Wood

On September 20th, the League will host the 2014 Beaux Arts Ball at Weylin B. Seymour’s, an event venue next to the Williamsburg Bridge that was the former headquarters of the Williamsburgh Savings Bank. As part of an ongoing feature in anticipation of the event and in celebration of its theme of Craft, we sat down with restoration artist and wood finisher Scott Holland to discuss French polishing techniques and the current state of his craftWhat follows are excerpts from that conversation.

Scott Holland

I’ve worked with wood my whole life. My dad’s a woodworker. But I was trained to do high-end finishing by a man named Curtis Collins, who was an amazing master finisher out of San Francisco. He was my mentor, and he trained me to do fine finishing and French polish, which is the finishing process I used on the Williamsburgh Savings Bank. Anything in the bank that is wood, I worked on.

I actually got involved with the project because I was working on the masonry restoration in the building with my friend Michelle Quartin. We patched hundreds of cracks or other damage to the limestone. While working on that, I made a proposal to Juan and Carlos to re-finish the wood, too.

Detail of finished President’s Office mantelpiece | Courtesy of Durston Saylor

French polishing is a very old technique where you basically melt shellac flake with denatured alcohol to a certain thickness, which is called the “pound cut.” So, a very thick shellac would be a two-pound cut, which is very tacky and very sticky — no matter what, it’s very sticky. You make a finishing pad, which is a cotton or linen cloth that’s wrapped around wool or another cloth to make a perfect little ball. You put just the right amount of shellac on the end, and you glide it over the wood in tiny little micro-thin layers over and over. It’s a skill just to be able to do that. Once you have the skill to glide the pad over the wood in a very specific way with a very specific pressure and not mar the finish — because if you stop your pad at any point, it’ll leave a big mark and it’s all ruined — it ends up creating a really beautiful gloss finish.

Shellac is basically excretion from the lac bug. The female lac bugs eat tree sap, and they excrete shellac. You find it in lines reaching up the trunks of trees, and it’s harvested, heated, made into big sheets, and cracked. India and Vietnam are big areas for harvesting shellac.

Shellac comes in all different colors — ambers, deeper reds, dark colors. You can add dyes to your finish as well, but I didn’t want to do any of that for the Bank, because that’s not what would have been done originally. So I found different colors of shellac — little button shellacs, dark red, brown, yellow, amber — and used those as dye. When you paint on the shellac, the first layers soak deep into the grain of the wood to color the grain to match the old look. To describe the entire process would take days.

Board Room fireplace before restoration and finishing | Courtesy of Weylin B. Seymour’s

When the Bank project first started, there were layers of paint on all the wood that was about half an inch thick, maybe 32 coats of paint, on places you wouldn’t imagine. The beautiful oak wainscoting that you see in the hallways and in the offices upstairs, the hand-carved walnut fireplaces were all covered in paint. Only the wood in the President’s Office hadn’t been painted. So all that paint was stripped, and then we had to hand sand. That takes the most work, and the most of your shoulder and your body. I do everything by hand; I never use machinery when I do wood polishing. Then, where we needed to, we had to match and repair the wood with new pieces that we made on-site. One of my biggest challenges was making the new construction and the patchwork look exactly like the old.

I really love the President’s Office. It’s just a gorgeous room. And, unless I show you, hopefully you won’t notice that two of the window bays were brand new and re-created on-site with walnut that I matched to look like the rest of the room. There are places like that all over the building, where entire sections of wainscoting, doors, really big pieces, are new and I had to match to the rest of the room.

Detail of finished President’s Office mantelpiece

Almost all the woodwork you see in the main dome area is new, including the 15-foot windows with frosted glass when you first walk in the building. I believe those windows had been part of the original blueprints, but I don’t know if they were made and then taken down, or never made. Those, the vestibule, all the doors leading to the outside of the dome, the doors back to the bathrooms, and the bathroom stalls are all brand new. Making all of that new stuff was a big challenge. There was a brilliant woodworker who built the set of windows, and a company called Peter Pan that made all of the new doors and pieces of the vestibule. They both did an excellent job. And Juan and Carlos had a team of carpenters that had a shop set up in the basement. After they were all done, I would then come in to match the grain and the finish and re-create the look.

The color work is what I’m the most proud of in that building. I’m also proud of the new techniques that I came up with on the job site, some of which I still use. The way I colored the wood, the different consistencies of shellac that I used to build up shellac quickly and do a French polish, even the brushes that we used. And I was given time to do that. I was able to set my crew on the job and then be a mad scientist and work with the new wood there.

It was a really cool thing to do to an entire building. It’s rare to have the opportunity to take a space like that and turn it into something else. And I got to train a lot of people in some really interesting finishing techniques, and they really developed skills while on the project. I had six people working with me at one point, but for most of the project I had three or four people. As a lot of the craftspeople on the project did, I trained people on Juan and Carlos’ team to do some of the work. I almost always need to teach techniques, if I’m going to have a crew, because French polishing — finishing in general — is a rare skill. There are not a lot of really good finishers, surprisingly. But I still needed to be there the whole time. There’s no way I could have said, “here’s how you do it,” and then taken off. When I finished the work in January, I had two people that were getting pretty good, and that was after a year and a couple of months. In the end I think it turned out beautifully.

Detail of finished President’s Office mantelpiece

In America, there’s not really a lot of value for craftspeople. Nobody wants to pay the masters, because you can always hire somebody for forty bucks to do a bad job, and a lot of people are willing to do that. It’s a real shame. You could say that craftsmanship is a dying art. Every once in a while you find a job where people care, and those buildings look amazing. It’s a beautiful thing when people finance a project to actually make something beautiful and consider construction to be an art. It’s not like we all have money to throw around, but I wish more people would put their money into the right places.

In the end, Carlos and Juan did a really great thing. They did everything they could with the money that they had. In a way they got really lucky to have a space like that, because they found craftsmen that were willing to work for less, willing to put in more time, because we all loved the building. We all really wanted to have the opportunity to make that space what it once was, or even better. Everybody took a hit. But I’m really happy with what I was able to do. I mean, I got to refinish an entire building that was handmade in the 1870s using only traditional finishes and original techniques. To be able to put my stamp on that kind of old New York City building, a landmark, something that I’ve seen on the skyline every day for years — it’s just cool. I can walk by that building and know that 75 years, 100 years from now, a small part of that will still be mine.

Detail of finished original woodwork | Courtesy of Durston Saylor

Scott Holland is an independent restoration artist based in Brooklyn. He is also a project manager for high end restoration firm Opus Architectural Arts.