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This Old Statehouse: Interview with Tim VanderWell

posted on April 3, 2001 at 11:19 AM

Tim Vander Well
Ever Greene Painting Studios


Interviewed February 11, 2000

JACK SHEPARD: Tell me a little bit about the procedures that we watched you do, starting with the one in the southwest pavilion.

TIM VANDER WELL: For the smaller domes, the coppersmiths dismantled the pieces, the ribs come down in about two foot sections. We stripped the old paint off the gilded areas and then we double primed them, two coats of primer, and then we put on a gold leaf size. It's a twelve-hour size, which means after ten to twelve hours, it dries to a tack, and it's ready to take the gold. Then we apply the gold to the pieces. The smaller domes were easier to gild because we could do them indoors, and we didn't have the wind to contend with.

JACK SHEPARD: And when you lay the gold on the braided sections, you had to push the gold into some cracks for a good coverage. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

TIM VANDER WELL: Yeah. We cover the entire piece with sheets of gold, and then with a soft brush, we push it into the crevices and the folds of the copper. So you're always going to get cracks in the gold. Then we go back through with additional pieces of gold and fill in the cracks.

On the big dome, it's a little different because we've got the elements to contend with, the wind being a big factor because the gold is so delicate and so thin. We use what's called patent leaf, which means that the gold is adhered to a piece of tissue paper so that you can gild in the wind. However, if it's in high winds, the winds will take it right off the paper. But it does help. On this particular project, another factor that we've had to contend with is the stone masons working below us. They've kicked up a lot of dust from their jackhammers and their saws and so we've had to gild in the wind instead of the back side of the dome, just to avoid getting dust in our size and losing our tack.

JACK SHEPARD: How much could you expect to get done on an average day?

TIM VANDER WELL: On a good day, we try to get about 100 square foot per person, which would be a ten by ten area. A lot of the ribs, of course, are more ornate around the windows and the urns. One of the urns that sits atop the dormer windows might take a good day. We might be able to get it in four to six hours. On a real windy day, it may take all day.

JACK SHEPARD: How many hundred foot sections are there up there?

TIM VANDER WELL: When we did the estimate, we estimated about 12,500 square feet. One of the more challenging parts of the job was just to figure out how to go about gilding the dome and not let our ropes fall on it or where we wouldn't have to get back onto the gold once we laid it down. Last summer when we started the project, we spent most of the summer just stripping the paint off. The old gold and the old primer. Down to the bare copper. And then we had to double prime the bare copper as well, before we could start gilding. So, we actually didn't start our gilding until the end of the summer. Last summer we had two guys working. And this summer we've had two and a half.

JACK SHEPARD: How long have you been working on this and how much longer do you expect to be?

TIM VANDER WELL: We started with the cupola, the lantern of the big dome last April, and we spent about four weeks stripping, priming and gilding the cupola. Then we came back in June and started on the big portion of the dome. We worked until November of last year, until the first snow. We stopped for the winter and focused on the dome inside. Then this year we started back in April.

JACK SHEPARD: What's the dollar value of the gold on the domes?

TIM VANDER WELL: Approximately $200,000. We estimated about 30 percent waste in overlapping the gold and any gold that might get blown away. So far we've been doing pretty good. We haven't had to order any extra gold.

JACK SHEPARD: Is there a difficult part about putting the gold on the braided sections?

TIM VANDER WELL: The small cupolas of the small domes were lifted off by crane, so those we did on the ground. We had to contend with the same problems on gilding the bigger dome, the wind, the dust that might get kicked up, rain.

JACK SHEPARD: What are your impressions of the quality of the original construction?

TIM VANDER WELL: We see a lot of the construction as the stonemasons demo their work and on the inside as well, just going up through the attic. The decorative painting on the inside is top quality work. Some of the nicest I've seen.

JACK SHEPARD: You've done this kind of work around the country. Tell us a little bit about where you've been.

TIM VANDER WELL: I've worked on the restoration of a number of theaters, the State Theater in Minneapolis, the Frouenthal Theater in Muskegon, Michigan, Union Station which just got completed in Seattle, Washington. St. Mary's Cathedral was damaged by an earthquake about six years ago and I worked with a team of artists, who reworked all the old stencil work, the lining, and the decorative painting.

JACK SHEPARD: Where have you worked in Europe?

TIM VANDER WELL: I worked in Barcelona at a new high rise hotel. I did a five story department store in Singapore. Worked on a mural at the Casino in Sun City, South Africa. And I installed some murals in a resort in Dubai, United Air Emirates. It's quite an interesting city. They're trying to build it into a tourist attraction, I guess in anticipation of all the oil running out. They're building resorts on the water and golf courses out in the desert. It's quite an interesting place.

JACK SHEPARD: What did you think of Barcelona?

TIM VANDER WELL: I loved it, a beautiful city. It's so rich in history and character. I was really impressed with the gaudy architecture. You couldn't help but see it around town. The people are very proud of being Cathelonian and fighting for their independence from Spain.

JACK SHEPARD: The Iowa Capitol is a one of a kind building, of course. How do you feel about working on its restoration?

TIM VANDER WELL: I grew up in Des Moines, and Iowa's such a wonderful place to raise a family and to grow up. You know, I've had the chance to see other parts of the country and other parts of the world, and when I heard that Evergreen had gotten the project to regild the dome, I asked to be part of it. I've heard that it's the largest gilded dome in North America. To replace a building like this would just be next to impossible. It's such a beautiful building with all the different kinds of marble and the craftsmanship that went into it. I really welcomed the opportunity to work on such a magnificent building.

JACK SHEPARD: You're working at a dangerous height. Is there anxiety involved or are there special precautions?

TIM VANDER WELL: Oh it's just the type of work I've done. You get used to working off scaffolding and swing stage. Not everybody gets used to it, but I don't mind working at those heights. We've got rappelling rope that we work from and we also have a safety line. So I feel very safe. It's not nearly as scary once you get up there and get out over the edge. It's kind of nice working up there. You have a wonderful view. I've seen a lot of beautiful sunsets and sunrises this summer. I've got the best spot in the city to see them.

JACK SHEPARD: Are you taking any special steps to make the gilding consistent with what was originally done? Are you trying to do it exactly the way it was done before?

TIM VANDER WELL: Yeah, we're trying to put it back just the way it was done before. Of course, as far as seeing what was done before, we only have what was there when it was re-done in 1965. We were able to see that they did put two coats of primer on and a layer of gold. We just kind of have to assume that that's what they did originally. Typically, for outdoor work, you want to use 23 carat or purer, 23 to 24 carat for outdoor work. When you get less than that, you've got too much copper in it, and it can tarnish. But I'm pretty confident that it's what was there originally.

JACK SHEPARD: Are you looking forward to driving by here with your grandkids and saying, "See that gold up there."

TIM VANDER WELL: Yeah, it's something that I feel pretty privileged to have had the opportunity to work on. I've also done some work on the inside dome. Once we got access to the area, we were able to clean off and take exposure windows down to the original layer. We've uncovered some colors that were put on originally and we could determine what was done in 1904. With the major work done in 1904, the architects are trying to bring it back to the 1904 look. It seems like the gold is what the people see, and recognize on the Capitol. It's not something that's commonly done, so I think you know there's kind of a mystique about it.

JACK SHEPARD: The first thing you notice about the capitol building is that gold.

TIM VANDER WELL: Yeah. The old gold has been on there for 30 some years and it was needing a facelift.

JACK SHEPARD: How do you sign your work?

TIM VANDER WELL: We'll find a little corner somewhere on the copper on an out-of-the-way place that nobody'll see. We'll probably sign our name and size and gild it so that the next time somebody goes up that high, they'll see our names up there. Usually we do it to where the average person can't see it. If you go up and look at the cloud mural on the inside dome or along the edge where nobody can see it, you'll see other names scratched in the woodwork. Oftentimes, you take a ceiling off, and you'll see the names and the dates scratched on the wooden beams of the workers who built the Capitol.

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