As the reshingling of Comstock House began, we found a few old shingles with a faint maker's mark stamped on the back:

* A *

This discovery resolves a question from this blog's very first post re: the "Star A Star" shingles that architect Brainerd Jones demanded in his specifications. Sure enough, here were old cedar shingles with exactly that marking. But they weren't white cedar, as Jones indicated -- which raises the possibility that the contractor sneaked in a lesser-quality product.

Although Jones specified Eastern white cedar, Western red cedar shingles were used instead. It was likely a cost and availability issue; white cedar mills were far away in the upper Great Lakes area and New England. White cedar shingles are remarkably light individually, but the weight adds up quickly when they are applied; expect about 1 sq ft. of coverage equal to 1 lb. of shingles. Now multiply that by the size of this house, and imagine all those tons of shingles being shipped thousands of miles. By rail. In 1904. That may have been too much of a strain on Mr. Oates' deep pockets, despite his boast that "nothing that money and taste can provide will be omitted in making it a comfortable and attractive home." By contrast, the red cedar mills in Washington state were regularly sailing boatloads of wood into the San Francisco ports, according to shipping notices in newspapers of the day. Western red cedar was far cheaper and readily available. Plus all "* A *" shingles were of comparable quality, right?

The 1924 "Lumber Inspection Rules" manual shows both Western red and Eastern white shingles had star-A-star grades. White cedar had three basic classifications: "Extra star-A-star" at the best, followed by "Standard star-A-star" and finally, "Sound Butts" grade. But the manual says that red cedar had no fewer than seven first-class grades -- and the kind used on Comstock House were the lowest. The best-quality red cedar shingle were called Royals, followed by Perfections, Eurekas, Perfects, Extra Clears, Extra Star-A-Stars 5/2, and finally Extra Star-A-Stars 6/2. (The x/2 refers to thickness at the bottom, or butt end, of the shingle: 6/2 meant that each shingle was 1/3 of an inch at the thickest, and thus six of them made a pile 2" tall.)

Note that these rules are from a reference book twenty years later; it's possible that when Comstock House was built, the red-westerns had only three grades, like the white-easterns. Or maybe it was presumed that star-A-star really meant, "sidewall grade," regardless of type of wood. It's really a quibbling point, except for speculating whether Oates was gypped; even if these are bottom-first-class grade shingles, they have weathered remarkably well -- cupping and warping aside, the things are still (mostly) in place and (mostly) intact over a century later.

A more interesting question to explore: How do we know these are indeed the original shingles, and not from repairs made decades later?

The Aberdeen Lumber & Shingle Company was founded in 1899 and was among a dozen or-so mills around Chehalis County (renamed Gray's Harbor County) Washington that cranked out an enormous volume of wood products. The area was also a key battleground in efforts to unionize the timber industry; the IWW organized a strike of loggers and sawmill operators there in 1912, but were violently opposed by a "Citizen's Committee" (read: company goons) who clubbed the strikers and forced 150 of them into boxcars for deportation out of the county. Their plan was foiled, however, when train crews refused to roll the locomotive. This is one of those tales that reads like a Steinbeck novel, with each player revealing his true character as the crisis unfolds; the mayor of the town of Hoquiam stood with the train crews refusing to deport the strikers, but Aberdeen's mayor tried to deputize city workers into strike-breakers, with most of them quitting their jobs rather than obey the order. The Wobblies won that strike, but vigilante attacks on labor organizers continued for more than a decade.

Aberdeen Lumber & Shingle (AL&S, to keep it short) was one of the largest mills in these years of strife. The industry peaked in 1925, when more than a hundred mills in Gray's Harbor County cut about 1.3 billion board feet (see: "Tempest in the Timber" for a good read on the overall history). From then on, it was a spiraling collapse; AL&S owner Cliff M. Weatherwax made the news in 1928, when he brokered a deal to merge 75% of the lumber mills in the area.

The last direct mention I can find of AL&S is from the Centralia (Washington) Daily Chronicle, March 5, 1930: "Lumber Industry is Humming Again" noted that AL&S and other lumber operations that "have been closed down for some time" are reopened. The mill employed 200 men, the article says. But a 1933 item on sawmills in Aberdeen reopening after a strike lists the status of nine mills but doesn't mention AL&S, so perhaps it had already merged with another operation. The reference desk at the Aberdeen public library says AL&S was listed in the Polk business directories for the last time in 1937.

Conclusion: The AL&S shingles must be original to the 1904/1905 construction of Comstock House. Although some shingles were later painted by the Comstocks, it's extremely unlikely that Nellie Comstock would have reshingled the the house when it was only 30 years old, at most.

(Extra historical footnotes and obl. Ripley's-Believe-it-or-Not tie-in: Cliff Weatherwax may have owned AL&S at least through 1928, but he was no longer managing the mill; by then, he and the missus were society swells living in San Mateo, where he was a director of the polo club. Cliff was murdered at age 60 during a 1939 robbery that was apparently never solved. Leaving a New York City nightclub he hailed a cab and told the driver to take him to Brooklyn; en route, the cabbie testified that a passer-by yelled to him that his passenger had fallen out of the car. He told police that he found Weatherwax sitting on the curb with a head injury. The frightened taxi driver said he fled, but returned later and found Weatherwax gone. Police told the Times that Weatherwax had been beaten and robbed of $1,000 and a gold watch. The family also left a big thumbprint up in Gray's Harbor County; grunge rocker Kurt Cobain went to Aberdeen's Weatherwax High School, named for Cliff's father.)

After weeks of research on cedar shingle treatments and testing four products (see: "Preserving the Aging Shingle"), I had enough information to write a book on the topic (well, a lengthy blog post, anyway) but still felt that there was no obvious best choice. A TWP formulation that appeared to last about a decade in this Mediterranean-like climate seemed to be the better of the bunch, but it was still a far cry from the forever-lasting creosote stain that was available when Comstock House was built.

But as I was about to make a decision, Kelly-Moore sales rep Greg Fitch asked why I hadn't looked into TWP's 200 series, which is made specifically for shakes and shingles. Mistakenly, I assumed that the product was either discontinued because no stores carried it, or it wasn't legal in California -- after all, the stuff was 93% solids, far higher than anything else on the market. A call to the distributor revealed that not only was it available in the state, but that they sold quite a bit of it in Marin County. From him I also learned of the Marin Wood Restoration and Painting Company, which offers an extremely helpful web page on how they blend different TWP formulas (don't miss their photo gallery). The drawbacks are that this treatment takes longer to dry -- no problem here, since I'm hand-dipping each shingle -- and requires extensive stirring; a tar-like layer settles in the bottom of a can after only a few hours. The shingles also dry to a considerably lighter color.

Thus armed with new info, I ordered three cans of TWP and began experimenting afresh.

My new test panel had 7 samples, shown below. As with the first set, these shingles are all Maibec grade A white cedar. These shingles were dipped in different recipes containing TWP 203 (gold), TWP 200 (clear) and TWP 515 (cedar, which was tested by itself in the first panel). The clear formula offers no UV protection, but is used to lighten other formulas while still providing the non-colorfast wood preservation benefits of the other TWP 20x product line.

The shorthand recipe is shown in parentheses; (1-2-3) means 1 part gold, 2 parts clear, and 3 parts cedar formula, for ex. Because the TWP 20x products lighten in color, the test panel below was photographed ten weeks after dipping, except for shingle 2A, which is a freshly dipped shingle with the same recipe as shingle 2.

1: Just TWP 203 (1-0-0)

2: Equal parts gold and clear (1-1-0)

2a: Equal parts gold and clear. but newly applied (1-1-0)

3: (2-1-0)

4: (1-0-1)

5: (1-0-3)

6: Equal parts of all (1-1-1)

7: (1-1-2)

Curiously, the only significant color change appears when mixing the clear formula with cedar, as shown in samples 6 and 7. Our final choice was recipe two, an equal mix of TWP 200 and TWP 203. So far, it looks pretty good; we'll see.

Reshingling the house was a project we hoped could wait for a year or two, but porch repairs left the southeast corner with exposed new plywood sheathing that needed to be covered before the winter rains. There was no question that we would use unpainted white eastern cedar shingles, as architect Brainerd Jones described in his plans. But without paint, how should the new shingles be protected? In Jones' day, shingles and shakes were often treated with creosote stain, which is now banned. In evaluating the wood preservatives available today, durability was a paramount concern; using a product that needed to be reapplied every couple of years or so would mean that a house this size would be too-often surrounded with scaffolding. Another factor to consider was that white cedar weathers to slate gray fairly quickly, and Candice wanted to keep the live-wood color as long as possible.

Preserving the natural look of the wood meant narrowing the search to semi-transparent stains with UV blockers to prevent fading. To block the ultraviolet range of sunlight, all of these products include trans oxides. More formally known as "transparent" iron oxide pigments, these are extremely fine metal powders that will absorb UV light when suspended in a solvent or water (trans oxides are most commonly used in automotive paint). Since truly transparent metal only exists in the Star Trek universe, no wood stain with UV protection is actually "clear;" all of these products have at least some tint of color because of the trans oxide powders, which are available in wood-friendly pigments of yellow, red, green, brown and black.

Except for the common trans oxide ingredients, there are wide variations in the formulas. Much is concealed as proprietary in the MSDS and technical data sheets, but common ingredients in many of these products include mineral spirits and xylene and/or another form of benzene. Sometimes the recipe includes surprises: a few have ethylene glycol (antifreeze), and some have a fungicide banned in some countries.

A common way to evaluate these products is to compare the percentage of VOCs vs solids in the formula. California and many states in the Northeastern U.S. have limits on the total amount of Volatile Organic Compounds that can be included in paints and stains, and all of these products are compliant. Asking knowledgeable professionals (roofers, senior paint store salespeople, shingle and wood stain company reps) about this issue, I found confusion abounds. Workers in the trade assume high VOC numbers are signs of a better product, and more than once it was suggested that better stuff is available out of state -- a claim that approached urban legend status because no one could name what product and what state had the goodies. Contradictory, I was also told by some that low VOC numbers are a measure of quality -- that the chemicals are rip-off fillers that evaporate quickly. In truth, I don't think any generalizations can be made that low/high VOCs are a way to judge quality, but percentages (usually in grams per liter, or "g/liter") are given with some products below.

To compare the different products, I set up an experiment: four shingles (Maibec grade A Natucket) were each treated with a product that might be suitable for reshingling. On July 4, 2008, the shingles were nailed to a board, which in turn was mounted on the southern face of the house. To accelerate aging, I spray the shingles with chlorinated tap water 10-12 times a day. The experiment will have limited value to this project because our decision will have to be made in a few weeks; I intend to continue the test until 2010 or so, however, and post updates here.

Pictured below are the four treated shingles; in the lower part of the image is a closeup showing the wood after it was hit with a spritz of water.


1 Flood's CWF-UV Shown here in their "clear" finish, Flood's UV formula is not being considered for this project because it's not recommended for use on new wood. The company's website states that new wood should be instead saturated with their water-soluble "New Wood Defender" for a year, but oops -- that turns out to be a discontinued product. Their telephone customer support rep says they now suggest that new wood just be left untreated until it's dry enough to absorb a drop of water in twenty seconds. This product has an unusual oil/water formula with about 60% VOCs, most of it paraffin/naphta. Flood is the only company here that offers a warranty on UV damage (4 year).


2 Weather-Bos™ Shown here is three coats of their Roof Boss "Formula 5." With its water-based formula, this is the greenest product on the market. Because it's so safe, the company doesn't have to reveal much about the formula (it says only that the product contains "natural oils and resins"), but their stats are far better than the competition: "up to" 72 percent solids, and a tiny amount of volatiles -- just 120 g/liter. Weather-Bos™ offers no warranty (except for defective products) but does offer an interesting rant on the meaninglessness of "guarantees."


3 Cabot Clear Solution Shown here in their 9200 series "natural" formula. Cabot's has an excellent reputation, and white cedar shingle distributors Maibec and WCS offer shingles pre-treated with the product. A linseed oil-based formula that the company suggests be re-applied every 2-4 years, it has 250 g/liter VOCs and is 64 percent solids. Warranty: replacement cans or refund if defective.


4 TWP (Total Wood Protectant) Shown here is the formula 515 "Light Cedar." Its heavy paraffin oil content results in far more water bead than any other product, as seen in the photo detail above. This particular recipe is 60 percent solids and 350 g/liter VOCs. TWP also contains Folpet, a broad-spectrum fungicide that is highly toxic to fish and invertebrates. But kudos to the company for alerting consumers to this risk; Cabot Clear also contains Folpet, but doesn't mention its toxicity.

There are many other wood preservatives on the market that might be appropriate for these shingles. Another TWP formula is less widely used, but may indeed be the best solution for our project; information on that will be included in the update to appear below. Here are three other candidates that aren't included in the test:

Sikkens Cetol SRD A popular Canadian finish that contains over 60 percent volatiles (mostly mineral spirits) and about 38 percent solids. The U.S. shingle mill WCS offers wood pre-treated with Sikkens.


Penofin Based on the exotic ingredient of Brazilian Rosewood Oil, Penofin also includes a familiar mix of benzines and paraffin/naphta. Performance is about the same as other products; reapplication every 2-4 years is recommended, and as often as every 9 months on horizontal surfaces.


Olympic Semi-Transparent Premium Acrylic Stain This latex coating is a possible contender because a leading Candadian white shingle mill, Waska, offers a 15-year basic warranty (fading NOT included) when two coats of the product is applied at the factory.

Of all these products, Weather-Bos™ is by far the most obscure; I've yet to meet anyone else in California who knows about it. Candice had used it at her home in Portland, and I later tried it on a redwood deck and cedar fence at our Sebastopol house. Weather-Bos™ certainly has the best stat sheet, winning both as the most environmentally safe and also having the highest levels of solids. So why doesn't everyone use their product? Partly because of the application issues: They recommend a minimum of three coats, but for optimum performance you should apply as much of the stuff as the wood will absorb. For maintenance, users are advised to "power wash it once every year or so" and apply another light coat. They also suggest washing your precious wood at a pressure setting of an incredibly high 3,000 PSI (don't stand in front of THAT fire hose).

This is a product that I'd like to give an unqualified endorsement, but can't. That earlier cedar fence was treated with over three coats (I recall it was at least five, maybe six), and was beautiful for a couple of years. But now five years later, there's little color left. I'm certain that a power wash followed by applying an oxalic acid cleaner and another coat would do wonders, but I can't do that level of maintenance every three years on a house of this size. I would probably try it again on another fence or similar project, however.

A June, 2000 Consumer Reports survey on lightly-tinted deck treatments ranked TWP, Sikkens, and Penofin as the top 1, 2, and 3 (respectively) products. Sold locally by Kelly-Moore Paints, TWP was also anecdotally recommended more than any other product, and I couldn't even find anyone complaining about the stuff in online discussion forums, which is a remarkable tribute in itself. The best testimonial, however, comes from the product in its worst shape.

It seems odd that a paint store would have a shabby look, but that's the case of the Kelly-Moore store in Novato; its rough cedar siding was last treated with TWP nearly eleven years ago, in the autumn of 1997. The photo at right shows the south face, which has endured the most weathering. The original color is intact wherever the wood grain is raised; the rest has aged to gray. The color hasn't turned black, which is an often-heard fear about these newer formulations, and the stain hasn't flaked off in patches. Most impressive of all, if the image is desaturated of color, (see inset) the overall brightness remains nearly uniform to its original levels. Yeah, viewed closely and on such long boards, the finish does appear mottled -- but on shingles with 4 ½ inch exposure, I believe the effect would be a graceful transition from the natural cedar to classic weathered gray. Or should we try to forever preserve the color of new wood?

An update appears in the post above.

What if you could take a delicate thing like a house shingle and make it last forever, never losing its color? Well, maybe not "forever," but certainly for decades beyond its expected life? Such a technology existed once, and played a nearly-forgotten role in the pageant of American architecture.

Creosote, or more specifically, coal tar creosote, to distinguish it from the nasty and dangerous stuff that builds up inside chimneys from wood fires, was the most popular wood preservative for a hundred years. A 1874 patent mentions in passing a still-older "creosote process" for pressure treating wood, but the first specific recipe for preserving building materials using creosote is found in a 1880 patent for a mix of creosote, turpentine, and paraffin. Several patents were granted in the following years claiming a new or improved formula or process for wood preservation, but the breakthrough was the 1884 patent by Samuel Cabot Jr. for a formula specifically designed for coloring and protecting the "ornamental shingles now so much used by architects." Cabot approached the problem from a different angle than the other inventors, who only wanted to drive preservatives deeper into the wood; his main objective was to find a way to preserve color. The key element in his formula was to use distilled creosote, and twice distilled at that.

Cabot's invention came near the end of the golden age of Shingle Style architecture, so it's unlikely that pioneers such as H.H. Richardson or McKim, Meade, & White ever used his "creosote stain" on their later Gilded Age masterpieces. But as it turned out, Cabot's timing was perfect; the American Queen Anne Style was just about to sweep the nation in the latter part of the 1880s. An interesting "chicken or the egg" question to ponder is whether Queen Anne's popularity was due in part to Cabot's vivid new stains, or whether Cabot owed his success to popular demand for vivid colors on all those new Queen Annes.

By the turn of the century, creosote stain was well established. We know Frank Lloyd Wright used the stuff because his son once fell into a barrel of the gunk. Craftsman architects Greene & Greene certainly relied on it; architect and preservation expert Mark Parry recalls his mentor being told by Henry Greene to specifically use creosote stain for restoration work on their 1908 Gamble house masterpiece ("one carefully applied coat of Cabot’s Creosote Stain #7, allowed to dry two weeks and followed up by another, and it'll last another eighty years"). Was creosote stain used on the shingles for Comstock House? Alas, on this the contract specs don't specify either way. Brainerd Jones indicated only on pg. 8 that both the roof and siding were to be covered using white cedar shingles, but Parry believes Jones must have assumed that the contractor would've used some sort of preservative.

There certainly were other options available than Cabot’s, but many were dolorous; a 1916 reference, "The Chemistry and Technology of Paints" noted that some stains were made by dumping colored linseed oil into crude creosote, sometimes with carbolic acid or kerosene. A 1912 analysis found some contained no creosote at all (their example formula of a "fairly high-grade" stain was nearly one-third creosote oil). A 1930 analysis even found that some were making a homebrew stain with used auto crankcase oil.

Creosote stain earned its reputation for preventing tinted wood from fading. As a 1886 Cabot ad boasted truthfully, "Owing to the strange PRESERVATIVE POWER of the Creosote, wood treated with this Stain cannot decay but simply wears away from the force of the weather." The definitive 1930 USDA report, "The Preservative Treatment and Staining of Shingles" (PDF) performed a 40-month experiment with pine shingles, which found they kept their color well -- although they tended to ooooooze creosote in hot weather.

As for fire protection, creosote stain wasn't great, and several references mentioned that abestine (powdered asbestos) was often added as a fire-retardant. A set of 1916 experiments found creosote stain offered little more protection than paint. The hands-down winner in that test, by the way, was "Penetim" treated wood, which took over nine minutes to ignite -- more than three times longer than any other treatment. Alas, nothing today can be found about this formula, or even the Penetim Manufacturing Co. of New York. (If you know anything, please contact me.)

Creosote stain continued to be widely used until about 25 years ago (see chapter ten in this very informative 1974 Defense Dept. manual on all kinds of roofing). But because of concerns that creosote was a possible human carcinogen, the EPA proposed restrictions in 1984; creosote oil compound hasn't been available for sale in the U.S. since 1988. The danger isn't deemed high enough for an asbestos-like cleanup -- railroad ties, utility poles, and other creosote-impregnated wood is still reused and sold. Creosote is also banned in Europe, Canada, and probably elsewhere.

As an alternative to creosote, the 1930 USDA writer thought that pentachlorophenol (PCP) had "cleaner colors" along with none of the oozing problem. PCP, also known as Penta, is still an option today for pressure-treated wood. But alas, there's never been a formula using anything but creosote that will make shingles last. And last. And. Last.

Creosote may also have gotten a bad rap as a human health risk. The Wikipedia entry reports that a 2005 mortality study of creosote workers found no evidence supporting an increased risk of cancer (no endorsement of accuracy from me until I can read the actual data).

The EPA rulings on creosote is up for evaluation this year and public comments are welcome -- at the master index to docket # EPA-HQ-OPP-2003-0248-0048, there's plenty to read. Among the questions posed by the EPA: "Are there unique uses and benefits of creosote?" Read the guideline for public comments (PDF) and respond by June 16, 2008. Comments can be submitted via; enter the docket number and follow the directions given.

Obl. research note: The gentleman at the end of "Monty Python's The Meaning of Life' who has an unfortunate eating accident after consuming a final ''wafer-thin mint'' was named "Mr. Creosote." You'll NEVER guess what bobs up often during creosote web searching, no matter how much the search criteria is refined.

Once the original blueprints were scanned at 400 DPI by Draftech, we experimented to find the best way to convert them back into positives, better to view them as originally drawn by architect Brainerd Jones. With Candice's extensive knowledge of image processing theory, we developed a seven step Photoshop "recipe" to filter and enhance the images. The results can be downloaded from the blueprints page of our regular website.

All blueprints are unique, but we believe these directions yielded the best possible results for our data. Despeckling twice, for example, removed just the right amount of "dirt" from the image without harming significant fine details in these drawings, including evidence of erasures. Your mileage may vary; only by experimenting with the settings on your own blueprints can you find the optimal tweaks. (We urge you to follow the exact sequence indicated below, however.) The final step -- reducing the image down to 200 DPI -- is optional, but practical; it makes a great difference in the file size with no appreciable degradation of quality.

Each step includes the menu path where that particular tool can be found in the Mac OS X version of Photoshop 7. (This post has nothing to do with old house restoration, of course, but we didn't have a better place for this topic, which is certainly "obscura.")

ERRATUM, APR. 26: a typo in the custom filter was fixed.

Custom filter:
scale 8
1) convert to greyscale (Image > Mode > Greyscale)
2) invert (Image > Adjustments > Invert)
3) apply custom filter shown at right (Filter > Other > Custom)
4) set levels 0 1.55 155 (Image > Adjustments > Levels)
5) despeckle twice (Filter > Noise > Despeckle)
6) set threshold to 237 (Image > Adjustments > Threshold)
7 optional) set to 200 DPI (Image > Image Size)

As noted earlier, no wood was supposed to be painted, inside or out, but there's at least two coats on the exterior trim. We'll strip that paint, of course, but what should replace it? What color would 100 year-old redwood be? I actually pondered this question for a couple of days before realizing that we had a house filled with examples.

But the question still wasn't easily resolved. The interior redwood trim varies greatly, from a rich brown to medium tan, some with yellow tones of old pine and some as red as cherry. Sunning can be blamed for fading in a few situations, but not all; this issue and its remedy needs further study. So we're back to a variant on the original question: What color SHOULD 100 year-old redwood be?

To experiment, I took a sill from a basement vent that was badly rotted underneath and needed to be completely replaced (shown to the right, just for reference sake). Stripped of the remaining paint and thoroughly sanded down, the old redwood on the top of the sill had a color that might be called "Martian Sand."

Jones' specifications required that "one good coat of Pure Boiled Linseed Oil" should be applied first. The 1905 carpenters were working with fresh redwood, of course, which had a different nature than what remains now a hundred years later. To test how linseed oil would interact with the old wood, four test areas were sectioned with painter's tape dividing them, following with the application of 1, 2, 3, and 4 coats of oil as shown below, left to right. (Some of the linseed oil leaked under the painter's tape, but the test areas are still distinct.)

With a third and fourth coat of linseed oil, the wood became darker and more of the red color came out, as seen in this closeup of the wood with 4 coats.

I also used this opportunity to test the waterproofing ability of linseed oil, placing a drop of water on each test strip and on the bare wood. On the untreated surface the water was absorbed almost immediately, within 15 seconds. The beads retained their shape for 30 minutes on the 1-coat strip, and for 50 minutes on the 2-coat strip. For both the 3 and 4 coat sections it took about 70 minutes for the drops to disappear. Conclusion: Linseed oil is a terrific weather protector, but there are no real advantages to using more than two coats.

The final part of Brainerd Jones' instructions were to apply a second coat of linseed oil, mixed 2:1 with turpentine, once the wood was in place. This is an old formula for furniture polish that may date back to the 18th century; variations appear in many Victorian texts, sometimes using a 2:1:1 mix of linseed oil with turpentine and vinegar, the latter as a cleaning agent.

Below is a photo of the sample wood with a 2:1 mixture rubbed the entire width, with no effort made to restrict the application to the sample strips.

The turpentine/linseed oil formula makes a dramatic change. Much more red is immediately apparent, as shown in this closeup of the section with 2 coats of linseed oil.

The color is also far more uniform, split between just the two shades of deep red and dark brown. The lighter brown tones seen in all the oil-only tests are gone.

While this 2-coat oil/turpentine test results in a slightly darker color than the single coat of linseed oil specified by the architect, it makes up for it in the dramatic boost in red tones. Overall, we believe this must be what the exterior wood would have looked like if it'd been kept in original condition since 1905.

Besides the fireplaces, Comstock House has a radiator in every room except for the kitchen and servant's bath. (The servant's bedroom also has the tiniest one, so any cynical observations about the Oates' disregard for employee welfare may well apply.) The system works, but takes hours to raise the ambient temperature into the comfort zone after it has gone cold. Left on constantly during winter and regulated by the thermostat, it keeps the house quite comfy if some rooms are also blocked off - see the posting on zone heating for more on that.

The radiators are heated with circulating water, not steam. Called "hydronic heating" today and popular in radiant systems for baseboards and floors, it was simply "hot-water heating" at the turn of the century, and a better alternative to steam in private homes. Although it takes longer to warm the cast-iron Victorian/Edwardian radiators with hot water, residents are spared the infamous knocking and banging in the pipes, not to mention the safety risks of pressurized steam.

A third option existed in 1905: Just invented a few years before was the "gas-steam" radiator, which was fundamentally an uninsulated water heater. Here a gas pipe feeds a small burner built into the radiator itself. It had the advantage of being the most efficent system because the radiator itself was the boiler; no need for hot water or steam to travel all the way from the basement. The drawbacks were that it had to be manually filled with water, and there was always risk of the flame blowing out, being so close to a drafty floor. Still, they were a popular choice for the day; in the 1904 Press Democrat, the Santa Rosa Lighting Company ran ads encouraging the public to "Ask to see the latest in gas heating, 'A GasSteam Radiator.'"

The hydronic system (technically: a two-pipe direct return water loop) in Comstock House has four basic components: The boiler in the basement to heat the water (Comstock House had a not-so-venerable WWII vintage "Petroheat" converted from oil to natural gas in 1956); An electric circulator pump to push the hot water upwards three stories; The cast-iron radiators; and an expansion tank in the attic intended to hold the water overflow when the system's at full throttle (although we've never seen much more than a liter in the tank).

For details on the system, the Brainerd Jones contract disappoints. On page 23 of the contract specs the architect writes only, "The heater, boiler, pipes, etc. will be provided for under separate contract." Sadly, that document is lost.

Although no trademark or patent numbers can be found on these radiators, they are almost certainly the "Rococo" model two-column (shown above) made by the American Radiator Co. By 1904, the company had a well-deserved reputation for making the finest radiators and residential boilers in the world. At the St. Louis World's Fair that year, they won a prize for their exhibit of a full-sized model house with a cutaway front, allowing fairgoers to admire the boiler and radiator heating system. (After the fair, the house was sold and moved to Webster Grove, Missouri, where it still stands.) American Radiator also published a booklet in 1904 encouraging customers to paint their radiators in multiple bright colors -- quite the difference from the habit today, of trying to hide the radiator by painting it to match the wall behind, or a neutral shade.

But what of the original boiler? All that we know for certain is that there was a coal bin in the basement "Heater Room" on the blueprints, so we can assume that it was coal-fired. It's also likely that it was one of American Radiator's matching "Ideal" model cast-iron boilers, such as the example below. This was also the the type on display in the World's Fair cutaway house. An illustration showing how the boiler worked can be found on pg. 199 of Baldwin's reference book (see notes).

Presumably the miserable servant, chattering after a winter's night with a peewee radiator in the chilly northwest bedroom, warmed up before dawn by shaking down cinders with the lever at left and shoveling fresh coal into the boiler's maw. Wasn't the Gilded Age grand?

NOTES: Should you ever need to repair an old radiator or hope to understand an antique heating system such as ours, see the classic reference of the era, "Hot Water Heating and Fitting" by William James Baldwin. Google Books has the 1908 edition as well as several earlier versions. The library also is a great resource for old manuals and other source material.

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