Vanduzen & Tift 16" x 22" dia bronze bell
April 30, 2010 at 3:08 pm #11429
I am an exhibit designer working for the Masonic Home for Children in Oxford, NC. currently in the process of putting together a historical timeline display of the buildings, grounds, staff and overall evolution of the facility. The orphanage has three old bells that had been used primarily to signal the children and staff about when to go from one activity to the next during the day, ‘Life by the bell’ as the older alumni call it. I have taken on the cleaning and restoration of one of the bells to use in the gallery space we are now working on and realize that I don’t know very much about doing this correctly.
This bell has a date of 1873 cast into one of the top bands along with the Vanduzen & Tift name and the Buckeye Bell Foundary – Cincinnati foundry location. The bell has a large hole in top where the yoke bolts through to the clapper hub. It is in pretty good shape although there are many dents and some chips out of the lower edge from poor handling in the past. The yoke is in good shape but the clapper attachment hub has been broken and repaired at some point.
It has a fairly recent coating of what looks like silver metal roofing paint as a top coat but has what seems to be an older and much thicker layer of a metallic paint or coating of some type under the recent silver. I’m wondering if in it’s original state – delivered from the factory – would the bell have been natural bronze finish or would it have been painted. In it’s present state, the bronze bell has many pits and small casting flaws and appears to never have been smooth or polished although there are machine/lathe marks clearly evident on the surface of the bell. After working on cleaning the top paint off, I convinced myself that the older and thicker paint was put on by the foundry as a way to fill the pits in the casting and to make it more presentable to the purchaser. This older coating is very difficult to remove and has a very metallic feel to it, almost like it contains a lot of lead or zinc to make it work better as a weather proof filler.
In an earlier renovation project at the Orphanage – someone else had cleaned up one of the other bells and was able to polish it to a very smooth brass finish. I was expecting to do something similar with this larger bell but now don’t think I should or even could if I wanted to. The metal alloy doesn’t seem to be the same – it is not yellow brass and is far too rough to polish without a lot more sanding or machining to get the surface as smooth as it would need to be to polish.
I have just about settled on getting the bell clean and brushed down to the older coating and given up on the idea of polishing it. I will clean and paint the yoke, clapper hub and clapper and leave the overall bell finish wire brushed – looking mottled dark bronze
Can you give me some general info about how this bell might have looked new from the factory? Have I made up this idea of a metallic filler coat and if so should I keep working on it to get it off and back down to natural bronze?
May 1, 2010 at 12:53 am #15746hjlong3Participant
The exterior would have been cast bronze and allowed to develop a natural patina. These bells were cast in a fireclay mold that would have been finely porous and left a smooth, matte finish. It would not be able to hold a high polish without additional machining or buffing of the surface bronze to a mirror finish. The interior may have been machined if the bell were tuned. There should never have been paint or any other coating applied to it. If you have removed the paint down to the base metal, that is as far as you should take it. If the remaining material is a paint of some sort, it is safe to apply a good paint remover such as Strip-Ease. If you buff it with a brush, use a bronze wire wheel or brush as this will not scratch the bell to the degree that a steel brush will do. If the base metal has a nice, even brown or greenish patina, I would not polish it any further as the patina is a natural protective coating. Polishing it to a fine luster will require buffing a layer of patina and bronze off of the bell, and if it is left out in the weather, it will quickly redevelop a patina.
Harry Long, MD
May 1, 2010 at 1:55 am #15747
Thanks for your return comments on this bell. I suppose what I have been referring to (mistakenly) as a filler coating on the casting is actually the patina which I didn’t think could be so thick or so difficult to clean off. I have used a wire wheel to get down to the base metal in some places but not evenly over the whole surface because it just was too hard to get off. The top coat of paint came off easily but the patina was a different story.
I would guess that this bell has been machined both inside and outside judging by what looks like lathe tool cut marks on the faces. I would be very interested in seeing photos of the turning process. This machining must represent some early template following cutting techniques and must have been done on some big lathes.
I’d hoped to attach some pictures to this comment but the attachment uploading function is not working. I have reduced these images to 160K jpgs but still no luck. ‘The board attachment quota has been reached’ I guess that means no pictures.
Once reassembled, this bell will be displayed inside so it will not regain its patina anytime soon. I have been intending to put a semigloss or matte clear coat on the bell just to help keep it from getting finger printed, this might also be unnecessary.
Since polishing is no longer something that makes sense and both I and the client like the way it looks better in this less finished condition, I guess I am finished with the refinishing on this. One further question if you have time. Does the date on the bell always refer to the date when the bell was cast or does it refer to an older patent date or something else?
May 2, 2010 at 4:29 am #15748
What you have taken to be lathe marks (from machining after casting) are actually sweep marks from when the mold for this bell was made. None of the American bellfoundries were tuning their bells at such an early date, and most of them never did.
For cast bronze bells, the year (when present) is always the year of casting. That’s partly because the mold is single-use; it has to be broken to get the bell out of it after it’s cooled.
For cast steel bells, the year (when present) is typically on the cast iron yoke, not on the bell itself. In that case, it’s most likely a design or patent date, because molds for cast iron are re-usable.
May 2, 2010 at 11:46 pm #15749
Carolyn – Thanks for getting my pictures loaded and let me know if you saw anything about them that caused them not to work when I tried to load them through the attachment link.
Carl Scott Zimmerman – thanks for your comments in info. Here’s a little more background: The Masonic Home for Children in Oxford, NC was called the Oxford Orphan Asylum when it was founded in 1873 by the Grand Lodge of Masons in Raleigh, NC. The Masons purchased land that had a large building on it that had been originally been St John’s College for young men before the Civil War. It seems very coincidental that the bell has the same date as the founding of the Orphanage and seems reasonable to think that the bell may have been ordered for the opening of the new institution.
The original St Johns College building was a substantial 3-story brick structure that had a central tower that may have had a bell in it before the conversion of the facility to an orphanage. It’s likely that ‘Life by the bell’ would have been the routine for the young men at the college just as it became for the Orphans later on. As always, unraveling the history of an artifact that has been through so much change will probably be impossible. We should probably feel fortunate that the bells didn’t go off the the scrap year long ago. The photos I have of the original building all have the top of the tower cut off (out of the frame) so I don’t know what it looked like. I will look for a full image and report all this newly acquired info to the archivist I’m working with on the project. There may be records of the purchase of the bell held by the Grand Lodge Masons in Raleigh.
It’s interesting to know that the bell was probably not machined although I’m a little disappointed that I won’t be seeing any photos of bells being machined on big old lathes. The inside of this bell has a much heavier coating of paint than the outside and I have not attempted to clean the inside yet. The lower inside edge is fairly sharp and so looked to me like it may have been turned but I can certainly see that it could have been cast at that level of finish. How could I tell if were machined as a way to tune it? When you say ‘sweep’ marks on the mold surface, I’m assuming that you’re referring to the trace lines left by some type of template that swept the inside and outside surface of the pattern used to make the mold halves. We’re bronze bells produced with what is known as ‘lost wax’ or ‘investment’ casting? If so what were the patterns made of? It would seem like there would have been sufficient demand for bells of this size to make it worth using a quantity production technique like conventional sand casting.
Thanks again for your comments and experience.
May 5, 2010 at 1:39 am #15750hjlong3Participant
This polished bell in black bracket is a railroad bell. It has been polished for interior display. The Van Dusen & Tift bell can be polished to that degree if you plan to display it indoors, but if it is to go outdoors, it will quickly develop a protective patina and is not worth the effort to polish it.
Harry Long, MD
May 5, 2010 at 1:51 pm #15751
Photos of the casting of bells at modern foundries are available from several of the bellfoundry Websites. (One starting point is http://www.gcna.org/data/IXfoundriesCtry.html.) You can also find information about casting materials at some of them.
“Template” is correct. They come in pairs – one for the inside profile of the bell and one for the outside – and are often called “strickle boards” or simply strickles. They are used to make sure that the bell is rotationally symmetrical and of uniform thickness. The outside strickle is usually visibly notched to produce the bead lines (or moulding wires) which are the simplest form of exterior decoration. Some bellfounders also added very tiny notches at regular intervals to produce alignment markings for the addition of lettering to the mold, for the maker’s standard inscription and for any custom inscription that might be ordered.
Reusable molds for a bell shape do not permit bead lines or the application of lettering. That is why almost all cast steel bells (e.g., farm bells) are totally blank. (Occasionally you will see one with a size number or similar marking on the top of the shoulder or on top of the sound bow. Those don’t interfere with the separation of mold and bell.)
The lost wax process was used in medieval times with actual wax, when a bell mold was essentially a single piece. Most bellfounders sooner or later switched to a similar process using a false bell made of other materials and constructing a two-part mold; after it was baked, the parts were separated, destroying the false bell; the parts were rejoined for casting of the actual bell. Most modern bellfounders have taken the process one step further, making the inner and outer parts of the bell mold separately, so that no false bell of any kind ever exists. But even at the height of demand for bronze bells, a century ago, there was not enough demand for specific sizes to make reusable molds worthwhile. Sand casting techniques have been used by some modern carillon builders for small bells (10 to 100 lbs, roughly), but the older techniques remain the best for large bells.
Old American bells can be tuned, though there is no reason to do so except in the case of a chime (several bells together, for playing tunes). When they are, they will look like modern bells on the inside, with distinct bands of coarse marks where the machining was done. That is unmistakably different from the faint markings left over from forming a mold.
May 6, 2010 at 12:54 am #15753
Harry Long and Carl Zimmerman – thanks again for your comments.
I was told today that this smaller polished bell was thought to be a railroad bell so someone else may have done some research on this before I came to the project. The Vanduzen and Tift bell I’m working with will not get polished to this degree, I’m fairly sure that it never was polished so we’re planning on leaving it in a rougher, brushed bronze condition even though it will be displayed indoors. I picked up a little more info on the V&T bell today, It did come out of the St John’s College building in the photo I sent last time but was not in the central tower of the building (cut off in the photo) The bell was mounted under a small shelter on the roof on the left end (facing) of the building. Apparently the central tower housed the water supply tank for the building – an early gravity fed indoor plumbing system. When the building was demolished, the V&T bell was removed and mounted on a short brick tower outside, then taken down and stored in a barn on the grounds until the recent renovations began and someone came to the project who thought the bells were worth saving.
On your comments about the templates or ‘Strickle boards used to control the shape of the bell: I’m still not sure I understand whether the strickle boards are shaping the mold halves or are they shaping a positive bell form like an investment casting core. I can see now why the reusable patterns for steel bells could not have any decorative detailing which would prevent them from being pulled out of the mold halves.
There is one more bell at the Orphanage that I will get photographs of next week. Up until last week I had not paid much attention to any of them but have now become much more interested in knowing something about them – thanks mostly to your comments and the basic education I’ve gotten from the Bell Talk web site.
May 6, 2010 at 5:00 am #15752
Here’s an article about how bronze bells are made:
The next to last photo shows a strickle board being used to shape the outside profile of a false bell. Note that it’s fastened to a spindle which is the central axis of the bell, so that the strickle rotates around that axis.
July 28, 2010 at 3:30 pm #15745TowerguyMember
You could sandblast the bell with a glass bead media. It will not damage the bell in any way or remove enough bronze to be even noticeable. We use a special buffing wheel to polish it off afterwards. If there seem to be globs of dis-similar metal filling holes this is probably lead. Bell foundries used to put globs of lead in casting imperfections.
Here is a picture of a bell that has a similar alloy mixture that has been blasted and polished. We typically spray some aerosol clear-coat on to retard the patina.
August 10, 2010 at 6:00 am #15754Neil GoeppingerParticipant
This is a bit of a Johnnie Come Lately comment, but I have removed the patina from a bronze bell with a lot of hard work and dirty clothes using Navel Jelly on small areas about one foot square, then scrubbing in off after a few minutes of the Navel Jelly acid working using a medium brass bristle brush like a charcoal grill brush and washing it with generous amounts of gasoline while I use the brass brush. You WILL get dirty. After that you can polish the bell with automobile rubbing compound (liquid) and a high speed buffer with a sheeps wool head. It takes lots of time too. Many bells are better left in their natural patina state, as long as the patina is attractive.
In your pictures, the smaller bell is a brass railroad engine bell, and brass takes a higher polish than bronze. The Vanduzen bell, of course, is bronze. The advantage of the bronze bell is that is has a much nicer tone than the shrill sound of a brass bell, so you’ve got a trade off. One of your bells polishes up smoother and brighter, and the other sounds better. — Neil
August 10, 2010 at 2:40 pm #15757TowerguyMember
Wow. That seems like quite a bit of work Neil! Not sure I recommend using ‘generous amounts of gasoline’ right before using a buffer with an electric motor, you might Wiley E. Coyote yorself.
August 11, 2010 at 1:48 am #15755
TowerGuy – That’s a beautiful bell and a great job of refinishing. I know it was a lot of work, having been through the somewhat superficial clean-up I did on the VanDuzen and Tift I had to work on. I figured out pretty quickly that I had a bronze bell and not a brass bell so did not get carried away trying to polish it to the degree of the railroad bell that was refinished for the other exhibit gallery. Our clients were happy with the basic wire brushing I did and there was no need to go any further. I did learn a little about repairing cast iron in the process. The ‘A’ stand support legs were both broken and had been made much worse by some earlier welding attempts. A machinist friend of mine has had some experience welding cast iron and was able to weld the original pieces back together where we had them and to replace some of the broken and lost parts with mild steel where there were pieces missing. The secret is a high-nickel allow welding rod which is not difficult to find but something most people with simple stick welders don’t need or know about. The Bell has been mounted on a pedestal at the head of a historical ‘time line’ display in one of the galleries at the Masonic Home for Children in Oxford, NC. I will be adding some basic information about the bell to the display, including some of the things I have learned on this forum. [attachment=0:xsx7qo4u]TmLnFrntBell.jpg[/attachment:xsx7qo4u]As I mentioned in an earlier post, there are three bells in the archives at the Orphange, the third one is shown below. [attachment=2:xsx7qo4u]HnryMcshn1.jpg[/attachment:xsx7qo4u] It is missing its support stand, so far I have not seen any trace of it, not even pieces. The bell once was mounted on the tower shown and looks to have had some interesting, curvy cast iron legs. [attachment=1:xsx7qo4u]HnryMcshn2.jpg[/attachment:xsx7qo4u] Thanks again to everyone who has commented on this project. I have enjoyed the learning that has gone with this repair.
August 11, 2010 at 1:58 am #15756
I’m adding a second post so I can get in a larger picture of the finished VanDuzen and Tift bell and the TimeLine display – thanks – Craig
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