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Historic Restoration of Vault Doors Requires an Artist's Hand

Damaged Vault Door - Prior to Restoration (click to enlarge)Historic restoration requires not only a knowledge of techniques from the past but also the ability to execute the work as skillfully as the original craftsman. Over the past 15 years I've had the privilege of being involved in many historic restoration endeavors.

One such project I undertook for restoration specialists AE Design Associates and Wattle & Daub Contractors was the stately 1910 Logan County Courthouse in Sterling, Colorado where the requisite bag of tricks included not only signage but a challenging gamut - from repairing & faux-finishing marble to applying a copper patina finish on intricate lamp posts. One of the more enjoyable aspects of the project involved restoring about a half dozen vault doors, some of which had suffered the abuse of time, natural elements and insensitive past practices.

Unfortunately, a restoration attempt had already been made by someone on one of the doors before we were brought into the project and it illustrated the indispensable place of the craftsman. (Hey, this is all about me after all!) That particular door had been stripped clean, sprayed with automotive paint and then subjected to vinyl lettering and graphics applied to "simulate" the original design.

There simply isn't a way to duplicate the nuanced hand of a sign artist through the use of vinyl lettering as the three photos below help illustrate. The picture on the left shows the condition of one of the vault doors before restoration: flood-water damaged, portions missing, etc. The middle photo is a door where "restoration" was attempted by someone using computer-cut vinyl. The photograph on the right is a door I restored by hand lettering.

Before Restoration (click to enlarge)

"Restored" by someone with Vinyl (click to enlarge)Restored with Hand Lettering (click to enlarge) 


Some of the significant factors, apart from the call for authenticity, are the need to match original colors, split-shaded drop shadows, the use of gold leaf on portions and the variation & character of hand-executed lettering, striping and graphics. The computer-aided vinyl option simply lacks character & authenticity.

OK, so this is pretty much a no-brainer, but sometimes it's interesting to look at the difference side by side.

Now I realize my past few posts have combined as a sort of diatribe against technology and could give the appearance of an unrealistic sentimentalization of the past. In an upcoming post I'll highlight many of the real benefits technology brings to the sign and graphic arts arena. Stay tuned!


Reader Comments (2)

Just saw your site... And you are right, there is a big difference between new techniques and older ones before,
But having said that new techniques can look pretty good depending on the skill of the individual!
I am always interested in old stuff and love to see how they are restored!
Thanks for sharing..

December 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAlphonso

Hi Alphonso,

I appreciate your comment I'm glad you found this post to be interesting.

Your point that some new techniques can be effectively used by a skillful individual in some situations is well taken. After all, we're always working on improving and often a newer tool or technique will work better than an older one!

The point I am making here is that where an authentic restoration is called for, there is no way to even come close to it with new technologies: a computerized "font" or pinstripe won't match the particular style of a sign painter; genuine gold leaf can't be computer generated; matching colors is only possible with an artist's eye & hand, etc.

The comparative photos above demonstrate the futility of trying to do such a restoration with new technologies and the necessity of having a skilled craftsman do the work.

Appreciate your thoughts!


December 9, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Seese

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