Digest>Archives> October 2006

Collecting Nautical Antiques

Lighthouse Paints, Colors, etc.

By Jim Claflin


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Last August, we showed you a “lighthouse” pennant and wondered if you could provide more information about it. Well, we got a number of replies including Jim Elliot of the Amateur Radio Lighthouse Society and Bert Lippincott of the Newport Historical Society. With their help we learned that this pennant is actually the burgee (“A small distinguishing pennant flown by a yacht, usually representing the yacht’s home club.”) for the Ida Lewis Yacht Club in Newport, Rhode Island. Established in 1928, the yacht club, is housed in the original Lime Rock lighthouse where Ida Lewis was to become famous. The burgee has a red background, with eighteen white stars representing the lives saved by Ida Lewis during her career at Lime Rock Light. You can see a similar burgee at their web site at www.ilyc.org. Thanks to everyone who responded.

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Painting in the Lighthouse Establishment has become increasingly of interest as we continue to restore light stations, striving to bring them back to their original look.

During most the history of the U.S. Lighthouse Establishment and Service, paints and colors were mixed by hand by the keeper as he prepared for his day’s work. Colors were not by choice, but rather were strictly dictated by regulation. The 1871 regulations are typical of the detailed instruction provided, with in excess of five pages included on the subject.

The whole interior of the lighthouse lanterns were to be painted white, including dome, astragals, ventilators, smoke conductor, etc. The lantern exterior, balustrades, railings, ventilators, cowel, etc. were to be either black or red lead paint. During certain periods, for those iron area specified to be black, refined coal tar was to be used instead of lead paint as it had been found to wear the best under the extremes of weather.

Back paint for inside work was prepared from dry lampblack, mixed with copal or coachmaker’s varnish, then thinned to the consistency of cream using spirits of turpentine. The varnish gave the paint, when dry, a fine gloss. Paints for outside work were mixed with boiled linseed oil and the necessary quantity of patent drying or Japan varnish. Black paint for outside work was mixed with boiled linseed oil and copal or coachmaker’s varnish. No spirits of turpentine was used when mixing paint for outside use. Raw linseed oil was used as a general rule for priming new wood.

Colors were made by adding raw pigments to the above carriers. Black was made using lampblack, which was delivered dry wrapped in paper. Red lead likewise was delivered dry and mixed when this primer color was required. Grey was made by mixing small quantities of lampblack to white paint. For yellow paint, chrome yellow and yellow ochre pigments were used. For straw of buff color, white paint ground in oil was added to chrome yellow or ocre.

White and black paint ground in oil was delivered in kegs, while the necessary pigments were delivered dry and were stored in special tin boxes marked with a brass cartouche noting the color and stamped with the “U.S. Light House Establishment” marking.

Whitewash was also a common item used for most towers and dwellings of the time. The recipe for whitewashing had been found by experience and served well on wood, brick and stone and was less expensive than paint as well. To make whitewash, half a bushel of unslaked lime was slaked with boiling water, keeping it covered. It was then strained and a peck of salt, dissolved in warm water was added. Three pounds of ground rice was put into boiling water and boiled to a thin paste; half a pound of Spanish whiting, and a pound of clear glue, dissolved in warm water. This mixture was mixed well, and allowed to stand for several days. When used, this whitewash mixture was heated in a kettle and put on as hot as possible, using painters’ or whitewash brushes. As you can imagine, this mush have been quite a chore.

By 1902, the same materials and instructions continued to be

used by the keepers, with more detailed instructions provided as to color selection:

Outside Colors

Dark red, brown or white for wooden structures,

Red or lead color for trimmings of structures,

Black for lanterns and gallery railings,

Brown for iron structures; and to replace black on

the outside of all structures.

Red, green or brown for outside shutters.

Whitewash on stone and brick work where a change in

the natural color was authorized.

Inside Colors

White for the interior of lanterns, and generally for

all interior wood work except hard wood.

Green for pedestals and service tables.

Lead color (grey) for floors, staircases, and walls when authorized to

be painted. Hard-pine and hard woods generally were not to be

painted, but rather were kept well oiled and scrubbed.

Black for iron staircases and railings, and for interior iron work

in general except pedestals and service tables.

Black or white for the underside of tower stairways.

Whitewash for walls, cellars, and outhouses, and rough-board work,

when painting has not been authorized.

By this time, the use of coal tar for iron lighthouse structures was

now prohibited.

By the late 1930s when the Coast Guard took control of the light station structures, some of the color requirements began to change, notably the exterior trim colors. The Coast Guard trim color became a forest green as opposed to the red lead color used by the Lighthouse Service. Many of today’s restorations continue to use this green color rather than the original red. However, one or two stations in the country retain the original red trim color to this day. Stage Harbor Light Station in Chatham, Mass. was decommissioned before the 1938 change-over and thus never had the trim color changed to green. Today the original family that purchased the property in the 1930’s still lovingly maintains the structure in the original white with red lead color trim.

Like our column? Have suggestions for future subjects?

Please send in your suggestions and questions, or a photograph

of an object that you need help dating or identifying. We will include

the answer to a selected inquiry as a regular feature each month in our column.

Jim Claflin is a recognized authority on antiques of the

U.S. Lighthouse Service, Life-Saving Service, Revenue Cutter Service and early Coast Guard. In addition to authoring and publishing a number of books on the subject, Jim is the owner of Kenrick A Claflin & Son Nautical Antiques. In business since 1956, he has specialized in antiques of this type since the early 1990s. He may be contacted by writing to him at 1227 Pleasant Street, Worcester, MA 01602, or by calling 508-792-6627. You may also contact him by email: jclaflin@lighthouseantiques.net or visit his web site at www.lighthouseantiques.net

This story appeared in the October 2006 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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