Conservator pinpoints original colors

Teacher and consultant Frances Ford examines a paint sample under a special microscope in the conservation lab at the Clemson and College of Charleston’s Historic Preservation Program. Her research is helping property owners find the original colors of their building.

Frances Ford may be the only person in Charleston who uses a No. 15 surgical scalpel blade and a bone saw without performing surgery.

Her work has a forensic element, but it’s not medicine. She discovers more about old buildings.

Ford spends part of her work week teaching. She’s a conservation lecturer and lab specialist with Clemson and the College of Charleston’s joint Historic Preservation Program.

But she moonlights as a consultant who can use that lab’s high-tech tools to help property owners pinpoint the many colors that their buildings have been painted over time.

The new pink hue of the French Huguenot Church is just one example of her handiwork. Ford discovered that was the church’s original color when first built in the 19th century.

Many discoveries aren’t nearly as interesting.

“That’s a problem: People who have expectations for a result, but that’s not what we have when I’m done,” she says. “Sometimes, the colors are just beige, white and then white and then beige ... .”

The process begins with Ford using a scalpel to carve tiny samples, about four square millimeters, from wood siding, window trim, a wall, etc. There’s an art to choosing these spots because good painters often remove a good bit of old paint before they start.

“You have to think of how the painters prep,” she says. “You’ve got to try to outsmart the people who came before.”

The samples then are placed in a tiny ice cube tray, numbered, covered with a bioplast that hardens into a hard clear rock after a day or two. Then, the cube is cut with the diamond-tipped Isomex bone saw and put under a Nikon Eclipse 80i telescope with a Craic spectrophotometer.

“We have more advanced equipment for paint analysis than any other grad school in the country. No one else has this equipment,” Ford says. “It’s cool, no doubt about it.”

The best images are photographed and analyzed, then Ford types them up into a report for the property owner, who may be looking for guidance about repainting or who may simply want more documentation on the building.

Ford acknowledges she’s not the top expert. She defers on all things to Susan Buck of Delaware, whose doctoral study of the paints inside Charleston’s Aiken-Rhett House won a University of Delaware prize for the outstanding doctoral dissertation in the Humanities in 2003.

But Ford has worked on some interesting jobs of her own, assisting in analyzing the paint on the weather vane atop Independence Hall in Philadelphia.

While working on her master’s degree, she took 16 samples from an ornate cornice inside the grand Charleston home at 60 Montagu St.

Should a client desire, and be able to pay for it, Ford can work with Clemson Restoration Institute’s Warren Lasch Conservation lab to do further analysis, including pinpointing not just colors but materials constituting each layer of pigment and binder.

Most of the time, however, she’s simply trying to find which color on the Benjamin Moore palette was the original one for this or that bit of siding, wall or trim.

“I’m trying to make it more accessible, to devise a system where I can do it with a reasonable amount of money for a client so they’re willing to go forward,” she says.

It’s a fine line. Ford charges about $350 for one sample area, which she says is probably not enough. On the other hand, she says, “I certainly write proposals that aren’t accepted.”

And while she doesn’t get enough business to work as a conservator full-time, she’s still in demand.

“Just when I finish one project, it seems the phone rings again.”

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.