Intro: Welcome to the Preservation Technology Podcast. The show that brings you the people and projects that are advancing the future of America’s heritage. I’m Kevin Ammons. And today we join NCPTT’s Jason Church as he speaks with Vern Mesler, adjunct professor at Lansing Community College. They will discuss the “Preservation of Iron and Steel and Bridges and Other Metal Structures Workshop,” which was funded by a grant from the National Center.
Church: The real reason we are talking today Vern is because we have just finished up here in Lansing, Mich. “The Preservation of Iron and Steel in Bridges and Other Metal Structures Workshop,” which you are the organizer and host. How did this come about?
Mesler: I’ve been in the restoration of historic bridges for over 10 years. And what I’ve discovered as I’m restoring the bridges for the Calvin County Historic Bridge Park, is first of all, there is a real lack of appreciation of the original material of an historic bridge. And what I wanted to see was more awareness of the bridges and also how to repair them. There’s been so much or lack of knowledge in the restoration of historic bridges. And the other thing I’ve expanded this to the restoration of historic metals, not just for historic bridges but you’ve got historic bridges, riveted, there’s a whole range of structures that are riveted, and it would be great if we could develop processes and procedures and methods to repair those and not destroy some of that stuff.
So the other thing, and what’s important to me and what I think has been overlooked in this preservation of historic metals or historic bridges, is the craftsman’s participation. To give you an example, I attended a conference for preservation of historic bridges, and we had a moderator that was, first of all, who started out saying, “Anyone who is an engineer, raise your hand.” And they raised their hands. “Everybody that’s an architect, raise your hand.” “All the students raise your hand.” But not a single word about a craftsman. And so I think that the craftsman’s been left out too often. And so my goal is to make engineers and people aware of the fact that craftsman were involved in these bridges.
And the other thing I discovered that the parts of a bridge, there’s a real lack of understanding of how things things were even manufactured. How they were built or the techniques used. And a lot of times, you can only find out that information by looking at the piece. The piece, the material, the original material can tell you the history, can tell you how that part was manufactured. Well, you’ve destroyed it. It is gone. You replace it with new steel. Or you replace it with some other configuration of material as long as it looks old. And a lot of times, “well it looks old,” is the only standard. Well, what I’m after is to try to save as much of the original material as possible and so I was told about NCPTT’s grant and I think David Simmons in Ohio had suggested years ago that I apply for this grant.
So I was able to work with Lansing Community College, and Lansing Community College said that they would support it. And I had outstanding support from Lansing Community College, even from the president and the faculty from Lansing Community College. And when I bring proposals or projects, they never ask, “how much are they going to make,” it is always, “well, what do we gotta do?” And so we were successful and I feel this workshop has been highly successful because of their work and their willingness to put forth the extra to make this thing successful. And from the comments going around, people are pretty excited about it. They want to continue this, and again, the idea is to develop restoration procedures to restore the original material and to train people. It is not to really train craftsman, but to make engineers and preservationists, those people that make the decision on restoration of bridges or historic structures, those people that have to make those decisions is to give them confidence to recommend to use this process or put it in part of their plans or put it in part of their standards or put it in part of their restoration prints. And the one way I can think to do it, it is to have a lot of Lincoln Electric do work for me. And the reason for it, I can weld it up and I can tell people this is how I do it, but they want to know, “Who is Vern Mesler?” But if I say Lincoln does it, even if Lincoln is doing the same thing I do, they might say, “Well, Lincoln Electric, the world’s main manufacture of welding equipment has approved it or tested it, well that holds a lot of water.” Well, the same things here. I got some good leads today from universities that are willing to participate in testing material after I repaired it and restored it, and so when an engineer has an option to restore an original piece, they can always say, “Look, here’s evidence. Here’s research that was done that proves you can do this by a major university.” It’s going to be a lot better than just saying, “Well, Vern said it could be done.”
Church: I can say that this was a fantastic workshop. How many people were in attendance?
Mesler: When I first organized this, what I did was organize it so people could sign up for all three days or people could sign up for one day. And the reason for that, the one day the auditorium holds 80 people. And we could only accommodate 40 people in the welding facility. So I decided I wanted to take advantage of the capacity of the first day, I didn’t want to turn anyone away. And as it turns out, we had 13 people sign up for that first day in addition to the 35 people for the 3 days. And then we had 5 students, we had scholarships set up so that students could sign up. Whoever was awarded these scholarships, it paid their expenses here, the cost of the workshop was covered, and so we had all 5 students, we had students from Ferris University, a student from MSU, a student from the University of Michigan, another from the Detroit area. I was real happy to see that because the idea is that we want young engineers to recognize, we want to start them off on the right foot. We want them to start off well with the restoration of historic metals. We want to make sure they have that in mind, that this can be done. We don’t want them to get into this mode where they are going to do off-the-shelf procedures. Or off-the-shelf standards where they are willing to look at restoring bridges, historic metals.
Church: Well I think one of the things that made this workshop so successful, not only the facilities and the organization and the variety of instructors, but was really the variety of participants. Now they came from states from all over the union and from Canada, but I met bridge designers, department of transportation people, conservators, engineers, constructional engineers. There was really a wide variety. Was that something that you were looking for to bring in?
Mesler: That’s exactly what I was looking for because nobody has done this. I don’t know anyone who has done this. And the idea was to bring craftsman and engineers and preservationists together. And I didn’t want to set this up specifically to train craftsmen because craftsmen, you can spend most of this process, I can train them in a day’s time on how to do this. But it’s not going to do any good to train them if they are not going to be allowed to do it. And so I need to have the engineers and the transportation department to recognize that this can be done and then to be able to recommend it. Like riveting. So often you will hear, “Well, riveting is the lost art.” Like it’s been buried in the pyramids in the last 2000 years. Well, it’s not a lost art. And you can still buy rivets and every size rivet that was available 100 years ago and by the ton if you want to. And we had riveting equipment. And today we had Michigan Pneumatic come in with all their equipment. And they have been outstanding working with me over the years. And I have recommended them for when I train people to rivet. And so riveting is not that difficult. It is really an insult to tell any industrial person that’s been in the industry or handled industrial equipment, it’s really an insult to tell them they can’t rivet because it certainly isn’t that difficult. And one of the things I want some of these people to do is grab the rivet handle and drive some rivets. And we had that I’m really happy to see that grabbed this rivet hammer and understood how it worked. And one lady in the group, one that’s worked in historic preservation around the country, and she said, “I’m dangerous now.” She was so excited about doing this hands-on, grab a rivet hammer, grab tools. She was probably the only mechanical things she’s ever worked were a can opener. And now, she’s dangerous now. She’s ganna go and tell them, “you can do this.” So that’s been exciting.
Church: Yeah, not only the riveting. The application of rivets, the removal of rivets, you guys carried a lot of information to us about how rivets are formed, and learned how the rivets actually work. And it’s something I don’t think many of us have ever thought about how they actually go in, how they are made, how they are processed. Also, all the welding techniques that we’ve covered in the third day of the workshop, that was a huge variety.
Mesler: One of the things, I try to get through these myths. A good example is, there are two camps in the preservation community. There’s the group that has never replaced a rivet with a rivet, that’s going to replace a bolt. If they are going to replace a rivet, it is going to be with high-strength tension control bolts. And then there’s another camp that says, yes you can use rivets. But I think that there are more that want to replace rivets with tension-control bolts, but the impressions I get through the communications I have is that the engineers have the, I almost get the feeling that there’s no cost involved with putting tension-control bolts. You’ve got an iron worker that has a special wand that comes in and is going to pop these rivets in magically. Well it doesn’t. It costs a lot of time, and there’s procedure you have to follow, special equipment. And so what I’m trying to prove is that you can compete with that. Now I’m not trying to bring rivets back to industrial and new buildings and new vehicles or to compete with welding because it’s not going to happen. And even if you could prove that it’s cheaper than bolts or weld. And more than likely, it is just not going to happen. So my focus is just to, we’ve got enough historical metal around, even the 1950’s, that’s historic metal. There’s a welding procedure for the restoration of historic buildings in the 40’s and the 30’s. So it’s not just 1890 bridges or 1880 bridges, it’s even 1930’s, 1940’s and so there is still a need for that. Cast iron, that’s another. We need more training, more understanding, more people trained to do that. So that’s another option.
Church: Well, I know as a conservator myself, back to the rivets. I always want to replace with in-kind. I want to replace original material that’s failed with like material. But I heard all the arguments with the DOT people that were here and the M-Dot people talking about how it is really going to take a mindset change to get these bridges restored that are going to be continued on the federal highway systems and state highway systems. So I think that’s one of the things you really succeeded with with this workshop, is to start the ball rolling to change the mindset. Because there’s preservation because we want to save bridges, but do we want to save them as foot bridges in parks or do we want to save them like on the highways. And I think that is one of the things that came out of this. To get some of the people that can make those decisions thinking about that it is OK to use the original materials, the original techniques to save these bridges in current use.
We look forward to hearing more bridge work from you and more workshops in the future. Thanks for talking to us today.
Mesler: You bet.
Ammons: That was Jason Church interviewing Vern Mesler. If you would like to learn more about this workshop, visit our podcast shownotes at the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training website. That’s ncptt.nps.gov. Until next time, goodbye everybody.
Additional photos from the workshop can be seen here.