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Tuesday, September 9, 2014

More Bang for My Buck: The Bangs Williams Restoration

A beautiful and complete box for the N. Bangs Williams Insulate Planchette from Michael McDowell's "Death
Collection" housed at Northwestern University.
I use strange internal nomenclature in my collection, and it is patently obvious when I handle one of my most treasured planchettes. Items I acquire from other collectors get tagged with that collector's surname--it helps me keep track of credit and favors--preceded by any historical names attached to the item (which is rare, but it does happen), then the actual manufacturer, if known. For that reason, there's no item in my collection with a more convoluted name than my Burgum-Vespia N. Bangs Williams Insulated Planchette.

If you are familiar with my site, you should already know the Bangs Williams "Insulated Planchette." Besides the colorful character that produced it, it is one of the more elegant and unusual products of the First Great Craze, and went through several variations. There's what appears to be a standard model (at least, more commonly encountered model)--unadorned back, label underneath, and intricately-cast apertures and castors, which come in either single-post or double-post wheel housings. The "insulated" moniker comes from the sleeve of bright red rubber nestled between the castor and the plank, to insulate the wood, of course, presumably for purposed of channeling vital energy and animal magnetism. There's also a more rare variant, which includes a couple of cast metal tubes on the planchette's topside, possibly for further "insulation." Regardless of model, the shield-shaped device is well-constructed and really an incredible relic in its own right.

The Burgum-Vespia N. Bangs Williams Insulated Planchette in its unrestored state, from the Hodge Collection. Note
the broken posts and missing upper wheel housings.
The prefix of my specimen's name comes from the planchette's historical owner, John Fulton Burgum. Mr. Burgum (1854-1933) was a cabinetmaker, painter, and wood-worker in New Hampshire, and son of a famous carriage painter and inventor whose work is still admired today. We don't know much about John F. Burgum's spiritual beliefs or a measure of his planchette enthusiasm, but he was kind enough to leave the remnants of a smeared ink stamp on the underside of this particular specimen: John F. Burgum, 40 Central Square, Keene, NH. It's that nearly-imperceptible black stippling right there between the castors in the pics above. The date is too smeared to determine accurately, but appears to be 1887. We're lucky, at least, that the planchette survived the shop fire that unfortunately killed Mr. Burgum in 1933.

I acquired the planchette from my good friend Andrew Vespia. Andrew and I go way back, and our meeting as fellow talking board enthusiasts and our subsequent bonding with Bob Murch helped spark a collaboration and unprecedented cooperation among collectors that persists to this day, and for that I will always be eternally grateful. It was, in fact, at a reunion of the 3 of us last year at Andrew's Houston home that we made the long-overdue trade, and I brought the Burgum planchette home to nest. Thank you, Andrew!

Another Bangs Williams planchette variation with tubes that act either
as insulators or to charge Odic force.
When Andrew originally acquired the item, its upper wheel housings were long gone--snapped off right at the post. This just left the base frames and a tiny nub of the central swivel post, and I can only imagine when and where in its history someone sat or stepped on this treasured item and heard two tiny snaps reverberate through their backside. I had long sought to restore the item to its original--and functional--state, but how?

I already knew the Bangs Williams was rare. Andrew's was one of a few I had allowed to slip through my fingers at auction over the years before I got more serious about things, and, of course, the minute I got serious about acquiring one for my own, they stopped appearing. So, I had to be content with visiting Andrew's in Houston a few times a year for a while there. Knowing it would one day need a restoration in any case, I made notes of where those others might have wound up on the off chance I would have an opportunity to perhaps take a casting of the upper wheel housing so I might restore it on the chance I acquired it.

One possible source was the Strong Museum of Play, which houses one Bangs Williams. And, as luck would have it, Murch took a research trip there last year to document their catalog holdings. But as good of pals as we are, asking him to cast a mold in the middle of an important research trip wasn't reasonable, and I wasn't able to join him there as I usually do. I got lots of incredible photographs, though, and was able to note a few manufacturing differences (different label print, metal wheels) thanks to Murch's efforts. Thanks, Bob!

The Bangs Williams planchette, with box, from Michael McDowell's "Death
Collection" housed at Northwestern University.
Then another, previously unseen, specimen popped up on my radar. The amazing Michael McDowell "Death Collection" now housed at Northwestern University's McCormick Library of Special Collections contains an Insulated Planchette. What's better, this one was complete in an original box. On top of that, the McDowell collection houses thousands of spiritualism-related photographs and ephemera, so a was a fantastic opportunity to not only get a possible casting, but do a favor for the research community by documenting and sharing those important holdings. After viewing that amazing collection, I only wish I'd had the chance to meet Michael McDowell while he were alive. He had an amazing passion for his collection that I certainly understand.

Within a week of the discovery, I planned the trip for the following month. Once on the ground there, I spent the first day taking over 1,500 photographs of the collection's Spiritualism contents--primarily an amazing trove of spirit photography we'll soon be debuting on for research and comparative purposes. After the photographs were done, I started begging the amazingly accommodating curators--Benn and Scott--to allow me to take a mold of their specimen's wheel housing. Their preservationists were away at a conference, however, and an answer would have to wait until the following morning. So with dwindling hours on my second and final day there, I showed up to fantastic news--they would let me take the mold I needed!

The goal! Would it be possible to take an exact mold of this wheel housing without disassembling it and restore
the Burgum-Vespia specimen to its former glory?
There were a few rules, of course. I wasn't able to disassemble the device in any way, and I had to take some extra steps to ensure the molding compound wouldn't harm the item. This meant I would have to mold the entire wheel housing--wheel and all--and later trim a casting to get just the parts I needed. I took two moldings, just to be sure, and took slightly different approaches to each hoping that one or the other would be accurate. While I normally prefer a liquid compound that you can pour around the molded object, I wasn't going to be able to take that stuff on the plane with me, it being liquid and all, and so I used a two-part, malleable dental compound that had a decent working time.

Taking the mold! Some index cards help me keep the apparatus balanced as each half of the compound was applied,
creating a two-part mold, half of which can be seen, right.
It was harrowing. There was no way to know if I'd gotten a good mold until I got home to cast it, and I'd come a long way to get it with no promises. I secured the two molds, packed up my things, and left to spend the afternoon with a great new friend, Court, a Ouija collector from the golden age who had amassed an impressive collection of Chicago-area boards in the early 80s, and was nice enough to sit with me over lunch and swap tales of collecting, acquiring, and our mutual paranormal interests. It was the highlight of the trip, and I wish we lived closer for more great visits like that one! With a few boards in hand from Court's collection headed to my own, I departed for home with a hard drive full of spirit photographs and high hopes that my own Bangs Williams planchette would soon be restored. The original plan was to cast the wheel housings in plaster, shave off the wheels and hollow out the inner housing, then remold the modified piece and recast in metal. After several attempts, it became obvious that plaster wasn't working out too well, so I opted for another material: Smooth Coat 325 "Liquid Plastic."

Casting the housing! Works in progress with drying molds, left.
Center: a few attempts before and after cleanup. Right: a fresh casting right out of the mold!
The liquid plastic, like the silicon molding, is a two-part material that pours in smoothly as a liquid, which is important when you are doing detail work, then quickly turns viscous before hardening. When my trial run produced a near-perfect casting of the housing that was easy to work with a razor after the initial setting, but cured to a surprisingly rock-hard, durable consistency overnight, I rethought the trials of metal casting and elected to just stick with the base substance. It was perfect in heft and weight, was tough and dense, and ultimately comparable to the cheap pot-metal the original castors were manufactured from. And I do plan on doing that in the future. But as it was, this material had just a touch of flexibility, which would allow for press-fitting, which was an important endgame consideration to not modify the planchette from its unrestored state.

Which brings up an important note. When undergoing restorations that are anything more intrusive than repairing separated veneer, my first consideration, always paramount, is to not modify the original device in any way just to make it work. It was the same consideration I took in restoring Haffner's Wanda Tipping Table last year, and this non-intrusive philosophy of restoration was the topic of my lecture to archivists at my Preserving the Historical Collections of Parapsychology conference in Utrecht. It's a simple philosophy: if you can't restore an item in such a way that it can quickly and easily be restored to its original, pre-restoration state, then simply don't do it. And that's the approach here--the goal was to have a set of replacement wheels and housings for display, that could be easily removed to restore the item to its original state--exactly like museum dinosaur skeletons have replacement bones to show complete specimens.

Left: the cast wheels carefully separated from the housing. Center: the results!  Perfect castings of the
wheel housing in a hard and durable substance.  Right: initial press fitting of the housings. Great fit!
The result of the casting were fantastic, capturing every detail of the wheel housing--every curve, every bump and imperfection and every miniscule pit--fantastically replicating both the shape and texture of the original. The final cast was one-piece, and included the wheels, so with a careful carve of the Exacto knife I removed the cast portions of the wheels, which left me with the holy grail of the project--two complete, flawless castings of the Bangs Williams wheel housings! I drilled them and carefully popped them over the nubs of the base's central shaft for a test fit. I started to get very excited when I saw how tight they fit without having to make any modifications whatsoever to the planchette!

Anticipation swells! Left: the first couple of coats! Center: matching paint with Rub n'Buff and wargame hobby paint.
Right: the final press-fit led to an incredibly strong fit that's difficult, but certainly not impossible, to remove.
Matching the paint turned out to be a fairly simple affair. I have painted miniatures for use in tabletop RPG games since my high school years, so I turned those years of experience--and years of accumulated materials--toward constructing a matching paint scheme. As it turned out, the Antique Brass "Rub'n'Buff" was a near exact match, so I undercoated with that, and then applied a slightly darker mixture of a bronze metallic wargame hobby paint. Just before the paint dried fully, I grabbed some dark dirt out of the back yard, and gave it a good, harsh, grinding tumble in my hands to help further roughen and dirty it up to match my planchette's less-than-pristine castor bases. I opened my palm, plucked them out, and PERFECTION! The wheel housings soaked up the paint perfectly, the tone matched exactly, and the dirt-aging was spot-on. The ever-so-slight flexibility of the plastic meant that by drilling a hole just slightly smaller than the base's protruding mounting post, I could hold the post in place with some padded pliers and jam the wheel housing onto the post to mount it. Nothing else was needed--the press-fit was incredibly snug, and it takes some effort to pop them off!  Now I just needed wheels to get this planchette rolling!

Turning new wheels! Left: harvesting blanks from period wood recovered from the frame of an  antique portrait.
Center: comparing shapes, sizes, and angles to the wheel castings. Right: the blanks mounted for shaping, with one
specimen already completed--a perfect match to the original!
I have accumulated an incredible stock of period materials to work from on projects like this, primarily harvested from demolished homes, but also from picture frames and other antiques destined for the junk heap. That was where I acquired the solid piece wood panel that was perfectly matched to construct my replacement wheels--an antique frame. The material was consistent with the cheaper, porous wood used in the original wheels of the McDowell specimen, and using my rotary tool in combination with various sandpaper grits made for a fairly quick and easy wheel construction that allowed me to match the angles and sizes of the originals perfectly.

Mounting the wheels to the wheel housings was a fairly easy affair as well. From the same frame where I'd harvested the wood, I gathered up a couple of slim mounting nails that had the perfect diameter and patina to match the original axles of the McDowell planchette. I used press-fitting again, snipping them off at just the right length, and the entire unit just came together so quickly once I had all the components that I forgot to stop and take pictures for posterity until I was done!

The restoration COMPLETE!
I am incredibly happy with the restoration. There may come a time when I revisit casting the wheel housings in pot metal like the originals, but for now, any difference is simply not noticeable. The planchette wheels around wonderfully, and I was surprised at just how smoothly it actually operates. It was a fun challenge that took me halfway across the country to meet some great folks, and a project I had looked forward to for some time. I like to think that the planchette's former owner, Mr. Burgum--himself a woodworker--would be proud of the effort and the results. I can't thank my hosts at Northwestern enough for the opportunity that made this all possible, and Court for the fantastic chance to make his acquaintance and break bread with him while I was on my quest. Thank you!
Thanks again to my friend Court for some wonderful hospitality during  my trip to Northwestern. Court collected
Ouija long before most of us, and even tried to establish a talking board collector's club in the 1980s. His
collection fantastically documents Chicago-area boards from the 1930s-40s--and I'm happy to have had the
chance to meet him after a long trial tracking him down!

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