Restoring a hand-carved sign

A long time ago my father’s oldest boyhood friend, Reid Higgins, presented him with a hand-carved wooden sign painted green with gilded letters in beveled quarterboard  font that said “C H U R B U C K” surmounted by a rampant, gilded eagle facing “dexter” (or to the right.) For as long as I can remember it has been screwed into the southern side of the house’s front porch. It used to be a fall ritual during Columbus Day weekend to unscrew the eagle and sign and store it indoors for the winter. Since 1991, when I’ve lived in the house year round, the sign has stayed outdoors year round too. And lately it’s been showing a lot of wear and tear.

This is how it looked after I went at it with a wire brush

It has been cleaned up, re-gilded and re-painted, at least two times I know of, in the past forty or fifty years. My grandmother asked a local woman who restored picture frames to do it once, and Reid himself took it back to spruce it up a long time ago. A few weeks ago, on an impulse, I took it down and into the shop. It was much worse than I thought it would be. Other than a few shreds, almost all of the gilt had flaked off. The name board had barely any paint left on it with white primer dominating what was left of the weatherbeaten green.

This is how I brought it back to life for whomever gets to do it next time. It was a lot of fun, I learned something new and cool, and it kept me from going crazy over the frozen holidays.

PREP

I took a light wire brush wheel and a cordless Dremel and got most of the flaking paint off without over scouring the mahogamy Reid used to carve the eagle. The detailed feathering and layering of his carving is exquisite and I didn’t want to sand it down or otherwise dull the sharp definition of the plumage. I went over it quickly with the Dremel, then fine steel, followed by a light layer of paste paint remover. The paint on the top edge of the eagle wings, the crown of its head, and top of its beak was long gone, and years of sun and water and snow had caused deep grooving to occur in those areas along the grain line. The sign that forms the base was in worse condition, with similar grooving on the top edges and deep splits forming in the end grain on the right and left ends of the Churbuck sign.

I thought about sealing the cracks with the WEST System or Bondo ….

After getting off all of the paint remover and washing it all down with mineral spirits, I took a sponge and thinned down some boiled linseed oil with one part of mineral spirits to three parts linseed and swabbed that over the entire bird and base three times, letting each coat sink in and dry overnight for three days.

The top grain of the sign was in sad shape

Then, with a sanding block and 220 grit sandpaper I smoothed everything down and got ready to prime.

PAINT

I used primer and paint sold by Fine Paints of Europe, the American distributor of Holland’s Hascolac line of paint. I’ve used a lot of this stuff — I painted the entire house myself one year using about $10,000 worth of Hascolac Oborex and knew from their brochure that someday I wanted to restore something with their Brilliant line of enamels. The stuff is not cheap. I spent about $150 on a quart of white primer, a quart of green enamel, and a tin full of Swedish Putty from a local hardware store that carries FPE.

Primed twice and skim coated with Swedish Putty

After priming two coats of white, I sanded it and applied a very thin skim coat of Swedish Putty. This is some medieval substance essentially made out of finely ground glass (silica) and oil. It goes on with the blade of a clean putty knife and can be sanded to a glass smooth service with fine sandpaper after it dries. The warnings that came on the tin were of the skull and crossbones severity so I dutifully wore a mask when I sanded the putty smooth. Silicosis is basically “glass lung” and I like my lungs.

Weirdest, coolest stuff — basically ground glass putty in oil

I used the putty as a filler to close up the open grain in the wood and repair the deep splits in the end grain. It can be applied to curved surfaces and trim with a sponge soaked in linseed oil, so I did the inside of the carved letters with that method.

I took a long time sanding the Swedish putty obsessively smooth, stepping down from 220 to 400 to 600 grit paper until the surface was immaculate. I hit it with an air gun, cleaned up the workarea to get rid of as much dust as possible and broke out a new Omega brush and the green Brilliant enamel.

The difference between Hascolac paints and other paints are apparent as soon as you dip the first brushload and start painting. I made all my brush strokes in one direction and put the paint on straight up, no thinning, but was very parsimonious about how loaded up I let the brush get with green paint. The coverage is surprising, but the beauty of the paint is how it self-levels and dries into a gleaming, candy apple kind of sheen.

I applied three coats of green, sanding between then with 400 grit paper. I was very happy with the final result and waited for the mails to deliver me my first booklet of 23 ⅓ karat gold leaf, coton gilder gloves and a German squirrel fur gilding brush.

Like buttah — this paint is for sweet tooths

I’ve never gilded before so I wanted a couple gilding videos on YouTube made by custom sign makers. It looked pretty straightforward.

GILDING

The first thing is to paint everything that will be gilded a bright coat of yellow and tape off everything that won’t be gilded with blue painters tape, using an xActo knife to cut out the carved letters. I used a little bottle of yellow Testors paint and covered the bird and all the letters with a single coat. Why yellow? That coat, called the TK coat, acts as a radiant substrate for the gold which is microscopically thin to the point of translucence. It you want a dark, subdued shine, you gild over dark paint. If you want brilliance you first must put down some thing light and bright.

Gilding glue, a sheet of leaf, squirrel brush and yellow undercoat

Gilding was pretty simple. First I painted some gilding glue over the surface to be gilded. The stuff goes on a little thick and viscous and is a light tinge of blue when applied. After 30 minutes the blue disappears and the gilding glue is tacky and ready for the gold leaf. Tug a wax paper page out of the little booklet of gold, flip it gold side down over the surface coated with gilding glue, and brush very gently with the squirrel brush. I found that a straight tapping of the brush worked best, pushing the leaf down to adhere to the glue and lifting it off the paper backing.

What a leaf of gold will get you in terms of coverage

I didn’t want to mess up. Something told me that stripping a botched gilding job would simply suck so I was determined to do it right. Besides, I bought $50 worth of leaf — 40 3”x2” sheets f– and used about three quarters of it. After the gilding goes down, one just looks for the yellow under paint and dabs a little more gold leaf on it, until everything to be gilded is covered with a layer of gold and fuzzy with loose flakes. Flick it and smooth it with the gilding brush, burnish it with a finger tip in the white cotton gilding glove, and we’re talking a very expensive rainy day project for the kindergarten class.

I cleaned up the lettering with a very fine modeling brush and the green enamel. Then I coated all of the bird and the lettering with two thin coats of shellac to protect the gold from the elements.

Finis

And here is the final result.

In another post I’ll talk more about the man who carved the sign, Reid Higgins, and his amazing carvings of local shore birds.

Herring Gull by Reid Higgins

 

Harry the Skye Terrier

I’m a dog person who started life as a cat person. I grew up with a pair of yowling Siamese cats acquired in Houston in the early 60s, but will always remember my first dog, a mutt named Sam Houston who rubbed his butt on the floor to my immense amusement. Sam Houston vanished to the “farm” one day and I had to be content with the two cats until the arrival of a black labrador retriever named Mildred Midnight (Churbuck dogs were generally female and named after deceased great aunts or former girlfriends).

Once we moved to Cotuit in 1991 my wife Daphne decided country sea-side life required a sea-side dog. She did her research and found a breeder of Skye Terriers in Western Massachusetts. She had always been a terrier person, growing up around Yorkshire Terriers and had always admired the Skye breed from her childhood in Paris.  She came home with a little puppy whom I named “Harry” because he was hairy.

Me and Harry in 1991 after hurricane Bob blew through town,

Skye terriers were once one of the most popular breeds in England due to Queen Victoria’s love of them and the legend of Greyfriar’s Bobby — a story that became the subject of a book by the same name which was filmed by Disney. Bobby was a Skye terrier puppy abandoned in 19th century Edinburgh by his owner, a night watchman named John Gray who passed away in a rooming house near Greyfriar’s Kirk, or churchyard. After Gray was buried in the Greyfriar cemetery Bobby guarded the grave for 14 years and became a sensation in the Scottish city, with patrons of a local pub keeping the dog fed and comfortable through its heroic vigil. After Bobby died in 1872 a statue was erected in his honor.

Greyfriar’s Bobby: By National Galleries of Scotland [Public domain or No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons

Today the breed “one of the most endangered native dog breeds in the United Kingdom” according the the UK’s Kennel Club. When my wife acquired Harry the breed was ranked absolutely last on the American Kennel Club’s list of the most popular breeds.

 Photograph taken by Michael Reeve, 15 September 2003. 

Skyes are considered the oldest of the terrier breed and are  speculated to have come to Britain from the wreck of a Spanish galleon during the disastrous rout of the Spanish Armada in 1588 in a storm which blew the Spanish fleet across the Irish Sea and beyond. Their name comes from the Isle of Skye on the northwestern coast of Scotland in the Inner Hebrides archipelago (home to one of my favorite single malt scotches: Talisker.) The dogs were prized for their long coats and low, extended bodies. Think of a full sized dog with tiny legs that looks like a hair covered caterpillar. That hair hangs over their face like a sheepdog’s, giving them face-first protection when they chase a fox or otter into a rocky crevice or hole.

By Pleple2000 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

According to Wikipedia:

“Skye Terriers were first described in the sixteenth century,when it was already noteworthy for its long coat. Some confusion exists in tracing its history because, for a certain time, several different breeds had the same name “Skye Terrier”. The loyal dog, present under the petticoat of Mary, Queen of Scots at her execution, has been ascribed as a Skye Terrier. In 1840, Queen Victoria made the breed fancy, keeping both drop-(floppy) and prick-(upwards) eared dogs.

This greatly increased its popularity and the Skye Terrier came to America due to this. The AKCr ecognized the breed in 1887, and it quickly appeared on the show scene. Its popularity has significantly dropped and now it is one of the least known terriers. There is little awareness of its former popularity.”

Harry and I had a special relationship reflected in his insistence on being near me at all times, and my giving him multiple names ranging from the “Scottish Shit Pig” to “Kenneth Branagh.” He had an immense jaw and a rack of teeth that would make a Rotweiler jealous. I think we waited a bit too long to neuter him as he was oversexed his entire life and was fond of dragging the children’s stuffed animals onto the lawn and raping them while the summer walkers on Main Street marveled at his rutting diligence. His coat was a wiry misery of mats, burrs, sticks and leaves. He was remarkably fast for a dog with nearly no legs, and a great game that amused the children was called “Where’s Daddy?” in which I would hide somewhere in the house while Harry searched for me.

His bad behavior led to enrollment in obedience school. I was elected by my wife to be Harry’s handler and went with him to group lessons at a trainer’s house near the Marston’s Mills airport. Harry did not appreciate his leash and refused to learn his lessons like the other dogs, leading the trainer, a nice young man named Derek, to take him from me to teach him a lesson. That lesson deteriorated into a snarling attack and Derek having to swing the dog in the air with centrifugal force to keep from being bitten. Other than his hatred for the leash and a taste for biting the children if they messed with him, Harry was a very smart animal and went on to impress Derek and the other owners at the obedience school with his very percipient ability to obey and perform various tasks.

Harry also was a roamer and despite investing in an “invisible” electric fence and a shock collar, was able to break free and roam the village like some nocturnal assassin. Where other dogs in my life had been too stupid to avoid the skunks living under the boat shop, Harry managed to kill them without getting skunked, leaving multiple skunk corpses in the flower garden for me to dispose of. During the Labor Day meeting of the yacht club my wife and I watched with horror as Harry lifted his leg and peed all over the back of a nice lady wearing a white Irish fisherman’s sweater.

I loved that dog and still rue the day when he was hit by a van on Main Street in 2000, ending ten years of delightful companionship. He was followed by another Skye Terrier, a rescue I found in Nashville, Tenn. named “Ned” who was perhaps the sweetest, stupidest dog I’ve owned. I’d get another Skye in an instant.

 

 

The Fair-Haven Sharpie

While going through some junk I discovered a copy of a paper I wrote in 1977 in college on the origins of the Fair-Haven Sharpie, a flat-bottomed oyster skiff popular in New Haven, Connecticut in the 19th century. I wrote this for Professor William Ferris, then a professor of American Folk Lore in the American Studies Department of Yale. While most of the syllabus and lectures focused on his work in African-American music and culture of the Mississippi Delta, I went down a more local path and researched the development of the sharpie, tracing its origins back to the dugout canoes built by the Iroquois.  The research entailed me walking east from my dorm room across to the Fairhaven neighborhood on the banks of the Quinnipiac River in search of any old timers who might have worked in the once burgeoning oyster fishery. I had a cassette recorder, a notebook, and a cheap camera.

I thumbed to Mystic Seaport a few times to check out their collection of small boats and did my time in the research library there reading Howard Chapelle, the dean of American small boat design and curator at the Smithsonian. Chapelle had speculated on the dug out canoe origins of the long, narrow skiffs and I went a little deeper and keep digging into the construction techniques and coastal migration of the design up and down the East Coast. The sharpie was a very popular working boat and was utilized in the commercial oyster fishery from Cape Cod to Florida.

I lucked out with my leg work when I poked my head into a Fairhaven barber shop and asked the old timers there if they knew any old oystermen.  I was directed to a local nursing home and there I met three very old codgers who still had their wits and could regale me with stories about the boats they built, sailed and worked from most of their lives.

When it came time to present the final paper in Ferris’s class, the grad student who ran my seminar (the once a week gathering of a dozen students and their assigned seminar leader) interrupted me and told Ferris I had never, not once, attended a single seminar during the entire term. Which was true. I worked in the library printing press during the afternoon before rowing practice and needed the job to keep my scholarship, so I blew the seminar off which I did in almost every lecture because I saw no point listening to blowhard classmates suck up to the grad student.

Ferris (who also graduated from The Brooks School, my prep school) said something to the effect of, “Oh yes. The oyster boat paper. About that. Have you considered post-graduate work in maritime history? I’m giving you an A+ and recommend you continue the work, it’s fascinating and the most novel piece of work I’ve seen in ten years of teaching this class.”

Wow. Okay. Wonder how he would have felt if he knew I had handed in the same paper to two other professors that same term and racked up two more A+’s for the same work.

Anyway, a reporter at the Cape Cod Times was doing some research on sharpies for his brother who was building one, and he came across a copy of the paper on file at the New Haven Historical Society. I guess one of the three professors deemed it good enough to submit it on my behalf.

Here it is — my writing circa sophomore year.

The Fair-Haven Sharpie

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