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Tuesday, May 7, 2013

A Fix Called Wanda

Though my last post began with an overview of the Auburn Company, it ended with a survey of what talking boards collectors have long surmised was the eventual evolution of their Syco-Graf board: Grover Haffner's “Wanda Tipping Table.” Though that connection has now been called into question with the recent information revealed in that post, we shouldn't dismiss the important discovery it also reveals—the recovery of the only currently known surviving example of a Wanda.

And I'm lucky enough to have it.

Wanda was rediscovered by my good friend Denise—as lovely and fine a woman you could ever hope to meet—in the attic of her 1920s bungalow just outside of Albany, New York, some 10 years before our first contact in late 2012. As Denise tells it: “It was among dirty old newspapers and rubbish up in the attic, among other things on top of an old built-in cabinet...dusty...dirty.”

If only with a single wish I could empty every New England attic and pore over their summoned contents, I'd be the single happiest collector that ever lived. 

She DOES exist! Like an elusive actress finally caught by paparazzi, the first photo of Wanda surprises my inbox!
My courtship with Wanda was a long one. She, Denise, and her three pugs had become fast friends, and Denise was hesitant to allow just anyone in to sweep Wanda off her feet. Most importantly, Denise wanted to know as much as possible about Wanda before seeing her off into the wider world, and that helped drive an incredibly fruitful period of research into her history. By that time, Murch's discovery of the Lon Chaney Tipping Table picture had already revealed Wanda's name and broken open most of the preliminary research that brought Grover Haffner's creation from the 2D patent drawing and into the real world. Bob Freeman's great "The Occult Detective" blog helped us delve even further and led us to the 1928 Photoplay article, revealing some of Haffner's thoughts on his device and revealing the source of her name (Wanda was named after Haffner's Indian spirit guide). And her rediscovery led to corporate stock certificates in UCLA's library and, later, a new picture of a later-era Wanda in USC's collections.

Wanda's company since her early 2000's discovery: Denise's "girls!"
But what of Wanda's broken and incomplete corpse? Was their life in the old bird yet? I would say most assuredly so.

Denise insisted that should I become the lucky fellow to take Wanda home, that she would not only be revealed to the wider world in all of her glory, but that she would have to do so whole once more. It was an intimidating task. After months of negotiation and thoughtful encouragement, Denise said goodbye to Wanda, and by plane, train, and automobile she came, at last, to Texas, where I marveled at her abused form and despaired at her reconstruction.

Luckily, I'm quite experienced in the repair of talking boards, but this went far beyond the occasional warp-reversal or pried-up-ply regluing. But as my experience would have it, in my years as a musician, I repaired, built, and rebuilt many of my own instruments, from drums to guitars to upright basses, so manipulating wood and associated mechanisms is something I've not only educated myself about, but also something I'm comfortable with, which to me has always been the bigger obstacle.

But you enter a new world when you are attempting to repair or restore a rare and valuable antique. Not only do you run the risk of damaging it further, there is also the potential to do more harm than good, destroying its value as an antique and representative vintage specimen. With that danger in mind, I always approach such “restorations” with an eye on one thing in mind: preserving the historical integrity of the item. In other words, I try to always repair things in ways that can be undone. I'm not talking about the minor repairs of re-gluing raised veneer or rejoining broken components, but rather the more controversial actions of replacing parts and retooling mechanisms with modern tools. The last thing you want to do is something that can't be undone, and such idiocy isn't my idea of the right way to leave my mark on history.

So, with that in mind, let's take a look at what it took to undergo Wanda's repair and get her back in full form and function in a way that wouldn't be irreversible. Let's take a look at the state of the starlet when she arrived, and how we got her back on stage.

Wanda as she arrived. Note missing base, missing cord and disengaged mechanism, and missing indicator.
When Wanda arrived from New York, I was already prepared for the two most obvious challenges. Her legs were intact, but her base missing entirely, and her indicator was long since lost. That much I could handle. What was less sure was the state of the internal mechanism and the general overall operation of the device. Pictures just didn't reveal anything about that, so I had to roll the dice when acquiring Wanda that it wasn't anything I couldn't overcome.

The base repair was first on my list, since it would be needed to eventually decipher the mechanism's inner workings, and it wasn't as easy as you might think. How do you arrive at the proper dimensions? How do you match not only the color, but the aged patina of the wood beneath the paint, which is exposed in some places on the top? 

I elected to go with period wood. I often salvage choice pieces of wood from demolished period homes around Austin and keep them labeled for future use. I was lucky enough to have some old plywood of the same ply count and thickness as Wanda's top board, the wood salvaged from a workbench found in the garage of a 1920s-era home. And it already had an orange-ish patina (particularly compared to modern bright-white wood) that was a good head start to get a match to Wanda's original wood peeking from beneath her worn paint spots. But having used up most of that salvaged batch over the years, I didn't have much more of that wood than I needed, so I had to be extra careful, because I was only going to get two shots at most to use the scrap I had or lose the opportunity for wood of the same vintage.

The base, cut from salvaged, perfectly-aged wood that matched Wanda's ply count. Note patent beneath.
Uncovering the dimensions involved some algebra skills I haven't exercised in a few years. I only had a few markers. The patent was the obvious start, but had to compare it with the period photos I had on hand to make sure that the final production designs didn't deviate too much. With some quick back and forth, I was confident that the manufactured items followed the patent pretty closely. So, I did some measurements and arrived at the patent drawing's ratio of depiction versus real-life Wanda, and found the top was really, really close in comparison. With that assurance, I simply applied the same ratio to the patent drawing to arrive at the dimensions for Wanda's new base. After a final comparison with period photos, I was confident I'd nailed it. And so I cut it. Slowly. Carefully. Success!

Before I worried about matching paint, I had to catch the baseboard's patina up with the dark one of Wanda's exposed parts. It already had the aged orange-ish tint I needed, but still needed some soiling. This was accomplished with a mixture of Old English and a few other stains, not to mention a bit of gray ash I keep around for this sort of thing. I experimented on some of the leftover scraps from cutting until I got it right, as you can see below.

Wanda ventures, incognito, into the wilds of Home Depot.
And modern technology just makes matching paint ridiculously simple. I needed to scan Wanda, so I wrapped her up in my friends Andrew and Peggy Vespia's wedding gift—an awesome handmade talking board sleeve—and clipped off to Home Depot. Yes, as you can imagine, a little crowd gathered around in the paint department when I pulled a talking board out to be scanned, and there were even a few folks with the heebie-jeebies, but since I didn't have an operational Wanda to properly show off, I demurred, had the skeptical clerk scan her in, and waited for the results. I ended up having to buy a whole quart of this army-green paint to match her. Turns out I needed exactly one brushful. 

So I returned home, and painted her new base up! I honestly thought this was going to be a meticulous process, but I briskly brushed it on, left a few bare patches, made some marks with my fingertips and rubbed some of the edges raw in the same sort of places Wanda had wear, and, in literally about 2 minutes, the baseboard was painted and aged. That was almost too easy. 

The matching process: base aging, painting, and final match to Wanda's vintage wear-and-tear.
But that was as far as I got on the base at that moment, and set it aside to dry thoroughly. I was ready to get to work on Wanda's mechanism, but knew to test it properly, I would need a new indicator. I studied the thickness and composition of Wanda's other metal components, and set off again to the scrap heap to find something that would work, emerging with a nice gauge of aluminum that would be easy to work with, particularly since the other components were only *painted* to appear brass, and were likely of pot metal constitution, I knew I could get a correct texture and color match. Like the base, I figured out the ratio, did some projections, and deciphered the indicator's proper length to make sure that both the long and short indicators fell where they needed to. After cutout and a quick punch (as opposed to drilling, a punch pushes the metal outward from the hole, leaving some material to provide tension against the post, like a clock hand), the raw and unfinished indicator was ready! 

Signs point to "Yes!" Deciphering the pointer size ratio via patent.
With the pointer in play, I was really getting anxious to decode Wanda's mechanism—because I still didn't know exactly how she worked. I did know from the patent drawings that the base was key to anchoring the pulleys that drove the device. So, with another quick trip to the scrap corner, I returned with a 1x12 that would serve as a mock-up base to figure out where everything went. Instead of watching paint dry, it was time to get brave and decipher Wanda's innards, like an oracle unstringing the bowels of a dove.

Playing around with the mechanism, it was obvious that it still worked. In other words, it still had tension, as turning the indicator's post caused it to snap back fairly briskly on release. It was obviously spring-loaded, though without patent drawings of the mechanism to assure me otherwise, my biggest concern became taking off the faceplate only to have parts-and-pieces under tension go flying in every direction. I flipped Wanda over, and slowly loosened the two retaining screws holding it all together.

Mechanism detail. Note rough pot-metal texture, faux-brass finish, and cord remnants.
It was surprisingly simple, and luckily it all stayed in place. The gut's of Wanda's encasement comprised of only 4 pieces, not counting the 2 nuts and bolts: the top plate, the lower encasement, the flywheel with post, and the spring. The spring itself was anchored to both the posted flywheel and the underside of the top plate, and the mechanism's tension could be reset with a few twists. There was another surprise, and a vital clue to period restoration: a 4-inch scrap of original braided cord, still wrapped around in place, revealing not only how the cord was anchored internally (with a simple knot facing down) but also how many wraps around were expected for original functioning! It was brittle and brown from age, and had remnants of a good waxing, not to mention being generally worse for wear, but now I knew what to look for in a replacement cord, and I had a perfect match on hand: the braided belt for an antique dental drill, and in army green, to boot!

Wanda's disassembled mechanism on trial baseboard with test cord attached.
With the mechanism decoded, now it was a matter of resetting a somewhat working base setup. I knew from the patent drawing and period photos that the mechanism's pulley was operated by the push-and-pull of the table's tipping action and the tension that granted to the anchored cords, but the placement of the anchors and the route those cords would take proved to be somewhat problematic to not only get right, but also match up with all available evidence. The best example of this was the joint of the dual cords, which merge into one just before the single cord enters the pulley mechanism to wrap around the flywheel. They are joined by a metal crimp, which if placed too close to the mechanism, interferes with the indicator resetting to the start point, and if placed too far away, get hung up on the anchor, which was still present on the board.

Trial & Error: Rediscovering the proper workings of Wanda's mechanism. Left: A simple pulley doesn't work! Center: Carefully dialing in tension and setting crimp retainers Right: All calibrated to start and ready to go!
Resetting the mechanism was the longest, hardest endeavor of the entire project. I tinkered for hours to discover the optimal number of cord wraps around the pulley, struggled to provide a tight, unobtrusive knot for the cord to attach it to the flywheel, labored forever to make sure the base anchors and crimped cord-binders were in the right place, and meticulously adjusted to get an accurate “return to start” reset point for when the table was back at rest, before finally tightening everything down. I looked up, and hours had passed and my base paint was dry. I compared it with my test base to find it had dried to a perfect paint match, carefully lined up the anchors where I'd discerned they belong, and carefully screwed them into place. 
Wanda's restored indicator.
I was almost there! I just had to get a successful match on the indicator's finish, which turned out to be relatively easy. I scuffed the raw aluminum with some sandpaper to arrive at the same rough texture of Wanda's other metal components and to make finish application hold better, then discovered to my delight that the old “Antique Gold” Rub'n Buff I had on hand was a *perfect* match. Almost before I realized it, I had everything in hand for final assembly. I slowly eased the new indicator onto the central post and secured it with a vintage brass nut salvaged from a 1920s radio, placed Wanda's legs into the shallow-drilled recesses of her new base, and looped the tight new cord around Wanda's new anchors. 

Wanda awaits her turn to talk for the first time since being shut await in Denise's attic!
I placed my hands upon her and gave some slight pressure. For the first time in many, many years, life again breathed into Wanda, and she began talking once more! And the best part, from an antiquarian's viewpoint, her historical integrity hasn't been compromised. Every ounce of restoration, if viewed as unfit by some future collector, can be removed to return Wanda to her original unrestored state. Why anyone would want to silence her is, of course, beyond me, but it also leaves the door open to more accurate restorations should any new discoveries come to light in the future.


Wanda's public debut took place at the Phenomenology 105 in Gettysburg, where she was the belle of the ball. In fact, I'm not sure a startlet like Wanda has had hands on her like that since Johnny Weissmuller groped Esther Jane Williams on the set of the World’s Fair Acquacade.
Wanda makes her public debut alongside talking board royalty, escorted by your host and Bob Murch.
Many, many thanks to my good friend Denise for rediscovering Wanda and giving me the chance to let her not only talk again, but walk again the wider world!