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.

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