An Unlikely Heirloom

2.2.2016 – Tuesday

I recently completed the restoration of an antique Herring-Hall-Marvin Safe. The goal of the restoration was preservation. I wanted to take it completely apart, clean it, and then put it back together. Along the way I decided to completely strip and repaint it as well as build an entirely new wood interior.

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Here is what it looked like. It appears that it was originally sold by Herman Heinrichs from Menominee, Michigan. and belonged to a J. W. Hermansen. After that it likely came in to the possession of my Great Grandfather. I never met my Great Grandfather, but I know his name was Jake Nelson. I first learned that this safe existed from my Great Aunt, Violet Nelson – my Grandmother’s Sister on my Dad’s side. Lineage aside, it’s fitting that my Great Aunt had an old safe, because she was a woman of distinct personality as well as some secrets and intrigue. She gave me more than one gun as a birthday present through the years; one is supremely accurate and remains a personal favorite to this day. She was independent and never married. Other tales recall that she had little sympathy for frogs and was quite talented with a whip, cracking a few frogs here and there… I can’t confirm that, but I don’t doubt it.

I don’t know the weight of the safe, but I estimate it to be in the neighborhood of 500 lbs. The dimensions are 18-7/8″ deep, 21-1/4″ wide, and 27-3/8″ tall. The height is 33-1/4″ from floor to top. Interior dimensions are 13-7/8″ x 16-1/2″ x 22-1/4″. It is concrete and steel. There is an ample supply of 1/4″ plate steel and the door frame has some cast iron. The restoration officially began on January 12, 2016. It concluded after 3 weeks of hard work and roughly 60 hours.

Disassembly

The beginning of the project was the most tedious. I delayed beginning the restoration as long as I could. After a few months of a large, barely movable, object sitting in my shop I had had enough. It was time to begin. From the pictures, you’ll notice that my work on the safe did not take place on the floor. I soon discovered that solving the puzzle of how to lift a 500 lb object onto a table roughly 30″ tall is a good way to pass the time. Utilizing a low-profile hydraulic car jack, some blocks, a salvaged coffee table, and some brute force it can be done. Only the coffee table was harmed. Luckily it was made out of wood, which burns – so I still got one more use out of it.

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While taking apart the safe and taking off the paint, I generated a lot of dust and debris. The wall vent fan above my head has never worked since we moved in. It now works perfectly. I got accustomed to wearing safety glasses, hearing protection, and a respirator. It was my least favorite task for the whole of the project – but there was no avoiding it. This first step set the tone for the next three weeks and I discovered everything in need of maintenance and repair. I also found 66¢ in Mercury dimes and wheat pennies that were lost in the nooks and crannies.

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A torque wrench was required to remove the nuts holding the castors to the safe body. All of the hardware was in good shape but the wheels wobbled. The washers and nuts needed a good cleaning with a degreaser and a scrub with some dish soap.

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Using my new Bosch angle-grinder and Dremel I cleaned up the castors (funny how sometimes one of my projects requires me to purchase new tools). The wobbly wheels bothered me so I looked in to it. After some research I determined the only way to rid myself of the wobble would be to knock out the axle pins and then find new axle pins. The caster would need to be rebored for the pins and the wheel would need to be rebored to fit a new bushing. That required a lathe and a Bridgeport milling machine. After thinking about how often I would leisurely wheel the safe from one end of the house to the next I decided that this repair was exempt from my restoration.

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Once the wheels were off I took the bottom off the safe and found a large crack in the firebrick. The patina on the bottom plate was gorgeous.

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The next several hours were spent removing old paint from the safe. My favorite tools for this were a flapped sanding disc for the large flat areas, a twisted wire-wheel for the edges and recessed areas, and a spun-fiber paint-eater disk for everything else. I found out that a $10-15 angle grinder disc is worth at minimum about 6 of the $4 discs. Cheap wire-wheels are also extremely hazardous and shed wires like crazy. I had to pull out more than one wire from my hands and thighs on this part of the project. Between my hands and upper legs I had at least 20 small red dots from high-velocity wires.

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The interior was showing its age. The solid red-oak boards were removed along with the locking deposit box and locking drawer.

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The door took just as long to break down into its parts and to clean up. I began with the removal of the inner door panel.

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The firebrick was cracked pretty badly and a pound or two had fallen out when I opened up the panel.

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Using a small 1/2″ rock chisel and a ball peen hammer I knocked out the concrete and began to disassemble the lock mechanism.

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The shroud covering the lock mechanism was sealed to the door with grout. Once the grout was removed the shroud came out and I could see the locking mechanism and the lock housing.

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The lock was removed and the door was then cleaned up with the angle grinder.

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At this point the project was divided into three smaller projects: the door, safe body, and wood interior.

The Door

Sans firebrick, inner panel, and all the mechanisms, the door was now approaching a petite 45 lbs of plate steel and cast iron.

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Where grout was used originally, I settled on using sanded siliconized acrylic latex caulk; the same stuff I used to seal the seam between the floor and wall in my tiled showers. Two spring clips were used to wedge the shroud into the door before caulking. A good seal was important because when the concrete was poured I didn’t want any of it getting near the lock mechanisms or between the plate steel door front and cast iron door frame.

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While the caulk dried over 48 hours I cleaned up the inner door panel and prepared it for paint.

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The concrete pour totaled close to 45 pounds. I chose a special fire-brick concrete designed with an operational temperature of 2700°F to line the door. While this doesn’t necessarily give the safe an improved fire rating, it is in keeping with the original intent of the safe-builder. The relative humidity in the shop was about 30% at 65°F. To extend drying time, I sprayed the concrete with water after it initially dried and then covered it with plastic while it cured over the next 24 hours. After curing I took the Bosch angle-grinder with a flapped sanding disc and cleaned up the surface so the inner door panel would have a nice flat fit.

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The squeeze-out from the caulk reveals the gap between the shroud and the door front. Looks like my water-tight seal held for the concrete pour.

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The door bolt group was installed prior to the concrete pour. I used a corrosion inhibiter designed for firearms called PrOlix on the internal bare metal parts and greased the contact points where parts slide past one another.

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I taped the handle stud and then primed the door with two coats of spray on primer. Due to availability, I used Rustoleum products. After two coats of primer I sanded the door and inner panel and prepared it for paint.

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The first coat didn’t go so well, but I knew that I would have to build up a base through thin coats and sanding.

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Sanding frequently cut through the paint and exposed the primer.  The door front was not flat and there were deep scratches and some pitting that the original primer hid. These defects were from manufacturing and not from neglect.

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At this point I had applied two coats of primer and four coats of black enamel paint. I used an orbital sander with 320 grit sand paper and vacuum connection to dry sand lightly after the paint was allowed to dry for at least 10 hours. Then I used 600 grit emery paper to wet sand until I had a uniform finish. The water was lubricated with a few drops of dish soap. The sanded paint hardened over the next 8 hours before the application of another coat of paint. This process was repeated and repeated and repeated until the 6th and final coat of black paint.

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The final coat went on smooth! After 45 minutes of dry time I lightly dusted the door from about 20″ with the spray can and left a semi-gloss slightly textured surface that is appealing to the touch and somewhat resistant to showing smudges. The inner door panel received similar treatment but ended up with a high gloss finish after about 4 coats of black paint.

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While I spent day after day painting and sanding the door, over at the work bench I cleaned up the dial. The black enamel was chipping off of the dial. I was faced with repairing the black enamel or polishing the metal underneath. I decided to go all in and use a woven paint stripper wheel on the Dremel and take the black off. As things progressed I really liked the look of the dial and decided not to repaint it.

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The handle got similar treatment. I’m not sure how it was plated or even what metals were used in the construction, but the rust mostly came off with a fine wire wheel spun on a Dremel.

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I mounted the handle in a vertical position instead of the horizontal position that it was in when I started.

The Safe Body

When the dust settled from cleaning up the safe body I began with the bottom. The first order of business was to patch the crack.

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While it’s not the prettiest patch job it did the trick. The inside of the bottom panel was never painted from the factory. I painted it and then prepared the bottom for the panel. The castors were also partially painted in preparation for assembly.

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The bottom panel was sealed on with sanded siliconized acrylic latex caulk and then secured with two machine screws and held in place under the pressure of a pile of wood blocks until the caulk dried. I then ran a thin bead along the front and rear of the safe. This should prevent rust, especially in summer if we get a wide temperature swing from night to day and the exterior of the safe sweats. The planned location of the safe in the house should guard against this; but it usually doesn’t hurt to over-engineer.

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Some paint was then applied to the metal that would be covered up by the castors.

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The portion of the castors that mounted against the safe were pre-painted prior to assembly.

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The bottom and wheels were then painted in two coats. With the bottom done I could now upright the safe and start painting for remaining sides.

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Just like the door I began with primer and sanding before applying two coats of black enamel paint.

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The Wood Interior

My skills are biased toward woodworking. I originally planned to leave the interior alone, but I should have known I wouldn’t be able to resist. The old interior was a bit wobbly, showing signs of deterioration, and just not as functional as it could be. The shelves didn’t extend all the way to the door, leaving about 2 to 3″ of wasted space from shelf front to inside door panel. There was also only one large shelf. I sketched up plans for a stronger and more functional interior. Two additional large shelves were planned.

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I had available white ash, hard maple, black walnut, yellow birch, cedar, and white pine. I quickly ruled out the use of soft woods and then narrowed it down to white ash or yellow birch. Eventually yellow birch won out because I had experimented with it a few weeks earlier and was impressed by its hardness and the color of the heartwood. The heartwood looks stunningly similar to cherry but the hardness approaches white ash.

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I milled it down and used a router-cut glue joint for the 1/2″ panels (doubles the surface area of a regular glue joint). The 1/2″ panels are not shown. Above are some 5/16″ panels for the removable shelves.

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For the finish I used a tried and trusted recipe:

  • sand to 220 grit on the orbital sander; following a sanding progression of 120 – 150 – 180 – 220 and candling the wood to look for scratches or defects prior to finishing
  • brush on and wipe off two coats of Birchwood Casey Tru-Oil, using 000 steal wool between coats, allowing 24 hours to dry each time
  • level the finish with 320 grit sand paper prior to final coat of Defthane gloss polyurethane

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The back was wedged in to place and secured with a dab of no-clamp siliconized adhesive at each corner.

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The next few pieces are where the real engineering comes in. The top went in next, followed by each of the sides. Again, I used siliconized adhesive. There is a 3/32″ rabbit on the ceiling board that the side boards fit in to. The bottom board was then shimmed to be parallel to the ceiling board before hammering in a snug fitting center shelf support. Everything is locked in by the previous board. Since the inside of the safe wasn’t perfectly square, I used some small wood screws in the shelf dados to apply pressure to the wood interior and get the fit just right. Because the screws are in the dados they are hidden from sight.

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The locking deposit box was the next item to install and fit.

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The scaled rust sure cleaned up nice! I made some stepped shims for the box. It used to sit proud of the shelf originally, but would now fit flush. I applied the shims with siliconized no-clamp adhesive and massaged a perfect fit. Four small screws driven from inside the box, securing it to the interior.

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I deliberately left the front of the deposit box in its original condition. I wanted at least one thing left untouched by the restoration.

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The locking drawer was really fun to build. I copied the same construction as the original, but sized it to the new shelving.

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The original lock mechanism was in fine condition so I cleaned it up with the Dremel and fit it to the drawer.

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I even polished the screws. One screw was driven in crooked and bent by the original makers and needed to be gently straightened before re-using.

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A look at the neat locking rabbit that holds the drawer front on.

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Two thin leather strips were glued to the back of the drawer so it shuts softly. The strips also perfectly position the lock slide to match up with the mortise in the shelf above.

The Move

The safe was finished! Only took 3 weeks of hard work (60 hours of shop time). I constructed a pallet and then nearly sprained a pectoral trying to get it under the safe. Funny how when you use a muscle in a new way it can retaliate for a few minutes with a sharp pain. Once built, the safe was protected with a packing blanket and strapped to the pallet. A few more blankets and a few more straps and a heavy duty hand truck later it was ready to move. Thankfully, the idea of being included in moving a incredibly heavy object appealed to my neighbor Todd and my coworker’s husband Don – for reasons I am still pondering.

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My custom pallet featured handlebars for easy stair ascent, and was made out of oak. Rather serendipitously, the handlebars on the pallet made the corner on the stairs – just barely.

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Despite all the preparations, it was still a brute to move up the 20 steps and around one corner. I’m glad we moved it without the door attached.

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The Future

The safe is tuned up and happy but could use some decoration. I would like to find a local artists to paint a picture on the inner door panel and then do the door front. On the door front I’d like to have a small 5×7″ photo painted above the dial. Keeping with tradition I would like the door to have S. Wiltzius and Herring-Hall-Marvin Safe Co. on it somewhere. A classic pin-stripe around the edges and perhaps a decal of some sort in each corner. This safe also originally had finials on the hinges. I have three of them. Due to their condition and construction I am still looking to commission a machinist to make four finials out of solid brass.

 

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This post is in loving memory of Violet Nelson, Nov 4, 1933 – December 13, 2011

 

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3 thoughts on “An Unlikely Heirloom

  1. Brad

    I just got a safe from the same company, but a little smaller. I’m going to start a restoration on it too. I’ve already figured out the combination, and am eager to get going on the rest of the restoration.
    How did you remove the door, and even more importantly, how did you remove the Yale lock?
    I’ve already pulled the discs out of the back of the lock (that’s how I figured out the combination–the bolts were locked, but the door was open, so I had access to the back panel).
    Thanks for any help and tips you can give!
    -Brad

    Reply
    1. offgridcabin Post author

      The door simply lifts up and off. It’s so heavy nothing more than gravity is needed to keep it in place. I don’t remember how I got the lock off. I’ll check some photos of the tear down. I had great access because I removed all the concrete in the door and later reported it.

      Reply

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