Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Finishing a pew

Last week Spike's blog post highlighted the completed pews being installed in chapel car 5 Messenger of Peace.  This project included the process of thoroughly documenting the original railroad car pew design and making 10 replicas for exhibit in the Messenger of Peace. This week we are illustrating a little more detail about what was involved in finishing the pews.

First of all, OB Williams did an awesome job of fabricating the pews.  They arrived sanded and all ready to accept finish.  There was some minor sanding involved to catch a few imperfections, and then a thorough vacuuming and wiping to remove wood dust and any other contaminates.  The first of seven to nine coats of shellac was applied using a bristle brush.  (The Museum has experimented with air application of shellac, and the results have not been consistent.  So most finish work is done with a brush.)

One of the most obvious changes that occurred in making the replicas was the color and apparent texture transformation from unfinished wood to finished wood.  Just one coat of shellac deepens the color of the wood and begins the process of sealing.  Initially, the surface feels rough.  Light sanding with 400 grit sandpaper - and more sanding with 220 grit if flaws are found - renders the surface smooth.  However, a unique characteristic of shellac is that is can be redissolved in alcohol.  So any subsequent coats are bonded to the earlier coats.  And subsequent coats can benefit from presanding, but it is not required.

Each pew component was finished separately.  When 7 coats had been applied, the finish was evaluated for consistency.  If any flaws were detected, they were corrected with sandpaper - or, sometimes even 0000 steel wool - and another coat of shellac was applied.  The process was repeated again if necessary. 

A beneficial characteristic of shellac is that it dries very quickly.  However, particularly after several coats have been applied, it must sit for a day or more to fully harden.  If subsequent coats are applied too soon, the surface will wrinkle and it is difficult to correct.  Notwithstanding, the pew project is now nearly complete and the results can be viewed through the chapel car's sanctuary door during regular hours of the Train Shed.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

There is a pew in the chapel car

The odor of the day was . . . ethanol, which was used to dissolve shellac flake.  Specifically, a 2.5 pound cut, which is 2.5 pounds gossamer shellac flake per gallon of ethanol.  This was the finish that historically was applied to the white oak surfaces in chapel car 5 Messenger of Peace, and this year was mixed and applied to new pews for the sanctuary.

Shellac is an ancient technology that has been used for hundreds of years, and was widely used until the 1930s when it was replaced by nitrocellulose lacquers. Today, even the lacquers have been supplanted by newer and more forgiving finishes.  However, shellac is easy to mix, straight-forward to apply, and it dries very quickly.  To mix workable amounts of shellac, Spike began with 22 ounces of thin flake shellac.  The flake was place in a jar and mixed with 99% ethanol to bring the total volume to 64 fluid ounces.  The resulting solution was filtered to remove contaminants and was applied to the pews with a premium bristle brush.  A total of seven coats were applied to the new pews.

Chapel car 5 Messenger of Peace is a rare surviving example of a 19th Century Barney and Smith all-wood passenger car, and a fine example of a mobile church built for the American Baptist Publication Society. It was donated to the Northwest Railway Museum by the Hodgins Family in 2007, and by 2009 it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a Nationally-significant property.  Much of the rehabilitation was conducted between 2011 and 2013 by a team of shipwrights and other artisans, but a selection of accurate replica pews could not be fully completed until now.  

Before the chapel car was adaptively reused as a road side diner, and then a cottage, the Messenger of Peace had special Barney and Smith-built railroad car pews. Unfortunately, they were removed and disposed of back in 1948, but an identical pew from a sister car made it into the collections of the American Baptist Historical Society. The fine staff of their archives allowed Spike to take measurements, make drawings, and create templates, which were used by a mill work firm to make accurate replicas.  In June, Spike gave you a glimpse of the pew components as they were completed in the shops of architectural mill work specialist OB Williams in Seattle.  Next week Spike will publish an inside look at the finishing project.

The project was made possible with the generous support of many partners including the Nysether Family Foundation, the American Baptist Home Missions Societies, the American Baptist Historical Society, The National Society of the Colonial Dames of America in the State of Washington, and contributions from dozens of individuals.  The Northwest Railway Museum and its Volunteers, Trustees and Staff are exceptionally grateful for this support.