A Life in the Trades: June 2010

Series introduction. October 2009. November 2009. December 2009. January 2010. February 2010. March 2010. April 2010. May 2010.

By Nicholas Bogosian

The Spring quarter is coming to a close and many of us are busy putting the final touches on a slew of school projects. This month I figured I’d just share some photos and let you in on some really exciting work students and I have been a part of in the last few weeks.

Field Lab: Wall Plastering

Field lab: wall plastering. Photo by Nicholas Bogosian.

Abbe Popescu applies the browncoat on the chimney wall of the Morristown House. Jon Smith, our field lab instructor, has done plaster work on major projects including Edith Wharton’s ‘The Mount.’ It was thrilling to watch him mix his ingredients and apply the plaster with such ease and fluid technique. Abbe quickly became the plaster queen and has also plastered another wall in the house.

Field Lab: Plaster Stabilization

Photo courtesy of Abbe Popescu.

Photo courtesy of Abbe Popescu.

Photo courtesy of Abbe Popescu.

Abbe and I endeavored on a plaster stabilization project under the stairs in the Morristown house as well. One section of the ceiling was missing a significant section of plaster. We were wanting to stabilize the remaining historic plaster and apply new plaster to the exposed hand-hewn lath. We chose the washer method where a metal washer is counter-sunk into the loose plaster with a screw to help hold the plaster firmly against the lath again. A more conservation-oriented method involves drilling holes in the existant plaster and injecting acrylic fills to bind the loose plaster to the lath again.

Paints & Clear Finishes

Photo by Nicholas Bogosian.

In my paints and clear finishes class I’ve been experimenting with creating different paints, stains, and “clear” finishes from “scratch.” A large part of this is just understanding the major characteristics of each and the varieties of components one can use in the final recipe list. All final experiments are displayed on wood sample pieces.

Of the many historic paint finishes I experimented with, egg tempera was one:

Egg tempera. Photo by Nicholas Bogosian.

Plaster: Medallion

Molding tooth. Photo by Nicholas Bogosian.

In Plaster class, the creation of my medallion continues. Most all of the aplique has been cast. Now that I’ve made my tin tooth, I can now begin the process of running my medallion base. Once all aplique has been set, I can prime and paint.

Field Lab: Timber Framing.

Photo by Nicholas Bogosian.

Photo by Abbe Popescu.

Photo by Nicholas Bogosian.

The basement at the Morristown House has been supported for a while now with shoring devices until we were able to re-build the timber brace supports. This morning we worked on creating mortise and tenons and fitting the final pieces together. All final pieces are fastened with treenails.

In other news, I’ve begun the planning stages for my project in Advanced Material Sciences class. We can choose any material we want and design an intensive preservation project based around it. I’m interested in wood conservation, specifically the conservation of early framing styles. Jon Smith, our field lab instructor is a timber framing and covered bridge aficionado and he told me about a local Farmstead with some really amazing (no, TRULY amazing) old timber construction.We went and looked at it, and it was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve had since I’ve been here in Ohio. Floyd, the current owner of the farmstead talked to me for at least an hour and seemed to have such a deep connection with the place and with what it represented of early rural vernacular life. It’s still an operating farm and a popular site on the Drover’s Trail. It’s called the Kinney Farm and dates to the 1860s.

I’m still in the process of learning more about it, but there are currently five structures on the property all on the National Register. With Jon’s guidance, I’m going to document the Carriage house on the property (which is falling into quick disrepair) and repair the rotted sills and any other timber conservation needed. I am excited because this will involve some structural shoring techniques which I have yet to have any experience with. It will also be great because we will be dealing with early American building techniques/joinery/tools – all for a Nationally Registered structure! Can’t wait to share the experience with you PiP readers.

A Life in The Trades: February 2010

Series introduction. October 2009. November 2009. December 2009. January 2010.

By Nicholas Bogosian

“Why in the world would you move here?” This is a question I get all too often. They can’t understand why someone would move to the Ohio Valley. Most of them are younger and can’t wait to get out. Columbus lies two hours to the west – a bustling college city with enough to keep you busy for weeks. Pittsburgh, PA offers the same advantages an hour northeast. Wheeling, WV (the closest city) lies ten miles to the east and offers an impressive collection of Victorian architecture, no matter if any preservation effort exists to keep it alive. But St. Clairsville, “paradise on the hill,” gets squashed between the three.

In answering the question, I subdue my glee and explain to them that I’m here for school – that I’m studying building preservation at Belmont Technical College. I explain that there’s only a handful of preservation trade schools in the country and that Bel Tech’s program is the only one of its kind, with a pretty stellar reputation. Never mind trying to comprehend somebody studying building preservation, they still seem surprised that “little ol’ St. Clairsville” and that “little ol’ Belmont Tech” has a nationally recognized preservation program. In past blog posts, the issue of the preservation trades as a sort of “secret field” has been brought up. It seems the same is true for its training institutions.

For somebody wanting to study historic preservation with a trades/technology emphasis one could seek out any of the following programs: College of the Redwoods (Eureka, CA), Colorado Mountain College (Leadville, CO), Belmont Tech (St. Clairsville, OH), SCAD (Savannah, GA), American College of the Building Arts (North Charleston, SC), and North Bennett Street School (Boston, MA).

Belmont Tech’s program, established in 1989, was the first preservation trade school in the United States and a few of the later programs have been loosely modeled on Belmont’s. Most of these programs, however, are still in their infancy, with the exception of North Bennett Street School & SCAD. Despite the common thread of “preservation trades” in these institutions, each have their own distinct way of doing things and none are exactly the same. The primary factors that attracted me most to Belmont when researching these schools were:

– national reputation (high job-filling rate upon graduation)

– intensive hands-on focus on all basic materials of buildings (masonry, plaster, metals, wood, ceramics, wall finishes, etc )

– rigorous academic parallel in curriculum to preservation theory and history as well as historic research, field documentation, and the history of American architecture.

– focus on building pathology and available technologies to conserve structures and their materials.

– ample opportunities for field labs including four quarters of mandatory field labs at local sites (run in conjunction with Allegheny Restoration)

Examining the curriculum at Belmont, I got a true sense that the program embodies the interdisciplinary nature of historic preservation and that it acknowledges preservation as an act that is theoretical, scientific, and artistic.

The BPR (Building Preservation & Restoration) program is housed on the second story of the Science & Engineering building on the Ohio Eastern University Campus. I don’t have an exact count, but the program is relatively small – roughly forty students. The program’s only form of major publicity is an ad every month in Old House Journal. But the name seems to get around otherwise. Students arrive from “all over.” A map of the United States hangs in the lounge with a cacophony of multi-colored pins marking their hometowns. Recently, a map of Croatia was added as an addendum with a single blue pin.

I feel inclined to give the reader a James Agee approach in documenting the annals of the program and what it symbolizes in minute detail. I want you to smell the wood shop and the saw-burnt poplar, to feel the exothermic heat rising off of curing plaster, to hear the planer in its glorious mechanized chipping upstart, to hear the clinking of the Mexican Coca-Cola bottles when anyone opens the mini-fridge, the smell of the soldering metals permeating from downstairs, the tidy and almost choreographed way in which the stained glass students maneuver around the lab with monk-like focus. I want you to sit through a week of Dave Mertz’s lectures and see that a whole hour can be devoted to pigeon crap. I want you to peer deep into his eyes as he simultaneously laughs at and laments the common roofer’s default obsession with roof tar.

Courtesy of Nicholas Bogosian.

Ruskin’s words beam in the industrially-lit stairwell.

Courtesy of Nicholas Bogosian.

The library has over 1,000 volumes of books, videos, and magazines pertaining to the preservation field at large. This resource has been an immeasurable blessing. There is always research to be done. The St. Clairsville Public Library just wouldn’t be sufficient in this case.

Courtesy of Nicholas Bogosian.

The draft room is where a lot of projects take their shape.

Courtesy of Nicholas Bogosian.

The plaster shop, displaying medallions. Model & Mold Making class meets here as well as Plaster class and Chemistry for Conservators labs.

Courtesy of Nicholas Bogosian.

The wood shop is where I’m spending most of my time this quarter. Between Material Science of Wood class and Building Carpentry class I’m reconstructing a bracket, doing Dutchman and epoxy repairs, traditional and modern joinery, lathe shaping, wood carving, and marquetry. Students have access to a wide variety of hard and softwood species.

Courtesy of Nicholas Bogosian.

The paint and glazing lab houses the Stained Glass, Material Science of Paint, Wall Finishes, & Historic Interiors classes.

Lab spaces also include a darkroom and a metals shop. Off-site field lab classes are in pretty constant rotation. The surrounding area is graciously in the habit of donating jobs which need to be done on historic sites, but would otherwise not have the funding to go about such repairs. We, of course, are happy to have the opportunity.

Dave Mertz, the director of the program, has been here since the beginning. He has shaped the program into what it is today and has developed a national reputation and a great list of contacts as we begin to network in the field and ultimately graduate to our first job.

In short, Dave Mertz is my hero. I was wary in the beginning about entering a field so blindly, having no previous formal exposure to the field. I was concerned about the “movement” status of the field. In my case, I was not interested in becoming an “advocate,” per se. Rather, I was more compelled by the natural and concrete rationale behind preservation and conservation. Material objects have no value besides the value we place on them, and people have a tendency to change their tastes over time. Like Ruskin proclaims: “let us not build for present delight…” What lasts is intention of design and quality of craftsmanship.

Ironically enough, a large part of our jobs as preservationists is to fix mistakes of the original builders, or the mistakes of the handymen which followed them. Granted, we are often dealing with natural deterioration processes as well and, if we are so blessed, even buildings of exquisite craftsmanship and high art. Unfortunately, the preservationist is a separate entity from the building construction force in society today. This wasn’t always the case. Would we even need “preservationists” today if modern builders commenced with Ruskin’s ethic to build for posterity? Would we even need “preservationists” if modern builders had the knowledge of building materials to effectively maintain these structures?

Dave Mertz is not a preservation hobbyist. He is more than talk. I am happy to say that a large part of his focus is teaching us the correct way of dealing with a plethora of preservation related problems and simply how to be good workers. In the age of the “Millennial,” this concept seems somewhat rare and admirable.

In addition to Dave, Jeff MacDonald joined the faculty this quarter after serving as the Lead Preservation Specialist to the Montana Heritage Commission. His specialty lies in the decorative arts and crafts and is passionate about the development of preservation education worldwide.

The BPR program is typically a two year program. The degree earned is an Associates of Science in Preservation Technology. The program attracts students with all sorts of academic backgrounds: fresh out of High School to full-out Master’s degrees. Many continue their education beyond Belmont. The great thing about the program, as already mentioned, is the wide scope of focus. While the trades are key, so is preservation philosophy, architectural history, historic research, and design. Graduates find themselves in all sorts of preservation related jobs around the country – whether they be working for a State Preservation Office or as a masonry conservator at the Lincoln Memorial.

So while the Ohio Valley is a completely new world to me (i.e. frigid winter weather, a desperately struggling economy, and largely rural) I have come to find a home in the BPR program. The high quality of work that is expected from us and the amount of critical thinking involved in the preservation trades can seem like an overload at times. Not to mention the excitement of learning new things every day. I have to stop myself from investigating things beyond the depth that I have the time for. Other students struggle with this problem as well. It’s just impossible to do thesis-level research on every single thing we come across day to day, though whole theses could indeed be devoted to the evolution of the wrought nail, the damaging Deathwatch Beetle, Copper cleaning, and Histoplasmosis. In reality, this is just preparation for our jobs at large. The learning process does not end when we are handed our degree. It is something we will take with us.

The Great Western School House. Past field lab structure. Photograph courtesy of Jess Warren.

For more information on the BPR program, please visit: http://www.btc.edu/bpr/

A Life in the Trades: December 2009

Series introduction. October 2009. November 2009.

By Nicholas Bogosian

When did manual competence become inferior to informational and technological competence? When did blue-collar become blue-collar? When did the college degree become superior to vocational training? In recent years, this dichotomy has been explored in academic realms to reveal fascinating insight. In truth, the line between the manual and the intellectual cannot be divided so easily.

The work of the preservation tradesman, like many other trades, must utilize the mind and hand in ways which few other careers can match in the modern world. The tradesman is not simply a field-trip factory worker cranking out the steps he or she learned back in trade school. The preservation tradesmen, in particular, rely on their knowledge of material sciences, history (human and building), building construction, conservation methods, the use of tools and various technologies, and manual proficiency at various building crafts. Their learning is a process which extends far beyond their initial training in a world where every new project is a process of new research and insight. Indeed, the critical thinking and management of all these elements into an informed decision and application seems to be a truer throwback to what we once called the “Renaissance Man.” The interdisciplinary character of the preservation trades can seem overwhelming and exhilarating.

Dave Mertz, director of the Building Preservation and Restoration program at Belmont Technical College, explains about his paper “The Role of Higher Education in Traditional Trades Training” that

“As late as the 19th century, the construction trades were considered highly desirable fields which required manual dexterity, critical thinking skills and advanced technical knowledge. This array of skills attracted highly qualified apprentices who were academically proficient and career driven. With the advent of higher education in America, the role of the training shifted from the practitioner to the technical and vocational schools and the quality of the student began to slowly diminish as parents, teachers and guidance counselors pushed their children into career paths that were deemed more socially and financially advantageous, leaving those who were not deemed “college bound” to fill the trades and other jobs perceived to be laborious in nature.

Today, students who struggle academically or who are socially maladjusted are often pushed into high school vocational programs. This influx of under-prepared and often unmotivated class of students along with the shift to assembly-like construction practices during the post-war building boom has led to the “dumbing” of the trades. Today’s preservation trades programs have begun to challenge the academic paradigm of the past fifty years by reinventing traditional trades education under the banner of historic preservation and at a collegiate level.”

Ken Follett, a historic conservation specialist in Mastic Beach, New York writes in his article, “A Contractor’s View of Craft Training”:

“The very idea that any modestly literate young individual should choose anything but a college education seems to run contrary to an economically-driven myth of our education system. (In crude terms, I think the myth runs something like: Pay up, and we will teach you how to capture the golden goose.) As well, respect paid to the trade of an artisan becomes a threat to the dreams of hard-working parents. Parents who work with their hands, especially, hope their children will not follow them in a career of physical labor…

Why is the preservation industry so incredibly lopsided in favor of intellectual occupations, to the neglect of hands-on craft? I have not met many people who think that a young person following a trade career is not headed on a difficult way in life, especially where higher education is available. Granted, physical labor makes a person tired. But it does not reduce brain cells. On the other hand, too much schooling can dull the senses, inhibit thirst for life, and inflate an individual’s self-importance. And however much is spent on an education, it does not increase the quantity of brain cells….

Hands-on work is not a refuge in a simpler life and it is unfortunate if a vital national resource, the skilled craftsperson working in traditional trades, is allowed to be stereotyped as a theme worker whereby anyone can take it up as a hobby. Construction contracting is not trivial; it is highly complex and demanding. There is an undeniable amount of pain in the fully engaged practice of hoisting two cement bags at one time; this is not a pursuit that comes easy. Progress is measured, not by a high grade-point average, but by food on the table. The gap between those who design and those who implement, between those who think about it and those who have a constant backache and dirty hands, is a convergence of two economic classes. The educational ideals of these two classes, totally foreign, collide at the building site. And neither system of ideals seems disposed to admit the validity of the other. There are few exceptions.”

Matthew B. Crawford majored in physics in undergraduate school and earned his Ph.D. in Political Philosophy. He later ditched numerous “information jobs” to open up a vintage motorcycle repair shop in Virginia. He wrote an essay for The New Atlantic which he later expanded into book form entitled, Shop Class as Soulcraft. Here’s an excerpt:

“Today, in our schools, the manual trades are given little honor. The egalitarian worry that has always attended tracking students into “college prep” and “vocational ed” is overlaid with another: the fear that acquiring a specific skill set means that one’s life is determined. In college, by contrast, many students don’t learn anything of particular application; college is the ticket to an open future. Craftsmanship entails learning to do one thing really well, while the ideal of the new economy is to be able to learn new things, celebrating potential rather than achievement. Somehow, every worker in the cutting-edge workplace is now supposed to act like an “intrapreneur,” that is, to be actively involved in the continuous redefinition of his own job.”

In another example of such matters being criticized, Richard Sennett, professor of sociology at NYU and at The London School of Economics, recently wrote an opus of sociological investigation with his 2008 book, The Craftsman. In it, he explores the meaning of the craftsman through history. Though Sennett does argue that the art of “doing as thinking” in craftsmanship is intrinsic, he does not believe that the craftsman has disappeared over time, rather that the intrinsic qualities have merely shifted into other areas of our economy: the computer programmer, the doctor, the parent, the musician, the chef. However, for those interested in the role of the craftsman through time and what makes them unique, this work is fascinating in its insight.

Matthew B. Crawford states, “Tom Thompson, of Oregon’s Department of Education, says there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that one of the fastest-growing segments of the student body at community colleges is people who already have a four-year degree and return to get a marketable trade skill.” He later goes on to say that 98% of those who graduate get jobs in their first year after finishing.

Though not all college degrees create abstracted job skills, I agree with Crawford’s sentiment that higher education is sometimes failing in its practicality and application. My step-father finds humor in the fact that he graduated with an architecture degree and was asked in one of his first interviews upon graduation, “Do you know how to change a light switch?” Well, he couldn’t. I know myself and a few others in the Building Preservation & Restoration program at Belmont Technical College are attending with previous undergraduate and graduate degrees ranging from history, economics, to theatre. I can’t speak for the others, but it was the specific career-defining move that attending such a trade school creates that drew me here. Dave Mertz, the director of our program, receives more job offers for students in the preservation field than can be filled. There’s a boom right now in the demand for preservation craftsmen as never before. It is heartening to know that at least under the “banner of historic preservation,” our skills are needed and that we should find work for many years to come.

———————————————

Crawford, Matthew B. Shop Class As Soulcraft. (New York: The Penguin Press, 2009).

Follett, Ken. “A Contractor’s View of Craft Training.” 1997: Cultural Resource Management, an online journal from the National Park Service. Volume 20, Number 12.

Mertz, Dave. “The Role of Higher Education in Traditional Trades Training.” From the International Trades Education Symposium, 2009. Web. http://www.iptw.org/iptw09-ites-speakers.htm.

Sennett, Richard. The Craftsman. (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2008).

A Life in the Trades: November 2009

Series introduction. October 2009.

By Nicholas Bogosian

Modeling, Molding & Casting

Molding compounds, long ago, were made from animal by-products. The molds would, in turn, attract all sorts of vermin. The shelf-life of the mold was brief. Today, the mold maker can still be found – in fabrication plants, in art studios, in special effects labs, and in the preservation trades, to name a few.

Since the days of edible molds, we’ve come quite far in our scientific development of more durable and lasting molding materials. Today the mold maker can select from polyurethane and silicone liquid rubbers as well as latex, alginate, and wax. The decision on which to use is not a mere preference, but rather dependent on what material you will be casting with, as well as the shape characteristics of the piece. The litany of casting materials is much more extensive: wax, concrete, plaster, epoxy, polyurethane, polyester, acrylic, and metal. Along with casting material and the shape of the desired piece, there are many other factors to consider before choosing your materials. These considerations can be found in molding and casting materials catalogues.

Model and mold making, for the preservationist, can be one of the few avenues to be creative and artistic, especially if he or she is given a restoration job. Say a Federalist style home has had many occupants through the years and many additions – and say one of those additions was dropped ceilings in a front office for a realtor. After research has been done on the property, it is decided to restore the ceiling to its characteristic decorative plaster ceilings which no longer exist, complete with an elaborate plaster medallion. It is then your job to create the Federalist ornamentation from scratch, with the aid of photographs and diagrams of the period’s style.

In a recent project at Belmont Tech, we were to find some section/piece of decorative architecture (whether in print or in real life), render the example, model the example from clay, create a mold of the model, then cast the mold with plaster.

I found my example out of a Gothic Architecture book – a small section from a c. 1500s woodcarving that encased a window. Then I rendered the photograph into an image that was the size I needed.

paycockehouse

Paycocke's house. Courtesy of Nicholas Bogosian.

Second, with my design, I needed to roll out the clay to get a uniform thickness.

claypress

Clay press. Courtesy of Nicholas Bogosian.

“Tracing” the image onto the clay is done simply by using a modeling “poker” to poke holes in the clay along the lines.

claytrace

Clay Trace. Courtesy of Nicholas Bogosian.

Then the process of carving out the image begins. Here, ready for touchups:

claycarve

Clay Carve. Courtesy of Nicholas Bogosian.

The degree of detail that one pursues on such complex modeling designs will be dependent on the time available, and the placement of the object in the structure. Our professor gave an example of someone trying to remove each and every fingerprint from the clay for an enormous medallion in a historic theatre which will be not only in half-light most of its life, but nowhere near enough its admirers for fingerprints to be seen. And at this rate, the preservation artist ends up making barely twenty-two cents an hour!

Next, a clay dam is created around the model to contain the molding compound as it cures.

claydam

Clay Dam. Courtesy of Nicholas Bogosian.

Because my model had fairly deep crevices, lips, and some delicate shapes, it was best to go for a molding compound which would be soft enough to maneuver from the plaster once cast. I used a 74-30 Polyurethane Liquid Rubber, which has two parts: the 74 classifies the resin and the 30 classifies the hardness. Every molding compound has specific instructions for preparation. The two parts are designed to produce a chemical reaction when mixed, and will only do so if mixed properly. This particular polyurethane was a one to one ratio. The molding compound is poured into the dam and allowed to cure for a day.

moldcure

Mold Cure. Courtesy of Nicholas Bogosian.

Once the mold is retrieved, gypsum casting plaster in powdered form is mixed with warm water till a dip of the finger shows no skin. Once the mold has been sprayed with Spray-Release, the plaster is poured into the mold. The plaster should not sit in the mold for more than a day, as it will be more difficult to remove. The still-wet plaster casting can be removed after a half-hour and left to cure in the open.

plastercure

Plaster Cure. Courtesy of Nicholas Bogosian.

Brush-on molds may also be utilized in pieces which are still attached, such as decorative cornices, capitals, or lion’s heads. In these situations, there would be no way to remove the object, and there would be no need to.

Having the technology of model and mold making makes the preservationist’s job efficient and more cost-effective because of the variety of materials at your disposal. If actual decorative pieces can be retrieved and molded, the modeling step is taken out altogether. Once a mold is created of a single object, it can be duplicated easily for repetitive patterns and used for many years to come.