Saturday, September 24, 2011

Excavate and sniff!

I’m baaaccckkkk. It’s been well over a month and I wish I had a good excuse for my silence. Believe me, I really wish I had a good excuse for my silence, if only so the Director would stop looking at me with such disappointment and disillusionment in her eyes. I can say with all honesty that there was a space of a couple weeks at the end of August when work came to a screeching halt on the restoration project. #3 was gone. Just gone. We had already said goodbye to #4 in a heart wrenching farewell, heart wrenching for us of course, not so much for #4. We thought they both had gone on to greener pastures, or, perhaps more appropriately, older structures. So imagine my surprise when one fine day #3 and #4 came a’knockin’ on our door. (I didn’t hear them a’knockin’ cause that door is thick. Thankfully they remembered to ring the bell.) And, even better, imagine the surprise of my colleagues when #3 and #4 came a’knockin’. Actually, instead, imagine the horror of my colleagues, horror being the more appropriate adjective to describe their reactions. They had all been lulled into thinking they no longer had to show up at the house to let the workers in at 7am every morning. Restoration work started back up on September 1st. Staff coffee consumption increased starting around September 2nd as did staff grumpiness.

‘What?’ You ask. (Actually, it sounded more like a shriek to me.) ‘Work started up again on September 1st, and you are only posting an entry in the blog today, Saturday, September 24th? Why the delay?’ You ask/shriek again.

First of all, I say to you (holding my head to stop the ringing of my ears caused by your screeches) shrieking questions at me is not necessarily the best way to communicate. It hurts my ears and makes me defensive. (Note my defensive tone.) I’m sorry for the long silence. I’m not proud of it. I would like to say that I suffered a crippling illness or devastating injury to make you feel better, but that would be a lie and though I am many things (some of them quite unsavory), what I am not, is a liar! You deserve the truth. You can handle the truth, and the truth is…over the past month I have been part of a secret government committee working on identifying alternative sources for energy– I don’t want to get anyone’s hopes up, but I will say this…we’re very close to a solution. Now that I’ve made my truthful confession maybe you realize that you were wrong to jump to conclusions (especially given the sensitive nature of what I have been working on) and maybe you could stop shrieking at me.

Needless to say I was thrilled when I was able to pull #3 aside on his first day and coax (read: bully) him into giving me the skinny on what he was doing. #3 is a patient man and, what’s more, he is a patient man with me. The first thing on his restoration work agenda was to finish the restoration work on the remaining windows in the garret – in particular the window sills. Cherry Hill is always full of surprises, and it’s not a place where anything can be done simply and easily – why would it be any different for the restoration? Apparently the damage of one of the windows that #3 was working on was not caused by age or exposure to the elements but instead was caused by an earlier epoxy restoration. Yes, it seems even restoration work needs restoration work at Cherry Hill. #3 was amazed at this “first” in his career. He has never run into a situation like this in all of the buildings he has restored, so he found it quite interesting, and, believe it or not, so did I. But then again, I think it’s pretty clear by now that I’ve developed into a bit of a restoration groupie. The story begins 20 to 30 years ago, when epoxy application in restoration work was in its infancy. As #3 pointed out to me – there is no huge body of literature available today that addresses all of the ways and when, where, why, and how epoxy can be applied. The restoration field of experts is not an overly large one, and information is probably shared mostly by word of mouth. So imagine when epoxy was first being used in the field – when there was no history of best practices for epoxy use - there was bound to be some misapplications or mistakes. Cherry Hill is so fortunate to have an example of this beginner mistake.  (Note my sarcastic tone.)  What #3 found with the old epoxy repair was that the epoxy had been applied as a top coat, as opposed to being used to bond wood together. What happened was that while the top coat was able to keep water out for a while, in the long run it failed. This coat of epoxy trapped moisture inside of the wood.

This is a piece of the window sill that was removed.  The white part is what was once the painted surface of the sill.  Where the chisel is pointing shows the location of the original epoxy application which was just coated over the wood to act as a sealant of sorts. 
The garret window sills were made from yellow pine wood, not oak, which, it turns out, was a very fortunate thing for the windows. Had the sills been made of oak, the oak would have very quickly rotted once it got wet. In addition to the rot, we probably would have got some funky fungus to grow inside of it as well. Yellow pine is a wood of a different sort, namely – it is much more rot resistant then oak. So why wasn’t yellow pine used in all of the windows of the house? While yellow pine may be rot resistant it does not have the same weight bearing qualities that oak does. Oak is a much stronger wood and when it is sealed properly, it will last forever. This explains why yellow pine was used in the windows in the garret, as opposed to the oak used in the windows on the bottom three floors, which have the weight of the house and roof to contend with.

The rotted wood is the dark part of the fragment being held and the still healthy pine is the bottom part.

To restore the window, #3 had to excavate the sill (dig out the rotted wood), and he epoxied “new” yellow pine to the surviving original yellow pine to make the repairs. By “new” yellow pine, I mean 150-year old yellow pine with the right moisture content, originally grown in the northeast, and which Western had a surplus of from another restoration project. So the “new” old yellow pine was epoxied properly to the “old” old yellow pine to restore the window sill which I am happy to report is sloughing off water quite nicely.

Isn't it a beaut?  Look at that new sill and note all of the water sloughing action.  I have no words...I am speechless.
But the truly amazing thing about yellow pine (which is my new favorite wood…hello, haven't we establishe dthis already? Groupie here!) is that, since it is rot resistant, the surviving yellow pine from the original sill is in really good condition. No, you don’t get it. A shaving of the surviving yellow pine which was removed during the restoration still smells like pine. I tell you no lie (for real this time). #3 gave me a sample (to keep!) and I walked around the museum forcing all of my colleagues to “sniff the wood.” At first they thought that was slang for some new street drug, but once it became clear that I literally wanted them to smell a piece of wood, they sniffed and were…whelmed by the significance. (I use whelmed here because they were neither overwhelmed or underwhelmed, they were just… whelmed.) Apparently I’m the only crazy wood sniffer on staff and I now have the wood shaving sitting on my desk. No one will step into my office for fear I will insist they sniff it. But I don’t care how….eccentric…I may seem – I’m sniffing pine (fresh pine) from wood that was cut down over 224 years ago – if you don’t find that impressive, then you are obviously not a restoration groupie like me and, chances are, you’re not too into this blog either!

Pine-sol has nothing on this wood chip.
Any of you who play the Curatorial Curiosity game on HCH's facebook page will recognize this picture.