Solomon’s Vintage Go Equipment Care Instructions
Here’s a guide to care for your Vintage Go Equipment, based on my experience.
I’ll cover Clamshell, Slate, and then Wood. If I learn anything new I’ll be sure to post updates here.
Especially in an era of Covid, cleanliness is essential for our well-being. So it’s worth repeating: Wash your hands before you play Go, and again after!
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Clamshell stones are a delight. Unlike glass, they have a soft feel and each has a different pattern. When in doubt, treat them like your teeth: keep them away from water that is too hot or too cold, rub them only with something soft like a plastic brush, and keep them clean!
What NOT to do with your Clamshell:
- Don’t use a chlorine bleach, at all, ever. You’ll permanently dull the surface.
- Don’t fidget with stones while playing - it puts oil on them and is a bad habit.
- Don’t wash white clams with black pieces. Slate/glass is hard, it will scratch clams.
- Don’t wash stones in a metal or glass tub, you risk chipping the stones.
- Don’t wash with hot water, it will make the clamshell brittle.
- Don’t allow h2o2 to dry on the stones (account for some evaporation during soaking to make sure the clamshell remains completely submerged).
- Don’t take food-grade h2o2 lightly. It’s dangerous stuff to have around. Let's take a minute to talk about Hydrogen Peroxide…
Hydrogen Peroxide (H2O2) can be dangerous. It should be treated like poison.
The chemical formula of a water molecule is h2o. You can see that h2o2 is just like h2o, with the addition of 1 additional atom of oxygen. This makes for a very unstable molecule - it wants to be water! To become water, h2o2 wants to get rid of the extra oxygen atom, and so it goes around looking for something to bind that oxygen to. This is why it is used medically as a cleaner, because oxygen will basically bond with anything carbon-based (organic).
In the long term, a bottle of h2o2 left alone will eventually denature, and those single oxygen atoms will find each other. When that happens they combine to become o2. So an old bottle will basically turn into water and oxygen; you might say it has 'gone bad' but it's basically safe unless the bottle explodes from the pressure.
Higher concentrations of h2o2 (or 'food-grade') come in bottles with vents, so that they don’t explode. But these higher concentrations are so powerful that they are dangerous in other ways - they can quickly oxidize anything they touch - including human cells like lung tissue (if inhaled), and h2o2 is very harmful if swallowed (possibly fatal - either by significant damage to the digestive system or by oxygen bubbles in the bloodstream). High concentrations of h2o2 can explode if they come into contact with other substances like Alcohol.
Wear safety gloves and eye protection, and don’t bring such h2o2 into your home if there is a risk that someone might inhale or ingest it.
What to do when cleaning Clamshell:
- Make sure you actually have clamshell stones and not yunzi or plastic or glass. These instructions are only for clamshell.
- Find a plastic or wooden tub to wash them in. Add some water and a bit of detergent (a few drops of dish soap is fine). Gently add the white stones. My favorite container is a pink tray for keeping tacos warm.
- If the stones are very dirty, let them soak for a little while and try using a toothbrush or some other plastic brush to remove the grime.
- Rinse the stones. If you have hard water, consider rinsing with Distilled Water to avoid spots.
Transfer the stones to a plastic or wooden colander to drain, then allow them to dry on a clean towel, in a sunny spot if one is handy.
You can stop here. Seriously. This is enough for an average cleaning.
What to do when soaking Clamshell in Hydrogen Peroxide (h2o2):
Ok, so you just bought a used set and want to restore the clamshell’s whiteness. Well, first you need to get some h2o2, which comes in different concentrations. Household h2o2 is perfect, which is usually sold at 3% concentration.
- Find a container that will be the bathtub for your clamshells. A plastic tub is best, or cut the top off a soda bottle. I use leftover h2o2 bottles.
- Fully submerge the clamshells in the h2o2. Add a bit of extra h2o2 to account for evaporation so that the stones remain submerged, the should not be exposed to the air.
- Soak in h2o2 for at least 2 days, and preferably up to a week, agitating the stones every 12 hours or so. To agitate, you can swirl them, or stir them carefully (don't splash), etc. You should start to see some progress by the 48-72 hour mark. Keep them in a place that your pets cannot drink any h2o2 by accident.
Rinse thoroughly to remove the h2o2. Seriously, get all that h2o2 off - rinse it a lot! If you have hard water (high in minerals), you can use Distilled Water as a final rinse to avoid water spots. Then dry them fully. I drain them in a plastic colander, and then spread them on a towel in the sun.
That's it! If you want to go a step further, you can polish your Clamshell to get a glossy, slick finish:
- Decide what to polish with. Raw ibotarou powder is traditional, but difficult to find. Paraffin wax is good - you can just use shavings of a plain, colorless candles according to the guys that make go stones for a living. Carnauba wax paste (with no additives) is a fine alternative and can be found in hardware/automotive stores, but be sure to read the instructions as some of these products have dangerous additives that evaporate and should only be used outdoors.
- Polish one at a time, or massage a whole bunch of them in a cloth bag.
- Allow 5 minutes for the wax to set on the surface.
- Wipe off the excess wax with another dry white cloth.
- All done! They should feel like glass now. Properly dispose of your used rags and bags properly.
Before you put the stones in the bowl, place a cloth at the bottom of your go bowl to protect it from any excess wax that you missed.
Slate feels great. It’s actual stone, so it is not slippery like glass or plastic. Matte black, dusty and dry, or polished glossy, they all feel good and earthy. When you place them on the board they should all look nearly identical (as long as you’re not sweating nervously).
What NOT to do with your Slate:
- Don’t wash Slate with the Clamshells. Slate is hard and can scratch them.
- Don’t wash Slate in a metal or glass container. Slate may be hard, but it can also be brittle and chip. Some glass types are actually harder than slate.
- Don’t use a mineral oil with additives, like essential oils. The stones will be coming into contact with different types of wood which may be sensitive; and some people have allergies.
- Don’t fidget with the stones. It’s a bad habit and makes them oily. However, some people see this as the best way to oil the stones, slowly over time (especially with yunzi), so live your best life.
What to do when cleaning Slate:
- Find a plastic or wooden tub to wash them in. Add some water and a bit of detergent (a few drops of dish soap is fine). Gently add the black stones.
- If the stones are quite dirty, let them soak for a little while and try using a toothbrush or some other plastic brush to remove the grime.
- Rinse the stones. If you have hard water, avoid water spots by rinsing with Distilled Water before you dry them.
- Transfer the stones to a plastic or wooden colander to drain, then allow them to dry there or spread them on a clean towel in a sunny spot.
- If you like the look of the slate, then you’re all done! Polishing slate is a matter of personal preference and is not strictly necessary.
What to do when polishing your Slate:
- Get a clean, white, cotton cloth that you don’t care about staining. That old-shirt-that-you-were-going-to-throw-away-anyway is fine.
- Add a few drops of mineral oil to the corner of the cloth.
Rub each stone until it is coated with mineral oil then set it aside.
An alternate method is to simply place all the slate in a plastic bag, add a few drops of mineral oil, and gently jumble them around. This is easier but there will be excess oil to remove afterward.
- Once all the stones are oiled, wipe off the excess oil from each stone with another clean white cloth. This takes some time, so maybe watch a Go streamer on Twitch while you keep your hands busy.
- Put a cloth napkin at the bottom of the bowl before you transfer in the polished slate. This will catch any excess oil you missed.
Wood is wonderful to interact with. Since it's an organic material, it requires some upkeep. If clamshells are like teeth, then wood is like skin - it will be damaged by the sun and old age.
Humidity is a huge consideration - too much leads to mold, and too little leads to desiccation. Wood will change shape as it gains or loses water, so our first goal is to minimize any change in the wood's moisture level. The second goal is to make sure that any change that does happen occurs evenly across the entire piece of wood, and this is accomplished primarily by sealing the open pores in the endgrain.
Our floor boards come from Japan, where it is very humid, so if you do not live in a humid climate then please read to the end of these instructions for using oil and wax to treat the wood. Wood shrinks as it dries, so dry wood has a higher tendency to develop cracks - this is why firewood is much easier to chop once it has dried. Be mindful not to store items where there is a wind or draft that can dry them out. Also, always keep your board & bowls away from direct sun or heat to avoid warping.
Generally you should clean wood with a dry cloth. That may be all you need! Old wax may appear white on the board, and this is a good sign. Remove as much old wax as you can before applying a new coat. In the image above, a new layer of wax is being applied from the left and you can see the dusty white of old wax on the right.
If a deeper cleaning is needed, always test a small, inconspicuous area first, such as the inside of a bowl or the underside of the board. Tough stains might need a solvent, like a citrus oil, or something stronger like Barkeeper’s Friend (this is oxalic acid, and it requires its own safety precautions, like using a respirator/mask).
ALERT: the grid of some traditional gobans were made with Urushi lacquer, which is in the Poison Ivy family. Use non-latex gloves and a respirator, especially if using a product that can thin Urushi lacquer, like Turpentine or Camphor oil or Kerosene.
It can be hard to treat some Go boards or Go bowls because they are varnished. Many bowls are varnished (or coated in carnauba wax) right on the lathe when they are made. The varnish method shows off the natural grain and color of the wood, but does little to protect the wood in the long-term. In fact, a lacquer barrier will interfere with attempts to preserve the wood with oil. Some people prefer to see bowls age naturally, but bowls will get brittle over time and crack, either due to an accident or simply by drying out.
Treating wood is essential to taking care of it. Just like we use lotion to treat our skin, wood benefits from oil and wax. Oil penetrates the wood (provided that there isn't some coating in the way), and wax creates a surface barrier on the wood to keep away dust, debris, scratches, and insects. These barriers help the wood maintain its internal moisture level. This method will generally not produce as shiny a result as varnish or lacquer, but will certainly help the bowls last longer. The polymerization of linseed oil, for example, will lend strength to the wood that will help keep it intact.
If you need to do some wood-care, read to the end of my instructions before diving in. You may also want to visit a woodworking website or two - there are also dozens of YouTube tutorials you can watch to familiarize yourself with the basics.
Wood absorbs any oil it comes into contact with - on old gobans you can even see human-oil marks on the underside where the board is regularly picked up by bare hands. Using oil on wood is a permanent decision, so do some research and consider the type of oil you are using. There are drying oils and non-drying oils.
Alert: Safety is a concern when handling wood-finishing products. Eyewear is a good idea, and you should also avoid prolonged contact of certain oils on your skin. Wear gloves if you may have a sensitivity, or at the very least wash your hands with detergent afterward. Always read the safety instructions on any chemical products.
Drying oils are great, but some are nut-based and a danger to those with nut allergies. Many non-drying oils are vegetable-based and will go rancid over time and start to smell bad. We don't recommend products that will attract mold to the wood, like Japan Wax because it is a vegetable fat.
Let's consider drying oils first. This means that the oil itself will Cure over time. Most drying oils will darken the wood, and you should consider whether you want to darken it a whole lot or just a little. Walnut oil and Tung oil are very commonly used, but they are nut oils (some people have nut allergies). Walnut oil is nice because it does not go rancid, it adds a nice dark shade to the wood. Tung oil also changes the color significantly and needs less frequent application. If you don't want to change the color of the wood, we recommend Raw Linseed Oil. Linseed is very light, and a very safe bet for most wood types. The only downside of Linseed is that it takes up to a week to cure - Boiled Linseed Oil (BLO) cures faster by including Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) to speed up the process, so because of those chemicals we don't recommend BLO for safety reasons.
Our recommended drying oil is Special Linseed Oil, which is pure raw linseed oil that has been vacuum-heated to jumpstart the polymerization process. Compared to raw linseed oil, this product leaves less 'food' that would attract mold, and it cures in half the time. Please note that curing is still a long process - an item may feel dry after only a few hours but likely has not finished curing.
Our recommended non-drying oil is pure Mineral oil. This is a food-safe product that is commonly used on cutting boards and other kitchen surfaces. A non-drying oil will actually never cure, it will remain 'wet' even though it is absorbed in the wood.
We provide both a drying and non-drying oil in the form of Paste Wax, so that you can treat a board with both oil and wax at the same time. For a drying oil, we offer Monkey Wax, which is Special Linseed oil and beeswax with a bit of turpentine to soften the paste and to help the oil penetrate. For a non-drying oil, we offer Monkey Butter, which is mineral oil and beeswax.
There are also plenty of commercial products you can search for. I've heard good things about Tried & True; I've also heard good things about Renaissance wax, which boasts finer particles. However, we don't know the ingredients in these various products, which is why I made my own.
If you know the type of wood you are treating, do some research. Begin with a google search for "oil and wax to use on fine ____ furniture" filling in the blank with the specific type of wood you are treating. Certain products serve the same functions as oil, but may actually be shellac or lacquer or chemical substitutes. It's really up to you, based on what result you want.
Treating wood with pure Oil:
Before applying any oil, make sure that you have removed any wax or other sealants - they will prevent the oil from penetrating and the oil will build up on them. There are a number of 'removers' or 'strippers' that you can use to dissolve old varnish, if it is present on your bowls. Be sure to read the instructions on any such products so that you use them safely.
If you're unsure, you could simply sand the wood down - use something like 150-200 grit sandpaper to start, then 220-300 grit to finish. Going up to 400-600 grit for a super-smooth surface is not needed (in fact, that will actually prevent you from being able to apply certain finishes on certain wood types). Remember to wear a dust mask to avoid inhaling sawdust, especially since it is hard to know how the wood was treated in the past. Clean off the sawdust before applying a finish - vacuum it, or use compressed air, or wipe with a Tack Cloth, or just use a piece of old cotton fabric.
In this photo I've sanded some bowls that were in particularly bad shape. I've staged them on paper bags in anticipation of applying Boiled Linseed Oil (BLO), which has chemical drying agents that help reduce the curing time. BLO is not our most recommended finish, but it is very common in woodworking. Simple instructions for BLO are as follows:
- Work somewhere well-ventilated and wear protective gear.
- Apply the oil with a paintbrush (preferred) or a cloth.
- Coat the bowls fully, then allow 15 minutes to let the oil penetrate.
- After 15 minutes, wipe off all the excess oil (before it gets sticky) and give the bowls at least 24 hours to cure before the next coat.
- Place a canopy over the bowls so that dust doesn't land on the wet finish.
- One coat of BLO is fine, but you can apply a 2nd coat, or even a 3rd. Each coating will make the wood slightly darker and slightly stronger.
- Avoid doing more than 3 coats of linseed, as the oil can get gummy or the finish may get splotchy.
If you are using raw linseed oil instead, note that it takes up to a week to dry between coats. The upside is that raw linseed is food-safe. Here are the same bowls a few minutes later:
If you can get it, Polymerized (or 'Special') Linseed Oil is made the old-fashioned way without chemical drying agents. This is done by cooking the oil just below its flash point (a dangerous process) to begin the polymerization. The result is a food-safe product that dries faster than raw linseed, though not as fast as BLO. I now use the Special Linseed Oil offered by EarthPaint. Pure linseed gives a slightly better, 'buttery' feel to the wood, and the only downside is the longer curing time.
ALERT: Oils are flammable! Take great care not to work with the oil (or store it) near a heat source or open flame. Linseed oil polymerizes as it dries, and this reaction itself is exothermic, releasing heat. Oil-soaked rags have been known to spontaneously ignite when wadded up in the trash, so they should be washed with detergent if being kept, and even if being discarded, spread them flat to dry and weigh them down with a rock.
Oily brushes can be cleaned with turpentine or mineral spirits. Speaking of turpentine (pine spirits), you can actually mix some with your linseed if you want to - this will thin it down and give it more penetrating power into the wood, and is a good idea for a first coat if you plan on doing multiple coats.
For applying Mineral oil, keep in mind that it is a non-drying oil. This means that it doesn't cure. So it stays wet, and soaks into the wood over time. If there isn't a good wax coating, it can still wick onto anything the wood touches so don't leave anything on top of the board. It is a food-safe and non-flammable petrolatum byproduct, used commonly on cutting boards and wooden utensils. Feel free to apply it generously, then allow it up to 8 hours for the wood to absorb it before wiping off the excess. Allow at least a week between applications to avoid bloating the wood through over-absorption.
A good coating of wax will help seal most wood. Many go boards will have white residue from previous treatments, and that is a good sign that the board has been cared for. Again, remember that oil won't penetrate finished wood (it will sit on top of it being sticky) so if your wood has a layer of lacquer or shellac then use pure wax without oil.
Beeswax is an excellent choice. Beeswax is also handy for melting to fill cracks that cannot be closed (like in a goban), though you may want to look into professional products that include a color that will match your wood.
Carnauba wax without additives is also fine, and even a tiny bit of carnauba (1%-5%) adds a huge strength to beeswax if you want to create a mix. I've used Briwax (get the new kind without Toluene) that has both carnauba and beeswax. I've heard Minwax is also a great product. Be sure to read and follow any safety instructions on the product.
Japan Wax is also good, but is from Urushi (poison ivy family), so read the alert above regarding handling it safely. It also isn't actually wax, it is vegetable fat, so it is a potential food source for mold. This is what board makers recommend, but the climate in Japan is very humid and very few people actually follow their instructions to clean it off and reapply it once a month.
Whatever you decide to use, apply the wax thinly and evenly. Super-fine steel wool (#0000 grit) is a great tool to use to apply the wax if the wood is finished, as it really helps work the wax in and make the grain pop, while avoiding leaving big globs of wax anywhere. An abrasive plastic pad or synthetic steel wool are also great. Or just use a clean cotton cloth.
Give the wax coating up to a half hour to settle into the wood - it should be mostly dry to the touch - then buff the surface with a clean cotton cloth to polish it and remove the excess wax. Again, the result is the thinnest possible coating of wax - don't be surprised that the cloth picks up a lot, and don't be surprised if some of the color of the wood is on the cloth. Again, wood is like skin and old dry skin gets flaky and needs to be exfoliated.
If you are using a particularly hard wax (Carnauba), don't give it more than 30 minutes to dry before buffing, because it will be very tough to buff once it has fully set.
Remember that any wax containing a drying oil will need to cure before it is ready to use, so allow adequate time before bringing it back into your home.
First, don't use steel wool on oak, as the tannins of oak will react and leave brown stains. Second, only use steel wool if you understand the difference between finished wood and unfinished (raw) wood. #0000 steel wool is the equivalent of 400-grit sandpaper, and it can be easy to create nearly-invisible swirls (scratches) that will make themselves apparent once the wax dries. If using steel wool, brush in the direction of the wood grain to minimize swirls.
If you are working with a wood product covered in a layer of lacquer or shellac, then you can apply straight wax with #00 steel wool without having to worry about scratching the wood. Then buff with #0000 steel wool. The finish provides a layer of protection, so the steel wool is not abrading the wood itself.
If you have an oil-finished wood, then #0000 steel wool is usually fine as far as I am concerned, because the important thing is the bowls get a protective finish. But if you want your end-product to be a work of art, then it is safer to treat it like raw wood and use synthetic steel wool instead, or even just a cloth or plastic abrasive.
Although I love #0000 steel wool, it can also be a problem on the rough end-grain of a goban or other textured surfaces, which have a tendency to trap small particles. A plastic brush like a toothbrush works well in those areas, especially when assisted with a hair dryer to keep the beeswax soft. Or just use a cloth.
GLUE (binding cracked wood):
Sometimes a bowl falls on the floor, and sometimes they just dry out from time and weather. In any case, putting a bowl back together can be a fun and rewarding way to extend the life of your set.
Glue does expire, so make sure not to use anything over 3 years old. It should be stored at room temperature and not allowed to freeze.
Here's a quick set of instructions for using wood glue on wood bowls:
Well, that's all I have to say for now. Feel free to reach out if you have questions.
Thanks for reading this far and I hope you learned something new!