How Can I Preserve Driftwood?

Large driftwood stumps and burls make decorative bases for coffee tables when preserved.
Large driftwood stumps and burls make decorative bases for coffee tables when preserved. (Image: Catuncia/iStock/Getty Images)

Driftwood made smooth by ocean or river water gives you valuable source material for multiple arts and crafts projects. No matter the crafts or decorating projects you plan for your found driftwood, you must clean it thoroughly, kill any insects and preserve it before bringing it indoors. Take appropriate safety cautions by working outdoors while wearing clothing protection, vinyl gloves and safety goggles. Driftwood preservation is a simple but time-consuming process that most any do-it-yourselfer can complete.

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Driftwood Cleaning

Hose off driftwood outside to get rid of loose debris and dirt. Immerse the driftwood in a galvanized tub full of water outside for at least two full days. After immersion, use a soft-bristled brush, a chisel or other gouging tool to get rid of any mud and dirt, and soft and damaged or decaying wood. After cleaning it with a brush, hose off the driftwood and set it in a place where it’s easy to pour boiling water over it to kill any remaining bugs. Repeat all steps as necessary until the wood is clean.

Bleach It

Bleach kills any remaining bugs and gets rid of dark places on the wood, evening out the color. Add 1 part bleach to 9 parts cold water in a shallow pan. Soak the driftwood for up to a half hour. Longer soaking periods allow the bleach to penetrate all the wood. Rinse it off with clear water, and set it outside where you can add insecticide to the wood.

Debug and Treat

Before you can apply the finish coat that preserves the wood, add an insecticide so bugs won’t want to make their home in your driftwood pieces. Mix a concentrated insecticide with water in a spray bottle, and cover the driftwood with the spray mixture while outdoors. Set it in the sun and let small pieces dry three to five days, while allowing larger branches up to 15 days to dry.

Trim and Sand

Trim and cut away uneven pieces or broken sticks from the driftwood, and discard. Sand any rough edges smooth, including any areas where you cut away sticks or branches. Most of the driftwood has already been smoothed by its time in the water, so you only need to sand areas the water didn’t touch.

Condition and Stain

Pretreat the driftwood with a wood conditioner if you plan to stain to add color. Soak a cloth in the conditioner and apply it to the wood, letting it dry for up to 15 minutes before adding stain with a paintbrush or a cloth. Let the stain soak in for the desired darkness, wiping off excess with a cloth. Then let it dry at least 15 to 30 minutes, depending on weather conditions, before covering it with a finish.

Protective Finish

Coat the driftwood with furniture wax; an equal mixture of beeswax and turpentine; or a clear matte, satin, semigloss or high gloss protective finish. Finishes can be wiped on with a cloth, painted or sprayed, depending on the finish you choose. Some clear finishes have a slight amber tinge to them, so choose the one that gives you the desired result. It may take several coats for the finish to seep into the wood. Let each coat dry for six to eight hours, or as recommended on the product label, between coats. Dry the wood in a warm area for up to 48 hours, if not longer.

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