Monster Iron Artifacts

by Paul Gates

Paul Gates showing the anchor stock to be conserved
Paul Gates showing the anchor stock to be conserved (photo: Tom Larsen)

In addition to preserving small artifacts such as grapeshot rounds, nails, and tools, the archaeologists at the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum’s Conservation Lab also work on much larger objects. Anchors, cannons, and mechanical parts constitute this group of cultural resources. While the methodology of conservation remains the same, we are required to adapt our techniques with these “monster” artifacts. This is the norm regardless of whether it is made of iron, glass, wood, or composite materials.

A few projects that we are involved with right now include a mid-18th Century swivel gun, a stock-bar from a 19th Century folding anchor, and a curved bracket from an early 20th Century ferry. Since these artifacts are made of iron, they need to go through electrolysis in order to remove any layers of rust that have developed on the surface. Due to the sizes of these artifacts, some measuring in at over five feet long, they require a tank that is large enough to accommodate them. We also have to be aware of adhering to proper ventilation procedures due to the amount of hydrogen produced during the electrolysis process.

Cannon in water tank
Cannon in water tank, awaiting electrolysis (photo: Tom Larsen

Electrolysis separates water, or H2o. This is done by generating a small electrical current of 5 volts with a battery charger in a 5% solution of sodium carbonate and water. The negative terminal is connected to the artifact and the positive terminal is connected to a mild steel screen. While the process is working, the oxygen is attracted to the steel screen and the hydrogen is attracted to the artifact. In effect the hydrogen bubbles in between the good metal and rust, thus helping to remove corrosion. Hydrogen is highly flammable and can ignite with just a small spark, especially if it is produced from a large source. When a proper tank has been assembled, we can then place the artifact in and allow electrolysis to work. The use of picks, scrapers, and good old fashioned elbow grease will help to scale back any other rust on the surface of the object. Three coats of tannic acid are applied, which helps to stabilize iron by effectively halting further corrosion. A bath of hot wax is then used where the object is submerged in a microcrystalline wax heated to 300 degrees Fahrenheit. This dehydrates the artifact by forcing any moisture out and coats it in a protective sealed layer of wax.

When the dehydration is complete, we ensure that both the pre- and post-documentation work is done. This involves photography, scaled drawing, and detailed notes concerning the conservation process. If the artifact is part of our collection, we label it and store it for future exhibition. If it is a contract job, we package it and ship it back to whomever contracted us.  Then, we start setting up for the next artifact.

Paul Gates
Paul grew up in Boise, ID and came to Vermont in 2003 for his undergrad degree in History and a minor in Archaeology with a focus on Medieval society and culture at UVM.  He started volunteering at LCMM in winter of 2008 as a Collections Management intern and then did intern work in the Conservation lab.  He joined the ranks of the paid staff in the winter of 2010.  He is currently the Assistant Chief for Charlotte Volunteer Rescue Squad and serves as a Board Member for the 1675 Foundation.

Notes from the Boatshop: Gig building and repair

by Nick Patch

Eight students from the Diversified Occupations (D.O.) program at the Hannaford Career Center in Middlebury, Vermont are coming to the LCMM boat shop four days a week through May to build a 32’ pilot gig.  They are accompanied by D. O. teachers Wendy Lynch, Betsy Stine and Jim Doolan. LCMM boat builders Nick Patch and Andrew Lang are the boat shop instructors. This boat, the thirteenth rowing gig built at LCMM will be launched on May 19th.   To see what the students go through, take a look at this article from Wooden Boat Magazine, highlighting the program. The gig will be added to the LCMM Champlain Longboats fleet which provides in-school and after school programming for over 400 regional students annually.  Let us know if you have questions, want to volunteer or just want to come out and see the action.

Lianna Tennel and John Woodbury underneath Triton
John Woodbury and Lianna Tennal prepping Triton for repair (photo: Nick Patch)

Volunteers Jon Woodbury and Lianna Tennal have been working on the 32’ pilot gig Triton in the LCMM boat shop. We are replacing her garboard planks, originally made with white pine, with 9mm Sapele marine plywood. This is a method we have adopted to eliminate issues around cracking garboard planks. Maintenance on our fleet of eleven gigs is ongoing simultaneously while we build a new boat and volunteers, students and staff work on fleet maintenance in addition to new construction.

Nick Patch
Nick has worked for the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum since 1994. He initiated and directs both the Champlain Discovery Program (5 week summer kayak building/paddling program for teens) and Champlain Longboats (boat building / rowing program). Prior to working at LCMM Nick ran his own boat repair and restoration business on Lake Champlain, Patch and Co. Boat Repair.

Winter Coverings

by Tom Larsen

Every winter the time comes when the snow falls and the boats must be buttoned up for the winter.  Each boat has its own particularities for covering – some only need a quick wrapping with a tarp (the pilot gigs), others must have an entire structure built over them which is then covered with a particular type of plastic (the Lois McClure).

Recently, Erick Tichonuk and I covered the C.L.Churchill, currently residing in the Shelburne Shipyard.  It was a fairly straightforward procedure, and pretty exemplary of what we do with most of our bigger boats.  It took most of a morning, one ladder, 100′ of rope, 2 tarps, one box of screws and a handful of 2x4s.

The C.L. Churchill peeks through a cluster of boats in Shelburne Shipyard
The C.L. Churchill peeks through a cluster of boats in Shelburne Shipyard (photo: Tom Larsen)

The first task with covering the tug is finding it. Since Shelburne Shipyard graciously continues to donate the winter storage space for the Churchill, they put it wherever it fits best.  This means that when we come to cover it, we usually spend a minute searching through the yard to locate it.

Once the boat is located, the materials are laid out.  A quick once over of the procedure is done, and we dive in.  First the frame goes together.  This often involves much head scratching and “How did we do this last time?” type of questions.  All of the frameworks are custom made, and not many have any plans for them.  Most of the parts have been labeled (“Churchill Cabin Top 2 Front of Stack” for example) but on some the labels have faded, and some have been replaced and not labeled.  After much test fitting and questioning, the frame is screwed together and ready for a tarp to cover it.

Erick finishes the framework on the C.L. Churchill
Erick finishes the framework on the C.L. Churchill (photo: Tom Larsen)
Getting the tarp secured
Erick getting the tarp all the way secured (photo: Tom Larsen)

For the Churchill, we used two 20×30′ tarps.  Since the boat is only 33′ long and sitting very high off the ground, we had the 30′ dimension going over it, wrapping it like a present.  The two tarps allowed the smoke stack to stick through with no drama (no need to cut a hole out for it), and still achieve good cover over the whole boat.  Stretching these tarps out and hauling them up over a framework is always a bit tricky, especially if there’s any kind of wind.  The tarps are more than happy to try and turn the tug into a sailboat.  After some struggling, quick thinking, and a bit of near flight, the tarps are securely fastened to the cradle supporting Churchill.  Final lacing makes sure that the tarps won’t get caught by odd wind shifts, and yet it will still be possible to get into the boat, should the need arise.

Tom Larsen