Sunday, January 27, 2013

Conservation Preservation Restoration

A collector writes;
"I spent several years working as a sign painter and I currently do custom hand painted fire helmet shields. I am also a collector of fire memorabilia and recently I purchased an 1806 fire bucket. I did use a museum quality cleaner on the painted design and it cleaned off a good amount of the dirt but I want to clear (coat) the bucket to not only protect it from any further paint loss but to make the design on the bucket stand out.
What product do you recommend......Do you prefer Damar Varnish or Retouch Varnish? and do you coat then in paint or in paint then coat with retouch varnish.
When there is a significant design left on the bucket and it has become muted wouldn't it be better to just put a varnish on to protect it from any further paint loss?
Thank you, Mike Somma"

p.s. ....the bucket I sent you pictures of belonged to A. Ladd - Alexander Ladd from Portsmouth NH. Born May 9, 1784 ~ Died June 24, 1855 Alexander Ladd was an accomplished writer. He was elected to the State Legislature in 1826-27 and 1830, and held the city offices of Selectman, Fire Ward, and Justice of the Peace, President of United States Bank. On Christmas Eve 1806 (note the date on the bucket is 1806) there was a large fire in Portsmouth Mr. Ladd is credited with having saved items from his church (from the pastors sermon) ‘Our holy and beautiful house, where our fathers praised thee, is burned up with fire.’ Only a few of the pieces of church furniture were saved from the fire, and that by the personal effort of Alexander Ladd, one of the parishioners. The font, the communion silver, one of the Queen Caroline chairs, the books and a few other articles were all.” Alexander Ladd had a brother Henry who had the same buckets made for his home and were decorated the same way - This is the link to the auction photos of those buckets -

Note to readers: Leather fire bucket preservation is a huge topic, one that I cannot hope to answer fully in one blog entry alone. I would have everyone keep in mind that no one preservation/restoration treatment is applicable in every situation, each object will suffer it's own set of preservation issues that need to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. SML

Dear Mike,
   If the bucket is not sluffing material at the touch then my first advice is, "do nothing". It has survived 207 years without our help...the wrong treatment now could hasten it's decomposition. Not having physically examined the bucket I can't comment as to whether or not your cleaning was the right measure to take. I'm not sure what "museum quality cleaner" you used but I can say that the first attempt a professional conservator makes at cleaning a surface is not with a hydrocarbon based solvent. Professional cleaning is done by first testing a small, inconspicuous area with the least volatile of all solvents, distilled water... and no more than a damp Q-tip amount of water at that. If water does not yield appreciable results then the next step up the ladder of solvents is a mild enzymatic solution, namely, human spit. Our own saliva contains mild enzymes that are the first step in the digestion process of food and just so happens to work very well at breaking down common grime. These enzymes stop being active once the moisture has evaporated. This affords a great deal of control in would be a conservation catastrophe to use a solvent that didn't stop activating! No doubt this little trade secret will gross some readers out but to them I would say, even the Mona Lisa has at one time been covered in spit!

To answer your question as to what to apply to the paint now that it's been cleaned; Remember, anything done should be reversible. I would recommend nothing more than applying a micro crystalline wax. The beauty of this wax is that is reversible with an alcohol swab. Should someday this bucket be restored further and in-painting preformed, the conservator will have a simple task of removing the wax with no ill effects. The most easily obtained micro-crystalline wax available goes by the brand name, Renaissance Wax and should be available at any number of sources on line. There are simple instructions to follow on the can.

The best action to take in it's current state is to not handle it any more than is necessary, keep it away from places that experience fast temperature and humidity swings. The best place to keep it is in a cool dry place. Never position an artifact in a window where direct sunlight will hit the object. If you live in a home that has forced air heating and cooling system then take care not to set the object directly in the stream of forced or cold.

Leather, especially painted leather likes the same ideal environment that humans enjoy, not too dry, not to damp, not too hot or cold....aka, the Goldilocks spot!  It's the transition between expansion and contraction that effects the greatest damage to an object and the faster the transition the greater the damage. For example; Lets say you purchase a nice 200 year old painted fire bucket and it's come home with you from a Winter antiques show... Imagine the temperature that day is 10 degrees and the bucket is very cold by the time you get it home. You bring the bucket indoors to 70 degrees and right away you set it on your mantle. What is happening down at the microscopic level is huge stresses are taking place...things are popping and snapping inside the materials of the leather and paint like a microscopic earthquake. If this were to happen only once, the damage would be negligible, but were it to happen over and over again eventually this internal micro destruction will start showing up to the naked eye and the object will be forever compromised resulting in a premature demise. To minimise this sort of transitional atmospheric decomposition one should have the bucket boxed before leaving the antiques show and keep it boxed for a day or two when you arrive home. This 24 hours inside the box will allow a slow atmospheric change of temperature and humidity and will greatly lessen the stress upon the object.  It's very likely that the majority of paint loss and leather deterioration that has effected the bucket illustrated happened when this bucket was stored for many years in a barn, attic, or other such place where temperature and humidity made major swings rapidly on a daily basis.
  Were the leather or paint on your bucket rapidly sluffing off at the slightest touch then nothing short of encapsulating the bucket in a polymer would retard disintegration....but encapsulation should only be considered as the very last resort. Coating, encapsulating or applying "preservatives" to any artifact can drastically alter the appearance of an object and may be impossible to remove and worse, may cause more harm than good in the long run.
  The first law of conservation/preservation/restoration is whatever is applied should be reversible.  All things are in a state of decomposition, even restoration work deteriorates starting from the moment of application. In 10+/- years will the treatment remain stable? Will the polymer or wax or  in-painting applied today darken or change with time? Countless treasures have been lost or ruined over the years by the best intentions of dealers, collectors and even the mistakes of conservators. In my lifetime I have seen leather objects reduced to puddles of goo because the wrong solvent or "preservative" was applied by the well meaning with the best of intentions. I've also seen in-painting that was applied using non-reversible paints that were not only abominations to the eye but were also indelible.

  The most important contribution you have made to insure that this fire bucket will survive many generations to come is the research you've done reconnecting this object with it's human history. Were I a descendant of Alexander Ladd, I would treasure this humble dog eared fire bucket above all others!

In conclusion, I would add that leather fire buckets are in general very stable artifacts and the vast majority of early leather fire buckets I have examined are in very stable condition and with just a modicum of care will be here to be enjoyed for many generations to come. That modicum of care is: Not too hot, not too cold, not too damp, not too dry...and dusted off every so often...just like Goldilocks.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012


A gentleman from England sent me this image of the interior of his fire bucket and asks, "what is this odd looking stuff ?". Answer; Pitch.

Pitch is a viscous substance derived by rendering either bituminous or resinous organic material. Bituminous pitch is a type of raw petroleum tar that can be found throughout the entire world oozing up from the ground. Perhaps the most famous of oozings is the La Brea Tar Pits in California. Another source and a different type of pitch is that which is rendered from the sap of resinous trees such as the Pitch Pine.

The use of all forms of pitch has an ancient history and has been utilized by man since prehistoric times for a plethora of applications. In association with leather drinking vessels and fire buckets, pitch was applied to their interiors as a water-proofing agent. The application process is simple; heat the pitch in a tin melting pot over some coals (or a 5th burner), taking care not to get it too hot as it is combustible. Once the pitch is at its melting point (if its smoking it's too hot) it can be poured directly into the leather bucket. When the pitch touches the leather it cools instantly and adheres. Just a thin coating is all that is needed so when I pitch, I quickly roll the bucket and pour the remaining hot liquid pitch back into the melting pot. It's a juggling act to do it neatly. I do not recommend this for the accident can leave you badly burnt. In ancient times, melted pitch was poured down from castle walls onto attackers with great effectiveness!

In it's raw state, pitch requires some amount of rendering to remove the unwanted volatiles. Once the volatiles are rendered off the remaining pitch can be very brittle, to return it to a plastic state I add approximately 10-15% beeswax. However, even with the addition of wax, pitch can break if the bucket is dropped on a cool day. Ah, here is the brilliant quality of pitch, it can be repaired even by the most feckless of clods! The easiest way is to add more hot pitch but if you're fresh out of pitch, a lit candle passed over the crack can reseal the won't look very tidy but it can be made serviceable again. And this my good fellow is why the interior of your bucket in the photo above looks like such a blubbery mess, it's the result of  many repairs over the past centuries....and it looks just like it should.

You may visit a museum someday and be told that fire buckets were kept filled with sand or water (or both)at all times. If you are told this, the correct response should be to give the docent a sound swat to the back of their head as this information is 100% incorrect. (No, don't swat, I'm only joking...keep in mind they only make minimum wage and it's not their fault, it's the museums fault for not properly training their interpreters). If you want to know the entire story of how fire buckets were used, someone must ask me, (you may use the comment section here on the blog).

Thursday, September 20, 2012

13 Rings

 Here's my most recent creation. The painted design is based upon original artwork found on a fire bucket from the 18th c. The letters within the 13 interlocking rings reads; "Liberty & Peace"...a motto we can all cherish! Each ring has painted upon it the names of the 13 original States. The clasped hands is a design copied directly from an early fire bucket...this handshake holds a secret. This custom bucket is bound for a client in New Hampshire.

 The fire bucket stands about 13" tall at the rim and the handle adds another 7" to the height. The diameter is a little over 9". Inside the rim, under the leather covering, is a steam bent oak stave. All original fire buckets had some sort of internal bent wooden rim to add support to the bucket shape. Later in the late 19th c. there were some makers that used an iron rim or heavy iron wire to support the opening.

 The method of applying the wooden rim to the exterior of the leather bucket and stitching a leather covering over top is a design feature indicative of 18th century made fire buckets. The other common method which came along around the turn of the 18th to19th c., was to fold the sides of the bucket over the wooden rim. I do not see the folded technique appearing on buckets until around the year 1800. By the 1820's almost all makers had assumed the fold-over method of construction. Why? As you see here in the example above, there is an extra line of stitching needed to preform this older style, thus more work. By cutting the leather of the body longer the maker could then simplyy fold the extra length over the rim and save himself the time of cutting a separate piece of leather as well as omit the need for an extra line of stitching. This new technique as far as I have been able to determine is an American innovation and was never adopted by English or European makers.

Illustrated above is an example of an early 19th c. American fire bucket with the fold-over rim method. Note~ only one line of stitching.

 Here is a variant rim construction. Instead of wood, the maker used rope as the core and covered it with leather. It requires two lines of stitching although the top line of stitching is hidden by the way the rim leather is folded. (A small area of the top line of stitching is visible where 1" of rim leather is missing).
  It is possible that this bucket was made in Europe for the American market as every construction detail is performed differently from any English or American bucket I have ever examined. I will expand on this bucket in a later blog posting.

Monday, September 17, 2012

A fire bucket collector recently sent me the following questions and photo;

Dear Sir
Thanks for your reply. I attach photos of the buckets,any comments ,age etc would be much appreciated.
I have gone through my shipping directories and the only possible one I can find with Co and the stop after the 2 names is an American company
Benham Pickering Co
who were working as a shipping agent / owner/broker in 1881/2/3
Whether they were for show,or for use as a fire bucket,I simply dont know. I have looked for a makers stamp/ name but no luck
Thanks for your help
Regards David
Dear David,
  Thank you for writing and sending images.
  I would classify these buckets ( top photo) as prime examples of English made fire buckets, circa 1700-1800, (give or take a few decades). The primary clue that suggests that these are English made is the body shape of the bucket. Early English buckets were, "stout", being almost as wide as it is tall. Almost every bucket I have examined over the past 30+ years that has a solid English provenance exhibits this same profile. This shape of English bucket pre-dates the Great Fire of London (1665) and is still, more or less,  the basic design made in England today, albeit with great difference in construction technique from the early buckets.
 The photo above is a reproduction I made based upon an original fire bucket in the old Greentree Fire Insurance Company corporate museum. The original dates to the 3rd quarter of the 18th c. and bares the rebus logo of the Sun Fire Office, an early London fire insurance firm. You can see the obvious resemblance in shape and construction to your buckets.
 During the 18th c., many leather fire buckets were exported to North American. This was at a time when there were few makers of fire buckets operating in the North American Colonies due to the prohibitions against making and exporting finished goods. Very likely, during the early years of the Republic, the first American makers of fire buckets were English trained and so it stands to reason that the many of the earliest fire buckets actually made in the Colonies would strongly resemble the same form of fire bucket that was most familiar to them. As time went on, fire buckets made in the exColonies diverged from the classic English pattern and took on a more American style. This divergence of pattern was a predictable result of the eventual need for new equipment as with the wooden molds that buckets were formed over. ( you can make a pattern fit a mold but it is very difficult to make a mold properly fit a pattern).  Not only did the basic body shape transform over time, new improvised methods of construction were devised.

 To answer your question about B.P & Co.; Keep in mind that fire buckets were incredibly durable and most outlived their owners. Buckets made in 1750 were often still in useful service a hundred years later. I have found many early buckets that show as many as 3 different painted designs, each design being over-painted by it's subsequent owner. (Note: the majority of buckets had no painted design at all). So, yes...the firm Benham Pickering Co. may have once owned your pair of buckets even though they were operating several decades after these buckets were made. The anchor design certainly suggests that the owner had nautical interests. Fire buckets were certainly still in active use during the 1880's but I believe these buckets of yours pre-date the 1880's by as much as 100 years.

 By the 1820's-30's, traditional methods used in England to construct buckets began to change. No longer were fire buckets entirely held together by hand-stitching but instead copper rivets were substituted for cordage. Considering that your buckets are entirely hand-stitched I speculate that they were made before 1850....and perhaps even as early as 1750.
 The fire bucket I've posted above is a classic example of a 19th c. English made fire bucket. You can see that all of the areas of construction that were traditionally held by cordage (foot, back seam and rim) are now replaced by copper rivets. I doubt that this change made making a fire bucket faster, but it did make it possible for less experienced laborers to preform the construction. Interestingly, copper rivets do not make a stronger or better bucket...just cheaper. 

  I do not believe your buckets, or any historic buckets for that matter, were ever made just for show. It is true that there were very elaborate buckets made in the period, so well crafted and elegantly painted that only a fool would consider fighting a fire with it. In wealthier homes and businesses fine buckets with elegant paintings were hung in conspicuous places, their quality denoting the social status of the owner. In many cities it was law that for X number of fireplaces a dwelling needed X number of buckets. The law then made the fire bucket into a fixture and in fine homes it was common to have fine fixtures.  
  The lettering and the anchor design on your bucket are nice and highly collectible but are not great works of art. In my estimation their painting was applied more for identification of ownership than as a statement of refined taste and lavish embellishment.

My best,
Steven Lalioff

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Benjamin Dammrell

It's been some time since last I posted here on my bucket blog. My apologies. For your enjoyment, I have for you  a new design I've just completed.

The design for the painting was provided for me by my client as a special order. I was pleased to fashion such a handsome bucket. The shape of the bucket is very similar to the historic original bucket. I'm fairly certain the maker of the original came out of the John Fenno shop in Boston sometime during the first quarter 19th c. Fenno was in my estimation the best fire bucket maker in history on any Continent. I try my best emulate his work stitch for stitch.

 The bucket stands about 11.5" to the rim. There is a steam bent stave of ash inside the folded rim of leather. I hand-stitch every part with waxed hemp cord. The leather is steam hardened in the traditional manor of early fire buckets.

If anyone would like to order a bucket of this design please feel free to email me at;

My best,

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Back to blogging

It's been a L O N G Winter and even though there's still 3" of snow on the ground there is a taste of Spring in the air. It's been since September since I last posted anything on my fire bucket blog...I will do my best to be more prolific.

In the meantime, for your viewing pleasure here's a painting of an eagle I did a few years ago. It was ordered as a gift by the friends of a man that did a heroic deed, he saved a life. The inspiration for the design came to me by way of a late 18th c. ceramic painting.

In case you haven't noticed...I really like eagles!

My best,

Friday, September 10, 2010

Raffle Fire Bucket

Starting today and running until November 1st, 2010, there is a non-profit raffle being held at Heathsouth Rehabilitation Hospital in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. The prize for this raffle is the fire bucket (shown above) that I created especially for this fund raising event.

All of the proceeds will be going to support Rehab Vision, the hospital's charitable wing. All of the proceeds will be used to help those patients in great financial need.

Tickets are $10.00 (ten dollars) each. The drawing will be held at the hospital on November 6th, 2010. Deadline for ticket entry is Nov. 1st. Tickets can be purchased by mailing a check to;

Theresa O'Keefe c/o
Rehab Vision
Healthsouth Hospital
175 Lancaster Blvd.
Mechanicsburg, PA 17055
(717) 691-3700 ex.5029

Please include a self-addressed stamped envelope so that you can receive your ticket. You may purchase as many tickets as you like but please remember to return each half of every ticket stub with your name and contact information back to the hospital so that if you do win you can be notified...entry deadline November 1st!

You may use your cancelled checks as a tax deduction as this is a non-profit organization charitable event.

The bucket shape is based upon the design of George Washington's fire buckets, the buckets he purchased in Philadelphia in 1790 for the first Presidential offices. The hand-painted folk-art eagle design is inspired from an original American fire bucket from the early 19th century. It is one of the finest fire buckets I have ever created. The motto upon the ribbon, "Pro Bono Publico" translates from Latin as, "For the Public Good". It is a very traditional verse found on early fire buckets and it holds as true today as then. The bucket is 13" tall to the rim and is an authentic recreation in every detail.

You are welcome to post questions in the comment section of this post.

My best,
Steven Lalioff