When more than a year creeps by before one realizes that a two-part article was left unfinished (with just the initial piece published), it is a commentary on one or more of the following issues: I am aging and my memory is taking a beating; I have too many irons in the fire and my memory is lagging; I am completely disorganized and distracted by too many activities and my memory failing. The reality is that all three are true.
Last July (the one that occurred in 2018), I published an article about restoring a 60+ year old chunk of Louisville lumber that bears the name of one of my favorite ball players and former WWII U.S. Army Air Forces airman, Ferris Fain (see: Close to Completion: Restoring a 1950s Ferris Fain Signature Model Bat). The article in question has been one of Chevrons and Diamonds more popular pieces as it seems that there are many collectors who are seeking to rejuvenate their aging, decaying and damaged vintage bats. Fortunately for me, the condition of the Ferris Fain signature model Louisville Slugger bat wasn’t bad and it was absent any damage.
In the absence of vintage baseball bat restoration manuals or step-by-step guides, I had to tap into the resources available to me. Turning to my bat-collecting colleagues, I gathered tips from those who have touched on certain aspects of revitalizing the wood, slowing progress of wood rot and breathing new life into the black foil brand marks. It was also helpful that I spent time in doing extracurricular work many years ago (in high school) at the invitation of my high school principal to perform some restoration work on several vintage wood administration chairs (I was a very giving person with my advice for certain teachers) over the course of a week at the end of my sophomore year.
Despite removing very little wood material with the steel wool (sanding would have removed the patina and usage markings entirely), the surface of the bat had a fairly fresh appearance once all of the cleaner had dried. Also, my free-hand restoration of the brand (with an ultra-fine black paint pen) looked a little sloppy and too vibrant in places. Since the goal was to retain as much of the original patina and scars, I first took the steel wool over the fresh brands to remove some of the material before applying the linseed oil treatment. I also left the bat to sit untreated for a few months to allow for some oxidation and darkening of the wood before sealing it with the oil, which is where I left off in early July of 2018.
By winter, the wood of the bat darkened quite a bit. After wiping the bat down with a cloth to remove any dust or particulates that settled onto the surface over the previous several months, I cracked open the linseed oil, soaked a wad of paper towels and began to cover the bat from the bottom, working my way upward towards the handle and knob, leaving the bat saturated with the material. Leaving the bat to stand (vertically, with the handle up) for an hour allowing for the wood grain to absorb the oil. When I returned, I reapplied the oil as before and again left the bat to stand in order to allow for absorption.
After a few days of standing in the garage, the bat’s surface was dry and felt as though it needed to be rubbed out with a terry shop cloth. Through this process, excess oil was lifted and the bat’s surface responded with a satin shine that enhanced the aged patina. The oil naturally darkened and drew out the wood-grain while providing a true vintage aesthetic to the finished product.
Since completing the Fain bat, I faced a more daunting challenge when a 1940s U.S. Navy stamped Ted Williams endorsed Hillerich & Bradsby bat arrived (see: Ted Williams: BATtered, Abused and Loved). Drawing upon the Fain bat experience, the Williams and subsequent bat restorations have become a fairly simple process.
Last week I mentioned (see: My First Baseball Militaria At-bat; I Lead-off with the Marine Corps) that I was preparing for a public showing of my collection of baseball militaria at a local minor league ballpark. As a brief follow-up (ahead of an upcoming article about that experience) I should say that the experience and reception was incredible and a great success! Since I am on the subject of reviewing my recent open ended articles that may have left some readers wondering, I did have a great experience with my first restoration of a vintage baseball bat (read: Nothing To Write? I Think I’ll Just Restore a Vintage Bat, Instead).
In recent years, I connected with a few groups of fellow baseball memorabilia collectors with the idea that I wanted to learn from and share my own information among a gathering of others who have a wealth of knowledge. Sharing with and drawing from others who have been collecting for decades longer and in areas that I hadn’t previously committed much energy has served me well and opened my eyes to the extent of passion that others possess. In terms of collecting bats, I only had a smattering of pieces of lumber that I either acquired in anticipation of obtaining a player’s signature or that I landed while working at the aforementioned minor league ballpark, decades ago. Though my scant collection included some game-used wood from players who never went far with their professional careers, it was fun to have their bats (which were signed at one point since I obtained them). The other sticks in my collection were vintage store-model (they look very similar to what professional players receive from manufacturers but are sold in sporting goods stores for amateur use or autographs) bats.
Last year, I obtained an early 1950s store model, Ferris Fain signature bat that had seen a lot of use and abuse. In addition to the heavy wear, accumulation of dirty grime and house paint spills, the bat had extremely faint manufacturer’s stamps and the player’s signature mark was nearly impossible to see. Professional model bats (for game use) have deep and distinct, burned-in markings that are quite difficult to obscure with use and time but the same is untrue for these lightly-marked store-purchased pieces of lumber. Rather than the burned-brands, thes Louisville Sluggers have foil-stamped (the stamps are subtle) marks that get worn or rubbed off with use. By no means am I a vintage bat expert but I have some excellent resources to draw from. In terms of Hillerich and Bradsby (maker of the most famous brand, Louisville Slugger), this reference is very detailed in providing information to discern age and models of ‘Slugger bats.
Store model bats, though sought after by collectors, are quite affordable and can be great display pieces when shown with other items (jerseys, caps, gloves, autographed photos, cards, etc.) when costly game-used bats are unavailable or unobtainable. Player-signature store model bats were made bearing the autographs of the more prevalent stars of the game. Some signature models were continued far beyond the career years of players that transcended the game. However, with some of the more mercurial stars like Fain whose career burned brightly and faded quickly due to his all-out style of play and propensity for injuries (and fighting), signature bats are considerably more scarce. Scarcity doesn’t necessarily drive demand or values upward as they do for well-knowns such as Mantle or Williams (with store-model bat production in orders of magnitude far above Fain models) however, for collectors like me, landing one of his bats in any condition is a bit of a boon. In terms of baseball militaria, a Fain signature (store model) bat would not be a part of any collection as he wouldn’t have had such a bat made for him until he was established in the major leagues in the years following his wartime service in the Army Air Force.
When I brought this bat home and shared it among my fellow collectors, the reception for such a beat-up old stick was mixed with one collector (whom I greatly respect) offering the suggestion of unloading it in favor of one in better condition. The recommendation was that my bat wasn’t worth any restorative effort. Taking this input with a grain of salt, the collector also gave me guidance on how I should proceed and the careful steps that I should take along with the products that I should use in order to protect the patina and signs of use while cleaning it up.
Removing the grime
This bat was quite darkened by usage and years of handling and storage (no doubt in someone’s garage among the paints and garden tools). The surface was heavily oxidized to a dirty gray hue and had a variety of stains and markings from various objects that made contact with the bat. Soaking a small area of a paper towel with Goo Gone, I began to gently massage the handle of the bat exercising a bit of caution and hesitancy as the dirt began to slightly dissipate on the wood’s surface. Moving around the handle and downward (towards the barrel), I continued to wet the paper towel and lift away the dirt a little bit at a time. After nearly an hour, I completed the entire surface and noted that very little was removed despite the appearance of the nearly blackened paper towels that I had been using. After a few more hours of working the bat and noting only slight improvements (while absolutely none of the paint was removed), I decided that something more aggressive than paper was required to cut through the years of soiling.
Needing something with a bit more abrasive power, I grabbed a section of 0000 steel wool, wetted it with the Goo Gone and repeated the cleaning cycle. The steel wool began to peel away the layers of dirt with relative ease leaving a warm, aged color to the wood while retaining the usage markings and indentations in tact. The paint required a bit more attention but was no match for the fine grit of the steel pad.
Restoring the Foil Stamps
Fortunately with store-model Louisville Slugger bats, the brand and signature markings can be distinguishable even if the black foil (which resembles the burned-in brand has faded or been worn off. Since none of the black foil remained on my bat, I decided to replace it with something indelible and that would hold up to the final step in the restoration process (reconditioning the wood surface with oil). Any novice restorer might be convinced that locating an extra fine tipped pen (to re-trace the near-needle-thin lines) would be well-suited for such a task. However, ink would be problematic when met with linseed oil. If one were to forego the oil-reconditioning, the ink would be subject to oxidation and fading with time. What my fellow collector recommended was to use a pen that, instead of paint as its medium, acrylic black paint would be used to fill in the stamps and markings. The challenge that I faced in seeking a paint pen marker was to locate one with an extra-fine head and unfortunately, the best option was a 1.5mm tip. I used the Molotow ONE4ALL Acrylic Paint Marker, 1.5mm and a boatload of patience.
At my age, free-hand tracing of fine lines required the use of ample light and magnification to be able to see the original markings. Using a jeweler’s magnifying lamp afforded me with the best opportunity to carefully guide the pen through each stamped indentation. For those who are not familiar with the mechanics of paint pens, they can be quite a challenge as they require depressing of the tip (in order to draw the paint downward) which can be a bit messy and cause more paint to flow onto the bat’s surface than intended. I recommend using a newspaper to press the tip of the pen to the desired paint-saturation. I spent a few hours, stopping to rest my eyes and hand at intervals and to allow the paint to dry and avoid transferring it to my hand and to other areas of the bat.
Once the painting was done on both the brand and the signature stampings, I didn’t like the crispness of the paint. I also had a few spots where I was unable to keep the pen tip within the lines. I followed the painting with careful and deliberate application of dry steel wool removing the over-painted areas and the shiny paint surface to match the used and aged condition of the bat.
All that remains with the restoration of the Ferris Fain bat is to carefully apply linseed oil to properly treat the surface of the wood. Looking through my wood finishing supplies I see that I am lacking in linseed oil which will leave this Fain bat unfinished at present.