Pack Basket Maintenance

Jay Magruder

Curious about Wooden Canoes
I just inherited an ash splint pack basket made in the mid to late 60's. It seems a little dry and I am hoping that someone can give some advice on how to treat the wood to maintain its flexibilty and strength. It has not been varnished or had any other treatment that I can tell, pretty much original condition. I intend to use it on our weekend day trips and short hikes so I really want to keep it in good condition. Any thoughts/comments are welcome.
Pack Maintenance update

I have spent some time tracking down ash splint pack basket makers and asking them how to maintain a pack. They have all said DO NOT use oils or varnishes as it 'kills' the wood and they may discolor the wood. They go on to say that to clean an ash splint basket, submerge it in a tub of water until the wood becomes flexible, then let it drip dry. If there are any odd deformations in the basket they can be adjusted/corrected at this time. The basket can and should be misted periodically to keep the wood from becoming brittle. The pack should be stored in a cool, dry, place with good ventilation to avoid mold, mildew etc. from attacking the wood. Also, keep it out of direct sunlight as this will also damage the wood. They all say use the pack basket for the purpose it was intended for, good advice.

Some of this information as provided by the basket makers is a little incomplete and vague. As I get more input from other basket makers and the information is confirmed from more than one source I will add it to the forum. I know that this is a little off the mark for the canoeing community, but I always see one or two pictures of canoes with pack baskets and mine will soon be in my canoe, so hopefully this adds to the collective library of knowledge.
Thanks for this information, Jay. I know several folks here who use pack baskets the way some use backpacks, on a daily basis. It's nice to know how to care for them and how to get them back in shape, if we're lucky enough to find an old one at a sale.

It kills the wood????

Gee, I have one packbasket from the 1960's that was varnished about a week after I got it and a couple from the '70s that were oiled with Deks Olje #1 (a marine-quality oil finish made for wooden boats). Did they give you any indication of when I should expect them to die?:confused:

Other than for various canoe parts, ash is really not a terribly popular boating wood for a couple of reasons. First, despite it's attractive strength to weight ratio, suppleness and straight grain, it's fairly prone to rot. Secondly, if not well protected by a finish, it tends to get a very nasty black mold or fungus that grows deep down in the pores of the wood and is both pretty ugly and extremely difficult to remove without just sanding away the affected wood. Both of these problems are caused by water penetrating the wood. They need four things to thrive and survive - air (can't easily get rid of it), food (the wood itself is the food, and any dirt that gets worked into the wood may be as well), pleasant temperatures (anything you find comfortable will suffice) and moisture (water). Cut off one or more of these four ingredients and you can prevent the problem. Water is the easiest one to try to eliminate, either by sealing the surface with some sort of varnish, or saturating the wood's surface with oil - essentially one of those "go away, this spot is already taken" sort of things. Continually soaking, spraying or maintaining a high moisture content on ash would seem to be asking for trouble. I'm not a basket weaver and don't even play one on TV, but unfinished ash would never be left that way for marine or outdoor use, and nobody in their right mind would incorporate unfinished ash into a boat and then continually wet it down with water.

I used to repair and inspect hot air balloons, and there were similar debates that went on about rattan balloon baskets. Varnished baskets looked nice and held up pretty well with occasional revarnishing, but tended to be a bit more stiff and brittle, since the varnish essentially glues some of the strands and strand intersections together. Oiled baskets tended to pick up a bit more dirt than the varnished ones, but they held up well and were fast and easy to re-oil when needed. They also maintained more suppleness than the varnished baskets. The unfinished, water-soaked baskets tended to weather over time to a dingy. washed-out greyish color and their suppleness varied from good, to dry and brittle, depending on how long it had been since the last time they were soaked (which seemed to have a relatively short-lived effect on them). They also picked up the most dirt of the three.

I certainly respect the basketmakers' craft, but personally, I'm going to keep oiling my baskets with Deks #1 and I'm convinced that they will likely outlive me and look good doing it (I'm already more weathered-looking than they are :D).
Divergent paths

This is great information, just what I was hoping for. My first reaction is to listen to the basket makers, but actual long term experience with treatments that protect the wood carries significant weight in this conversation too. The Deks Olje treatment sounds like a good way to go as it has been formulated for use on marine woods for all the reason you describe. However, before applying this to the older, used pack basket, it also makes sense to try and clean the wood to remove any dust, dirt, that have accumulated over time, otherwise are'nt we just adding a layer over the grime? and that is the point of my query, how to take care of an older used pack basket keeping it in good condition for active use over time.
The Abenaki basket maker just sent me additional instructions:
1. Dunk the basket in luke warm water no more than 3 times.
2. Using a clean old cotton T-shirt wipe down each individual splint to lift off the dirt. He suggests wrapping it around a finger, gently rubbing the splint and changing the wrap around your finger as the cotton picks up the dirt. (Sounds like a tedious way to spend an afternoon, but if it works it may be worth the effort)
3. When done allow to air dry, out of direct sun.
4. Misting the basket is worthless.
Seems to make sense to do this prior to applying an oil treatment. Of course with a new basket just apply the oil, right? How often do you recommend re-applying the oil.
As to the comment that treatments "kill the wood" what can I say. I have heard such remarks from many different traditional crafts/trades/artist type folks regarding all kinds of things and I have come to believe that there are divergent paths of 'traditional' knowledge and science based knowledge. An example: When I was a young horticulture student we were taught how to properly remove limbs from trees. It required cutting the limbs off as close to the main trunk as possible and then trimming the cut into a tear drop shaped cut and coating the wound with a tar based paint. This was the 'traditional' widely accepted method used all over the world, until in the late 70's, Dr. Alex Shigo actually looked at how a tree grows and revolutionized how to prune trees. So I believe our task is to do some research, try and ask the right questions, listen carefully to the responses, try to make sense out of what we learn, devise a course of action based on sound knowledge, then proceed, and of course let others know how it works. What was the quote from that famous frontiersman, 'Make sure you are right, then go ahead'.
I'll admit to having both a certain amount of traditional feelings about such matters, mixed with a certain amount of modern influence, but (outrageous as it may sound) if I had an old ash pack basket to clean before treatment, I'd hit it with a pressure washer. Obviously, you don't want the pressure set so high that it digs out wood, but it can be done and I suspect it will do a better job than trying to maneuver a piece of cloth into all those little spaces. Rubbing with a cloth does about as much to rub dirt into a wet, raw wood surface as it does to lift it off of that surface. I have an uncle who used to be a big-time antique restorer/refinisher and when stripping old stuff he often slathered the piece with stripper and then blasted it with the pressure washer - and these were pieces of furniture that once restored would often bring in several thousand bucks 20 years ago. I never watched him do it, but he claimed that a fairly fast washing would get the gunk and remaining finish off without really soaking the wood.

When our balloon baskets got dirty, we used to take them to the coin-op car wash and blast them with the wand. Same basic deal, using a low-power pressure washer. Worked like a charm. Varnished baskets were then ready to roll, oiled baskets were ready for a new coat of oil, if needed, and unfinished baskets got a cleaning and quickie re-moisturizing treatment.

As for killing the wood, I assume they're using green wood, which probably resists moisture damage somewhat longer than kiln dried wood will, but green wood doesn't stay green all that long and even when green, it isn't totally immune to damage, rot. etc. from moisture. I just can't see any way that the proper prescription for the preservation of white ash is to do something that has been shown without a doubt to create serious (and seriously ugly) problems and eventually destroy it. Aside from this discussion, if someone walked up to me on the street and asked what the best way to ruin a hunk of white ash lumber would be, I would, without any hesitation, say "don't put any sort of finish on it and get it wet frequently".

Deks Olje #1 matte-finish oil is wonderful stuff. I wouldn't put linseed oil on a boat if it was the last finish left on earth (sometimes dries sticky, often turns black with age, actually feeds some forms of growth if the Forest Products Lab knows what they're talking about, etc.) but I'm a big Deks #1 fan and have been using it on various boats and things since the 1970s. I'm not all that fond of Deks #2, the optional gloss topcoat, as I think traditional varnish goes on smoother, so I just use the #1 matte oil finish. I should probably try #2 rolled and tipped some time and see how it does, as it's been a long time since I last tried it. For a Deks#1 matte finish you simply open the can, slop a coat on, let it sit and absorb for a few minutes and then do it again. You continue this wet-on-wet treatment until is just sits on the surface and won't absorb. This may take 5-6 coats and maybe an hour. Then wipe off the excess and let it dry overnight, at which point, it's usually dry to the touch. To build up a similar amount of water protection with most other oil finishes (including Watco and the other marine teak oils) you would be there for a month or more, oiling, waiting days for it to dry, smoothing, re-oiling, waiting more days for drying, re-oiling, etc.

Throw a new coat or two of Deks #1 on once or twice per season, wipe the excess off and you're generally done. Like any oil finish, maintenance is the key. Let it go too long and dirt and water will find a way into the wood's surface. You always want to re-oil before it gets to that point.
The way to go

Well it appears that the way to go on this is a careful washing of the basket and a thorough application of Deks Olje #1. Will report back with the results.
Deks Olje extinct?

This one is for Todd. Great advice but it appears that the product you recommended is no longer available in the U.S. and has not been available for quite some time. In searching through other forums, I ran across the Wooden Boat forum in which you participated. It appears that a full month before I asked for help you were aware of this situation, yet you did not mention that the product is no longer available in the U.S. I'm not sure why you would pass on out of date info knowing full well that it would not help me or anyone else reading this forum at all. But then again advice is worth what you pay for it.
Naaaa....I just post stuff here to annoy my fellow paddlers.....:D

The Deks Olje products were originally distributed here by The Flood Company. They sell mostly home repair products, aimed more at the deck on your house, than the deck of your boat - which always seemed to be a curious match, since Flood wasn't really invested in the marine coatings industry. They decided to discontinue carrying it maybe 12-18 months ago and for a short period of a few months, it wasn't available in the U.S. Since it is a rather unique and well respected product (and judging by the price, it probably carries a fairly substantial mark-up) it was only a matter of time before somebody got smart and made it available again. Within a couple of months of its demise, it was being made available, shipped in from Europe and these days it's starting to show up again at some of the marine mail order houses in the U.S.A. It will take a while before it's as widely distributed as it used to be, but it is available. The cans used to be round and now are sort of cube-shaped. If you see an ad with the square-ish cans, it's most likely current and there is a good chance that they actually have it in stock. Even so, at this point I'd probably place my order by phone, to be sure that they really do have it, rather than on-line. It may take a bit of hunting, but it's worth the effort.
Jay, as I noted, the lead is not mine, but one I found on a WB forum posting from April. I am surprised that with your ability to find a post saying that the product was unavailable, you didn't find the post saying that it was available.

You did hit the WB forum search button and enter "Deks Olje," didn't you?

"Deks Olje" is brightly highlighted on the 22 post of the thread
with the assertion that it is unavailable. But it is also brightly highlighted in a number of the following posts, one of which has the lead to Hamilton. That's all that I did -- something you could easily have done. Of course, you instead might simply have posted a general question here in this thread, about the (un)availability of Deks Olje, or even civilly asked Todd.

The reason I posted the lead was not especially for you, but rather because I assumed others reading the thread might be interested.
Mia culpa, mia culpa, mia culpa

In response to Greg Nolands private campaign to harass me into issuing an apology I submit the following;

Todd, please accept my heartfelt and sincere apology for anything that I may have said or implied regarding the 'Deks Olje' incident. It has never been my intention to demean or belittle your expertise in this area.

I also apologize to Mr. Noland and any other member of the WCHA canoeing community that feels in any way offended by my postings on this web site.

I hope this settles the issue and I wish all of you blue skies and smooth waters.
Not a problem on this end. It takes a lot more than that to rattle me. I also noticed that Ralph has it listed on the Chicagoland Canoe Base website and the photo shows the new can. You might be able to buy it from them if they'll ship it and support one of our own.

Two short private messages to you constitute a "campaign"? Well, if so, I am sorry. I thought it better to express my opinion privately, rather than publicly. I did not intend to harass.
I have worn out several pack baskets trapping. The baskets are great for when you have the walk in sites to trap. Just try hauling steel traps, axe/hatchet, wire, staples, bait and scent containers, lunch, thermos etc... on a trapline every day for 3 months, no matter what the weather. Then you have the Coyotes, Bobcats, Beavers, Otters, Muskrats, Opossums and Racoons, either whole or skinned dripping wet in there too. Then throw it in the canoe, jon boat, truck or skinning shed. I found that the best way to make them hold up to the use was a couple of coats of the water based polycrylic. They last 3X than untreated. For just camping and occasional use I'd expect the treated ones to last for decades+. PLC