Wood: A ‘Ubiquitous’ Sacred Material

Volume 51, Issue 1 :: Nick and Meredith Strange

Duke University Chapel

Meticulous care was taken in the recent restoration of the woodwork of the Duke University Chapel. Photo: KC Ramsey

The recent restoration of Duke Chapel teaches some lessons about preserving the ‘soul’ of this common material.

Wood is so commonplace in sacred spaces that we seldom pause to think about its presence. Its use seems unremarkable, even in buildings as unusual as Tadao Ando’s reinforced concrete Church of the Light and Hariri Pontarini Architects’ cast-glass and marble Bahái Temple of South America. In both of these striking, contemporary structures, wood floors and furniture seem as unsurprising as they do in more traditional stone, brick, or clapboard buildings. Part of this inevitability results from wood’s very nature. It is easily found and relatively easy to work—attractive characteristics for those with limited resources. And yet, it can also be shaped into elaborate forms which demonstrate a congregation’s wealth and commitment to its faith. Furthermore, wood is warm to both sight and touch. Its color and texture can provide a comforting contrast to the sometimes immense, soaring interiors of religious spaces.

Ironically, wood’s very ubiquity works against it. We can all agree that wood can be practical and beautiful; nevertheless, we often fail to realize how it can be damaged by our tendency to take it for granted. Its familiarity encourages carelessness. Those caring for sacred spaces with particularly noteworthy woodwork are to be commended if they are sensitive to the importance of conserving it against the everyday hazards of normal use. If the building is famous enough, normal use can include more than activities usually associated with religious services.

Bringing Duke Chapel Back

Duke University Chapel from main quad.

Duke University Chapel from main quad. Photo: Courtesy of The Century Guild

Such is the case with Duke University Chapel in Durham, North Carolina. When it was completed 83 years ago, it became not only a center of worship for the university but also a tourist attraction and concert venue. Thousands of people have admired its chancel and its organ casework, attended services and performances there, and generally left their mark on its pews and other furnishings. Time has also left traces: dust and dirt and the dulling of old finishes; scratches, cracks, and visible damage from decades of changing temperature, variable humidity, and even the occasional earthquake. In 2015, the University responded to the need to repair structural attrition, replace the roof, and modernize the chapel’s systems, which meant closing it for a year.

Included in this renovation, the first major one since the chapel’s dedication in 1935, was restoring and conserving most of the existing woodwork. Although our company, The Century Guild, has been building and restoring furniture for sacred spaces for over 35 years, this task differed in sheer volume from any we had faced before.

At over 18,000 square feet, the interior of the chapel is large and contains a correspondingly large number of wooden pieces necessary for it to function as it was meant to. Besides 120 pews ranging in size from 10- to 19-feet long, there are doors, modesty panels, chairs, choir stalls, choir screens, 60-foot-tall organ casework, built-in clergy seating, altars, and a 25-foot-tall reredos. Since the Chapel is neo-Gothic in style, much of this woodwork is elaborately carved and most of it was showing its age. This was perhaps most evident in pieces such as the choir screens and main altar where tiny carvings and bits of Gothic tracery were worn down or missing entirely. And then there was dust.

Cleaned Organ Tower

Cleaned Organ Tower: Same tower after cleaning, seen through specially erected scaffolding. Photo: Courtesy of The Century Guild

Dusty Organ Tower

Dusty Organ Tower: Hard-to-reach and very dusty organ-casework tower before cleaning. Photo: Courtesy of The Century Guild

The task, therefore, was basically twofold: restore or replace any missing parts; clean and refresh the existing finishes. “Refresh” because, at the very beginning everyone involved realized that it would be wrong to make the woodwork look shiny and new. The age of the chapel and its history on campus should be acknowledged. We knew that if we simply sanded the wood and applied lacquer, we would alter the original finish and patina of the wood. Yet, in many cases, the original finishes were severely scratched and worn, as well as mottled due to uneven application of a tinted varnish—either originally, or over the years. The challenge became to develop a method to remove scratches yet preserve the color and character original to the wood, merge in new wood repairs, and finally build up a new finish that blended with the original. This was especially challenging as much of the woodwork had originally been fumed with ammonia as well as “sandblasted” with walnut shells to establish an “old world” character.

All this was further complicated by the small size of our company, the amount of work to be done, the limited time frame in which to do it, and by the number of other projects happening concurrently—a logistic knot ultimately simplified by having us begin work on the pews 18 months before the chapel was closed. This reduced the amount of work to be done during the closing and it gave us an opportunity to test possible cleaning and refreshing methods in our studio before we had to apply them to the very large amount of woodwork in situ.

Because the chapel was still open for services, we could only work on the pews in groups of five, which were delivered to our studio and then exchanged two weeks later with a new group. Most of the pews bore witness to their years of loyal service. Their ends and support legs were discolored at the floor with residues from mopping and wax. Many center-leg supports were weakened. Decades of hand-wear had created a black, waxy residue on the backs and end caps. In some areas, the finish was totally gone. And there were chips, dings, and scratches everywhere. Furthermore, the longer pews had been built in two lengths and then seamed together. Often, the seaming joint had been compromised, pulling the two lengths apart.

Pews after restoration.

Choir-stall pews much brighter after restoration. Photo: Courtesy of The Century Guild

Pew before restoration

Typical pew before restoration, showing dulling, scratches, and other wear. Photo: Courtesy of The Century Guild

‘Well-Cared-For,’ Not ‘Refinished’

In keeping with everyone’s desire to maintain a “well-cared-for rather than refinished look,” we hand-cleaned the existing finish with mineral spirits and abrasive pads. Where scratches were particularly deep, we softened the finish with solvents thus giving the tinted varnish a more even appearance. In the worst cases, we scrapped the damaged finish off, being careful to leave as much of the fumed-oak color as possible. We then re-amalgamated the remaining finish with solvents and sanded lightly. Where the fumed-oak effect was missing (such as on repaired or replaced carvings) we treated the wood with a chemical that changed the color of the oak without using ammonia. We then applied two to three coats of tinted wiping varnish, with special attention paid to those areas where the color of repairs needed additional work.

Once the chapel was officially closed, we began work on the chancel furnishings that could be removed. Those we were not working on in our studio, along with the restored pews, were moved into climate-controlled storage to prevent any damage from changes in temperature or humidity. With the exception of the choir stalls and screens, the chancel pieces presented a slightly different challenge from that of the pews. The main altar, for example, while needing a refreshed finish, was also missing some 200 bits of carving, many of them very small.

Main altar section after restoration.

Main altar section after restoration. Photo: Courtesy of The Century Guild

Altar restoration in progress

Altar restoration in progress—lighter areas are newly applied bits waiting to be carved and colored. Photo: Courtesy of The Century Guild

Replacing those missing bits was where our experience in furniture making became most important. We estimate that throughout the whole project we had to fashion more than 2,000 patches, apply them to the affected areas, and then carve and color them to match the existing originals. Once that was done, we refurbished everything using the techniques we had perfected while working on the pews.

Having restored what could be moved, we turned our attention to the chancel’s in situ woodwork, much of which was simply dirty or scratched. Modifying the method used on the pews, we applied a diluted organic cleaner with a stiff nylon brush and then wiped it off with clean rags. When it was necessary to expose “new” wood, we artificially aged it with two or three coats of wiping varnish and then burnished it with natural-bristle brushes until it reached the desired sheen.

Because there are many square feet of in situ woodwork, much of it in organ casework as much as 65 feet high and accessible via specially installed scaffolding only, this effort took three months of concentrated attention. With the highest and hence dustiest casework, we began by vacuuming the carvings before using the same apply-organic-cleaner-wipe-and-if-necessary-wipe-again method used elsewhere.

Cleaning the reredos.

A toothbrush is used to clean the teeth and other details of a figure on the reredos. Photo: Courtesy of The Century Guild

The reredos, with its multiple figures, scenes, and symbols carved in English lime wood, presented a special challenge. Lime, a type of linden or basswood, is soft and the carvings are intricate and delicate. These were dusted by hand, using some unusual brushes, and then softly polished to bring out the details.

Throughout the process—pews, furniture, fixed woodwork—we used a minimal amount of chemicals–no strippers, no sprayed finishes. The end result, while very labor intensive, meets the goal of making the chapel’s woodwork and furniture look well cared for and of an appropriate age.

Preserving the ‘Soul’

While not all the stewards of churches with noteworthy woodwork can muster the resources for such an intensive approach, it is best to remember that wood was once a living substance and responds to care. Regular dusting and applications of gentle cleaners such as lemon oil will go a long way toward preserving its spirit.

And there is spirit. As woodworkers, we would be the first to agree with the great George Nakashima’s belief that every tree has a “soul.” Perhaps wood is a felicitous choice for sacred spaces for reasons other than its practicality and beauty.

The authors are the owners of The Century Guild, a studio in Graham, North Carolina, devoted to designing and building one-of-a-kind wooden furniture. Since 1982 they have been involved in the creation of chancel furniture and other pieces for more than 40 sacred spaces, both old and new. They can be reached at: [email protected]