

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