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A quick and easy guide to caring for outdoor bronze sculptures

It’s rough out there.  One of the biggest issues when placing anything outside for a long period of time is how it will respond to the elements. This is, of course, doubly important when the thing you are putting outside is a valuable, one-of-a-kind work of art.  If you walk around any large city in the United States for long enough you will come across a piece of public art that looks a bit worse for the wear. The unfortunate reality is, like many things in life, regular maintenance is cheap and easy, but if you neglect it, the resulting damage is expensive and difficult to repair.  The following is an easy to follow program for that applies specifically to outdoor bronze statues created by E. S. Schubert Sculpture Studios.  The information and steps included should also apply to most other bronze statues, however…

(and I have bolded this for a reason!) the application of paste waxes WILL change the character of the patina.  If you are at all uncertain about what you are dealing with, first try to reach out to the sculptor who created your sculpture. If you can’t get ahold of your sculpture’s creator, send us an email and we will help you out.  

For the long term protection of our one-of-a-kind outdoor bronze statues we recommend a twice-annual application of paste wax. Applying paste wax has three major benefits.  First, the wax restores the luster of the patina, making the sculpture look as good as the day it was installed. Second, the paste wax is an incredibly durable protectant against the elements. And third, it is very easy to apply paste wax and anyone with a passing knowledge of how to use a paint brush and a cotton rag can be taught how in about 5 minutes.  At the bottom of this article, you will find a list of all of the supplies (other than water!) needed to completely clean your bronze statue.

Some Background

The color that you probably think of when you think “bronze” isn’t really the actual color of the metal.  Just after the metal has been cast, and all of the shell and scale has been sandblasted clean, the pieces of bronze are very similar to the shiny yellow-gold color of brass.  What you know of as “bronze”  is actually an intentional chemical reaction called a patina. The patina functions as both a protective coating for the bare metal beneath and a way to beautify and enrich the sculpture.  

After the patina has been applied, the sculpture is rinsed and the patina chemicals are neutralized.  Once the statue is completely dry, an acrylic lacquer is sprayed onto the surface of the bronze.  The lacquer is a very durable, UV stabilized coating.  Finally, on top of this layer is applied a coat of paste wax.  The paste wax adds an additional layer of protection, deepens the richness of the patina, and creates the nice satin luster of a quality bronze sculpture. It is this layer of paste wax that will be the first to succumb to the elements, but that is ok, because it is very easy to replace. If you keep replacing it, the lacquer coating will always stay in perfect condition.

Here’s how.

Every six months or so, usually in the early fall and then again in the mid to late spring, a coat of wax should be applied.  You should choose a warm day, but not a very hot day.  In the morning, as the sun has warmed the surface of the statue, rinse the statue from top to bottom, not attempting to blast off any dirt, but just a gentle flow of water across the surface of the bronze. This is probably a good time to mention don’t ever use a pressure washer! It is entirely unnecessary and could possibly damage the patina.  In many cases just a gentle rinsing will be enough to clean the surface of the statue.  However, if there is visible accumulation of dust, dirt, bird poop, etc, a neutral or non-ionic detergent (examples below) will be needed, along with a soft, plastic bristled scrub brush. (Examples below) . After the sculpture has been pre-rinsed, mix the detergent as recommended in a large bucket.  Then, using a brush with soft plastic bristles, dip the brush into the detergent and go to it from top to bottom with a gentle scrubbing action.  Larger areas of the sculpture will go very quickly, with one or two scrubs being enough to loosen the dirt on the surface.  If there are narrow crevices, a tooth brush is a good choice. After the entire sculpture has been washed from top to bottom, give it a good rinsing, and make sure all of the detergent has been washed off.  As you do this, if you see any areas that are allowing water to pool, blow or wipe the water out, as they will take longer to dry. If you like, you can gently towel dry the sculpture to speed up the process.

Now… wait.  It should take an hour or two for the water to dry and for the sun to warm the surface of the bronze again. Make sure that the sculpture is very dry and warm to the touch again.  Water trapped under a layer of wax can cause fogging and other weird things.  Better to just wait a bit more. Once this has happened, you are ready to wax.

All of our sculptures are patina-ed with a traditional dark brown patina.  It is our opinion that this traditional finish is the highest quality, most durable,  and does the best at honoring the tradition of public bronze figurative sculpture.  Because of this, our recommended paste wax is Johnson’s Paste wax.  Johnson’s paste wax typically helps to enrich and slightly darken the patina.  This is exactly what we want for our bronze.  The regular application of this wax helps to retain the depth of the patina. If you have a bronze that was not created by our studio, you may not want to use Johnson’s Paste wax. You may want to use Trewax brand on a cool day, as this process typically does not darken patinas as much as Johnson’s.. HOWEVER, you should check with the sculptor who created it to be sure. (If for some reason you can’t get ahold of the original sculptor, snap a picture of it and send us an email.  We will be happy to help talk you through the right solution.)

Now that the sculpture is clean, dry and warm to the touch, it is time to start waxing.  First you will need a new, clean 2 inch wide chip brush. A chip brush is a cheap, natural bristle brush that is perfect for this use.  Before you dip the brush in the wax, take some masking tape and wrap it around the metal ferulle that attaches the bristles to the handle.  The reason for this is that the metal can easily scratch the bronze when you are pushing the wax into the deep crevices of the sculpture, and the masking tape stops this from happening.  Make sure the masking tape extends ⅙-⅛ of an inch past the bottom of the ferrule to cover the bottom edge of the metal as well.  Now it is time to wax the sculpture!

Beginning at the top, load the brush with wax by brushing across the top of the wax in the can.  Make sure you don’t have big clumps on the brush, as we want to put as even a coat as possible on the statue. Now just gently brush the wax on to the statue.  Depending on the texture of the bronze, you may have to experiment with different techniques to find the best way to apply the wax, for example, on deeply textured areas, sometimes a stippling of the brush works better than brushing.  Work your way from top to bottom, always working off of the last edge.  Basically what that means is that you don’t want to do a section here, and a section there. Start in one spot and move around the sculpture and down to the bottom.

After the entire sculpture has been waxed, let the wax dry and harden.  Once the wax has completely dried it is time to buff out the bronze.  Using a clean, dry cotton towel, rub the surface of the bronze in a circular motion just as if you were waxing a car. Wax on, wax off! You will get the hang of this pretty quickly, as the surface will go from a dull haze to a beautiful satin shine.  When you do this you are both making the sculpture more beautiful, and protecting it.  Buffing compresses the wax making a stronger barrier against the elements.

Now, you’re done!  Unless…

If you would like to you may put another coat of wax on and buff it out again.  This will provide more protection than just one coat. Three coats is overkill, but two is fine.  However, to put it in perspective, if you consistently put one coat of paste wax on every 6 months, you are doing better than 99% of bronze statue owners.  So be proud of your contribution to the culture of our Great Great Great Grandchildren.

I hope this has been helpful.  Oddly enough, I think that writing it down makes it seem more complicated than it actually is, so don’t fret!  If you have any questions, or if anything is unclear, send us an email or give us a call.  We are happy to help you preserve your bronze monument so that it stands for the next 500 years!

Materials List:

Non-ionic Detergent

Soft, plastic bristle brushes – Rubbermaid, OXOUtility Scrub, Magnolia Brush

Johnson’s Paste Wax for E.S. Schubert Sculptures

Trewax Brand wax for lighter bronze patinas

Cotton towels for drying and buffing

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About E. Spencer Schubert
E.S. Schubert Sculpture Studios is the premiere bronze sculpture studio in the Midwest. Our passion is creating timeless bronze monuments of your heroes.

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