weathervanes

Process, Aesthetics and Sizing a Weathervane

WHY WEATHERVANES?

While building a wood drift boat back in the days when I was carving decoys, I recognized the potential to apply wood-epoxy composite technology to exterior fish carvings, particularly weathervanes. As one whose carving origins began with working decoys but transitioned to fish carving, fish weathervanes are a logical utilitarian folk art conclusion - and there is something magical and fun about watching them point into the wind.

Wood-epoxy Composite Weathervane. 36" Cod Fish, scale 1:1

What distinguishes my carved wood-epoxy composite weathervanes from most copper vanes and their makers?

The short answer is unique one-of-a-kind creations versus manufactured copies. Weathervane makers typically do not create their own shapes particularly if they are copper vanes hammered from cast molds, but rather rely on carvers to create the original shape for them to copy. Nineteenth century weathervane masters are revered for their beautiful manufactured works (J. Howard & Co. horse vanes come to mind), but credit is rarely given to the mostly unknown carvers that created their vaneʼs original shape or wood plugs that the vaneʼs iron molds were cast from. It takes skillful artisans a few hours to hammer thin sheet copper in a vaneʼs molds, and trim and solder the parts together. Creating original shapes however requires completely different skills and is significantly more time intensive - from drawing the pattern to carving and painting, all combined it typically takes up to 3 weeks to complete one of my weathervanes. In a world where uniform mass-production and time efficiencies are celebrated and the merits of time intensive original work is often unappreciated, I offer genuinely unique fish weathervanes that combines the best of modern technology with artisanship from an earlier era.

PROCESS

Wood-epoxy Composite technology has revolutionized exterior structural wood applications making it possible to create durable heirloom quality exterior fish carvings. 36" Brown Trout, scale 2:1.

Weathervanes are simple mechanical devices that have two functional requirements - that the axis be placed forward of center to turn the vane into the wind, and the vane be counter balanced to evenly distribute the weight over the axis.

Using the most practical, durable and time tested mechanical design (a spindle, spindle tube and single independent ball bearing), I use the highest quality materials available - stainless steel for the mechanical load bearing components, and state-of-the-art wood-epoxy composite technology for the vanes.

Wood-epoxy Composite Technology

WHAT IS IT?

First developed in the mid twentieth century for marine applications, wood-epoxy composite technology combines wood with modern plastic adhesives / sealers in structural wood applications. State-of-the-Art Wood-epoxy Composite technology is so strong and durable that it has revolutionized contemporary exterior structural wood applications from bridge and boat building to my weathervanes. The technology makes it possible to create durable heirloom quality exterior fish carvings.

HOW IT’S USED AND WHY IT WORKS

JOINTING - The two planks that create the body, and all the fins and tail are glued with epoxy in mortise and tongue joints to take advantage of the wood grainʼs direction and natural strength while also making the joints stronger than the wood itself.

SEALING - The first coat of epoxy penetrates into the wood grains creating a super strong structural bond and successive coats build a substantial mil (3 total coats are applied over a 12 hour period when the epoxy is still green or soft). As the epoxy cures each coat chemically links with the others and the wood grains creating a hard plastic submersible shell that is impervious to moister. Moisture is the major reason for wood failure. No moisture, no failure.

AESTHETICS

Late night and rolling on the final coat of marine epoxy on a 48" Steelhead Trout Weathervane.

There is more to creating a weathervaneʼs visual appeal than the vane itself. One could describe integrating the vane into the spire, globes and cardinal points (N-E-S-W) as presentation aesthetics. There is a major difference how nineteenth century vane makers designed their presentations when the American weathervane industry reached its creative and economic peak, and contemporary retailers and makers.

It seems to be a reasonable assertion that the change in aesthetics from the nineteenth century masterʼs to contemporary presentations came with the decline and loss of the weathervane industry in the early to mid twentieth century, and replaced a generation later by retailers that do not make weathervanes but sell imported copies from an earlier era. I can only speculate on why the change occurred but the contemporary arrangement of display components and vane (and cupolas) seems to favor a retailerʼs ground based perspective rather than roof top installations. While a show-floor based aesthetic is appealing up close, when viewed on distant roof tops often substantially shrinks into busy presentations. Nineteenth century design consciously plans an installation for its structure and is meant to be viewed from a distance. It scales the components to the vane, has open spaces that optically enlarges the overall presentation, and draws the eye to linger over details. When you purchase one of my weathervanes, you are also purchasing an aesthetic. I design my vanes and their presentation with a nod to the nineteenth century masters.

19th Century and Contemporary Weathervane Aesthetics

19th Century Aesthetics - The spire’s area above the roofline (measured from the globes outer edges) is approximately two-thirds or more than the length of the vane with substantial breathing space between the globes and cardinal points (N-E-S-W). Also, nineteenth century vane makers offered signature cardinal points, and globe diameters scaled to their different vane sizes. Contemporary vanes are usually paired with the same size and style cardinals, and globes regardless of vane size. 36" Rainbow Trout vane, 3" and 5" globes, 23" x 3 3/4" cardinal points.

Contemporary Aesthetics - The spire’s area above the roofline is typically one-third or less than the length of the vane. Most notably is the lack of space between the globes and cardinal points. While aesthetically balanced, the arrangement becomes too compressed and busy to appreciate from typical viewing distances, and optically diminishes the vane’s size and overall presentation. In the above example, the vane would only be 14" above the roofline without the additional height of the cupola (also undersized). Vane is a reproduction of the popular trotting champion Black Hawk produced by many of the nineteenth century vane makers. 36" vane, 2" and 4" globes and 18" x 3" cardinal points.

SIZING A WEATHERVANE

Rain pants, a bucket of cool water, a stack of 220 grit paper, some good music and a morning of methodical sanding. Wet-sanding the cured epoxy moisture barrier on a 48” Steelhead trout weathervane.

Contemporary weathervane makers and retailers typically sell their vanes based on an all-encompassing sizing formula of 1" of vane per foot of roof line. While it is a convenient way to sell vanes, the formula does not take into account the height and scale of a structure - both of which often have little to do with the number of feet in a roofline. The usual result is an undersized weathervane that in the extreme can instead of drawing and maintaining oneʼs eye be obscure and busy to the point of distraction. Perhaps the most important considerations when sizing a vane are the distance from which the vane will typically be viewed, its scale to the structure, and the vaneʼs expected viewing impact. Which is to say, sizing a weathervane is really best done on a case-by-case basis.

While I offer two vane sizes to meet many common viewing distances, sizing a vane for projects beyond the two sizes is a simple process. Contact me if you have questions about sizing a weathervane. Iʼll be happy to discuss them with you and what might be an appropriate size vane for your project.

Spraying the base paint coat over the cured and wet-sanded marine epoxy moisture barrier on a 48” steelhead trout weathervane. Painting and a highly durable 2-part Urethane high-gloss clear-coat with U.V. inhibitors finishes the vane. Maine 19th century carriage house loft. (Photo: Edwin Martin)

“I’ve caught literally thousands of steelhead during my fishing career. I can honestly
say that none were more beautiful than this one.”

George Haskins, Director of Real Estate The Orvis Company

The finished paint scheme and clear-coat. 48” Steelhead Trout Weathervane Bright Hen, scale 1.6:1
Commissioned by the Orvis Company for their Western Flagship Store, Bend Oregon

REFERENCES AND READING

  • Heritage Above - A Tribute to Maine’s Tradition of Weather Vanes, Marcia Burnell, Maine, Down East Books, 1991
  • Spiritually Moving - A Collection of American Folk Art Sculpture, Tom Geismar and Harvey Kahn, New York, Harry N. Abrams, 1998
  • Yankee Weathervanes, Myrna Kaye, New York, E.P. Dutton & Co., 1975
  • Mystery of the Missing Molds - or - Scattered to the Winds, Myrna Kaye, Maine, Maine Antiques Digest, May 2002
  • Weather Vanes - The History, Manufacture and Design of an American Folk Art, Charles Klamkin, New York, Hawthorn Books, 1973
  • Weathervanes, Prior Art and Available Art Book, #7274, Kenneth Lynch, Connecticut, Canterbury Publishing Co., 1971

While weathervanes can be made from virtually any shape, fish make particularly wind efficient vanes due to the natural similarities between hydro and aerodynamics. 36" Rainbow trout.

  • The Art of the Weathervane, Steve Miller, Pennsylvania, Schiffer, 1984
  • Weathervane Secrets - Historic Lore and Hidden Contents of Vanes in New England and Old England, Mabel E. Reaveley, New Hampshire, William L. Bauhan, 1984
  • J.W. Fisher 1893, The American Historical Catalog Collection, 1971
  • Illustrated Catalogue and Price List of Copper Weather Vanes etc, Facsimile of Thomas W. Jones Nineteenth century catalog
  • American Antique Weather Vanes, The Complete Illustrated Westervelt Catalog of 1883, Dover Publications, 1982

Gluing-up the body and spindle tube on a 36” Tarpon