How Safe Are Your Wood-Carving Arts and Crafts?

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By LuzV Garcia, MS, ME

Traditionally, Puerto Rico celebrates Three Kings Day on January 6th. In Puerto Rico, the Three Kings or Three Wise Men are commonly depicted in wood carved sculptures by local artisans.

There is another difference in their portrayal in Puerto Rico. The artistic depictions of our Three Kings show them riding horses instead of camels. There are a variety of iconographic images where the Three Kings are riding to the left as if following the Bethlehem star. There are other images where the Kings are standing holding the gifts of gold, incense and myrrh.

While local artisans use local woods, bamboo, metals, and paints in their arts and crafts, there is a risk that some artists may still use lead-based paint in some of their crafts.

Wood painting is an art that has existed for centuries. In fact, Greeks first developed the technique of wood painting back in the Sixth century BC!

One of the environmental problems associated with wood carving is the use of chemicals or synthetic pigments such as white lead (basic lead carbonate), red and hydrated yellow ochre. We know that some colors such as black were generated from charcoal or carbon black pigment.

The original organic pigments were generated from plant components that were mixed with resin or natural oils such as Linseed oil to dissolve the solid particles in the pigment. It is important to know that the natural tints were derived from plants, minerals and invertebrates that were pulverized and dissolved into a liquid media. Originally, artisans used egg yolk as the media to transfer the pigments. The technique is called “Tempera.” It was a long lasting technique and the pigments were all natural ingredients. Beeswax was also used to seal the pigment to the wood.

Around the 19th Century, natural dyes were replaced with mineral pigments made of lead and chromium. These pigments enhanced the natural color of wood. Artisans now have the option of using organic or synthetic materials. Ask your wood artisan what type of paint he uses when making these wood carvings to ensure that no one is exposed to toxic metals like chromium or lead.

To learn more about the health risks of lead, visit.  While it’s important to keep traditions, it’s even more important to stay safe and healthy.

About the author:  Ms. Luz V. García M.E. is a physical scientist at EPA’s Division of Enforcement of Compliance Assistance. She is a four-time recipient of the EPA bronze medal, most recently in 2011 for the discovery of illegal pesticides entry at U.S. Customs and Border Protection in New York.