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Barnstead, Chichester, Epsom, Gilmanton, Northwood, and Pittsfield NH

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Front Page News

November 4, 2015


St. Stephens Episcopal Church Rose Window Restoration: A Carpenter’s Extraordinary Journey

Submitted By Fr. Curtis Metzger

Pittsfield rosewindow1.jpg

A few years  ago St. Stephens Episcopal Church in Pittsfield began to notice that the woodwork holding its rose window in place was deteriorating and probably hadn’t had much attention since it was installed in the 1860’s .  A rose window is a circular stained glass window typically at the back of the church near the main entrance. This type of window is usually found in large churches or cathedrals. St. Stephen’s window is one of a few in the immediate area. It is unusual in its design because most of the glass is actually painted. This is fairly common and still considered stained glass.  The window is mostly shades of brown in a geometric design with fleur-de-lis and incorporates some brilliant blues and reds at its center. The side windows all would originally have been translucent letting in light to read the prayer book and hymnal (some of these side windows are now other beautiful examples of stained glass).  The light from the altar windows at the front balanced by the light from the rose window in the back sets a very special mood in the sanctuary.  The design and balance plays off the wooden walls (all American Chestnut) and gives a warmth to the space.  The sanctuary would be stark and unwelcoming without those sources of colored light.


Having discovered this problem with the window, St. Stephen’s approached Neil English of Epsom to discuss the restoration of the rose window located above the vestibule on the gable end of the building facing Main Street in Pittsfield. Work was begun this May and has recently been completed. The way this restoration was done has its own unique story, including some architecture and woodworking sleuthing,  refined crafting by skilled carpenters, and use of equipment that was similar to the machines used to create the original framing. 


The project was a collaborative effort between Neil English and Jason and John Witham of Witham Construction in Barnstead. In May a wooden scaffold was erected above the vestibule to provide a safe working platform and a sample of the decayed moldings was removed. It was then necessary to have shaper knives ground in order to reproduce those circular moldings in Witham’s shop in Barnstead. Shaper knives are custom made blades incorporated into machinery to get the correct shape of a wooden molding. English sought the advice of Alden Witham (uncle of the Withams of Barnstead)  at  Contractor’s Millwork and made the trip to Alden’s shop in Sharon Springs, New York, molding samples in hand. Alden runs a window and sash shop that utilizes vintage equipment to produce his work. His shop is located in the old Sharon Springs train station and all the woodworking equipment in that shop is powered by leather flat belts reaching down from a massive main shaft mounted on the ceiling. His oldest machine is from the Civil War era while his newest machine was manufactured in 1910. Alden recommended that  English contact Bob Knourek at Woodworkers’ Tool Works in Melrose, Wisconsin for the desired knives. 


Bob said he could certainly help and requested that a sample of the moldings be sent to his firm so that knives could be ground to the actual molding profiles. Woodworkers’ Tool Works, in business since 1907, prides itself on quick turnaround and offers shipping within 24 hours of receiving an order. English  shipped the molding samples and began the wait. Ten days later he called Bob to see if he had a tracking number for the package that English assumed had been shipped and was now lost somewhere in the mail only to have Bob inform him that he could not fill the order. The shaft size on the shaper in the Barnstead shop was too small and would not be strong enough to remove the amount of wood needed to produce the moldings without the molding head flying apart in the process. For safety reasons, he could not fill the order. He suggested the English go back to Contractor’s Millwork in Sharon Springs to have the moldings made up there on the vintage equipment that would certainly be heavy enough to do the job. So English called Sharon Springs and asked Alden to confer directly with Bob and discuss shaper shaft and molding head sizes so the knives could be ground that would properly fit his vintage equipment. Once the knives were manufactured, Jason would travel to Sharon Springs  and produce the moldings on his uncle’s equipment. Another week went by and English called Wisconsin to check on the progress of the order. Woodworkers’ Tool Works informed him that it was currently out of the particular tool steel needed for the knives and that the steel was currently on back order. 


In the meantime, English and the Withams’ constructed a layout table at the shop in Barnstead and set to work cutting out the western red cedar blanks for the eight foot diameter moldings. Three sets of moldings were needed so three separates sets of templates were created and closely fit to the scribe mark etches in the surface of the layout table. Those templates were then transferred to the cedar planks and the blanks were sawed out with a band saw  and finish sanded. 


Eventually the knives were produced and shipped to the New York shop. Five days later Jason left for Sharon Springs on a Sunday morning. English expected that Jason would run the moldings on Monday and be back on Tuesday but there were a few more glitches on the horizon.  By Thursday he had still not heard from Jason. It seems that Uncle Alden really wanted to use a particular double shaft shaper that was in his warehouse and not currently installed in his shop. In fact, that shaper was in the far back corner of a very packed warehouse that actually required a day of work with a forklift l to empty the ware house in order to retrieve the shaper. Once it was outside the warehouse, Alden went home and moved an antique tractor to the premises in order to power the shaper via flat belt. Jigs then had to be made to hold the more delicate molding blank before it could be run through the shaper. Jason got back to Barnstead on Friday but not until after he had helped Uncle Alden pour a concrete foundation for his camp in return for all the time that his uncle had consumed on the St. Stephen’s Church project.  So much for all the careful scheduling and the month of May and the first part of June that English had set aside for the project but like they say, “A way will always open.”


The rose window has now been restored to its former glory with new western red cedar moldings, new sheathing boards, a new Plexi-glass storm covering and two coats of fresh paint on all surfaces. The new yellow paint was matched from a sample of the original un-oxidized paint found beneath the original moldings. The church is not open very often during the week, but the Sunday service is at 9:30 and all are welcome to join our service, or stop by after (10:30-ish) to see the window. The cost of restoration is mostly covered, but if you care about preserving local historic art and architecture, donations are always welcome.






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