Digest>Archives> Nov/Dec 2015

Volunteers Tackle Window Restoration at South Fox Island

By Karen Wells

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The 1868 South Fox Island Lighthouse and ...
Photo by: John Wells

South Fox Island is one of the prettiest islands on the Great Lakes. It is part of a series of islands that includes South Manitou, North Manitou, North Fox and Beaver Islands in northern Lake Michigan with high dunes on its west shore. But, at 17 miles offshore, restoration projects are a challenge. Materials and volunteers transit by boat, set anchor, offload to a dingy, climb ashore onto rocks, and then trek up a steep hill.

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Offloading window sash to the shore.
Photo by: Karen Wells

In the spring of 2014 volunteers challenged themselves to find a project that could be done partially onshore to allow more volunteers to participate in the restoration of the 1867 school-house style lighthouse. After some research, they discovered that the Michigan Historic Preservation Network (MHPN) and the State historic Preservation Office (SHPO) sponsor windows workshops. Five of their volunteers participated along with others from around the state. Between the workshop and follow up sessions, fifteen wooden sashes were stripped of paint and old glazing, reconditioned, glass panes replaced as necessary, new glazing installed, primed and painted. They were able to save much of the original “wavy” glass from the 19th century.

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A volunteer glazing one of the windows.
Photo by: John Wells

A few of the additional sash were restored “on island” during their reinstallation trips this past summer. The final sashes are onshore being rehabbed and will be installed during the 2016 season.

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Installing one of the tower windows.
Photo by: John Wells

Restoring windows is time-consuming and a bit tedious, but they soon realized that most people could learn how to do it, provided they had the patience. Cleaning up the sash was the toughest part. They tried a steam box but were disappointed when the heat broke several panes of the historic glass. They also tried chemical strippers, but, in the end, they found out that elbow grease and a sharp carbide scraper worked the best.

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Looking out from one of the newly installed ...
Photo by: Karen Wells

However, at least one skilled carpenter was needed on the team. Some of the sash had rotten wood that needed to be replaced. Others were simply loose and only had to be squared up and re-glued. Most were held together with wooden pegs, confirming their historic age. The group also used wood filler on dings and dents to minimize the chance of water being held in incursions and causing future rot issues.

Once repairs were done, they treated the sash with linseed oil. The weathered wood often soaked up multiple coats. This is particularly critical on surfaces where glazing compound will be used or the wood may soak up the oil in the glazing compound and cause pre-mature failure. On the recommendation of Steve Stier, the windows workshop instructor, the volunteers used Allback linseed oil-based glazing compound and external paint both for authenticity and durability and it is solvent-free and is made from organic flax seed and claims to be “50 year paint.”

The windows look great from the outside. But, even more importantly, for the first time in 40 years, the lighthouse now has light inside! Previously, many of the windows were covered with plywood, requiring the volunteers to work in semi-darkness.

It’s was a rewarding project for the volunteers, one that had a high impact at a relatively modest cost. If you are interested in learning more about their project, please see their Facebook postings for South Fox Island Lighthouse Association or on their website at www.southfox.org.

This story appeared in the Nov/Dec 2015 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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