Backstage Pass to North Dakota History

This blog takes you behind the scenes of the State Historical Society of North Dakota. Get a glimpse at a day-in-the-life of the staff, volunteers, and partners who make it all possible. Discover what it takes to preserve North Dakota's natural and cultural history. We encourage dialogue, questions, and comments!

Chris Dorfschmidt's blog

Painting Patina: Aging items for Stutsman County Courthouse Civics Exhibit

Disclaimer: No antiques or artifacts were harmed in the making of this project.

When I am not working at my job of helping our amazing state historic sites, I like to spend my time engaging in my hobby of painting. I don’t paint on canvas, nor do I consider myself an artist. I build and paint models, miniatures, and dioramas. It is a challenging hobby where you attempt to paint a chunk of plastic, metal, or resin to make it appear as a realistic representation of an actual item or person. Occasionally, I even get the opportunity to apply my hobby skills to my job. If you follow the 1883 Stutsman County Courthouse Facebook page, you might recall a post about my repainting the label on a Burrow’s Adding Machine that is part of the new civics exhibit. I also painted the handle on some surveyor’s tape and the finial on a couple of flag poles. My colleague and fellow Historic Sites Manager Rob Hanna had one more challenge for me. One of the pieces he purchased for the Stutsman Courthouse civics exhibit was a double inkwell. When it came in the mail, it did not look that great. It was shiny, full of flashing (remnants of the casting process) and some of the detail was missing. While the flashing was easy to remove with a metal file, adding a patina to it would require some thought.

silver artifact

This is the inkwell after the flashing is removed and before weathering.

When trying to paint a part of a miniature that represents metal, there are two techniques used: true metallic metal (TMM) and non-metallic metal (NMM). TMM is when you use a paint that has metallic flake in it. Thanks to the flake in the paint, it has a reflective look that mimics metal. It tends to be an easier technique to learn. NMM is using paint that lacks the metallic flake, so the painter has to create gradients, shading, and highlights with multiple thin layers that create the illusion of reflective metal. It can be a hard concept to wrap your mind around.


The knight is an example of TMM, and the thief is an example of NMM. Photo from the Bird with a Brush blog.

I bring up these techniques to explain what comes next. A couple of years ago, I learned a new recipe to add shading to my TMM painting. It is about creating a wash---paint thinned down to a watery consistency and painted over the figure to pool in the cracks and crevices---and then using it to weather the metal to make it look old and used. To make my wash, I am using several different paints that each have a specific purpose. Blue liner is the main ingredient in this recipe. Painters use liner paints to separate different colors on a model and have a specific consistency that fits that purpose.

ink bottles

For this recipe, the blue and brown liners add color to wash. I need to add a metallic paint to mix to help maintain the appearance of metal. I tried to find one in my collection that would match the metal of the inkwell, and I settled on polished silver. The last component is a gloss varnish that is an acrylic resin. Once the wash dries, it strengthens it so that it can stand up to cleaning and helps preserve the luminosity of the metal. Once I have these paints mixed, I add drops of water until the paint has the right consistency.

ink pallet

If you look at the lip of the pallet, you can see how the paint flowing back into the well is thin and translucent. That is the consistency that I want.

With my wash complete, I did a simple test to see how it would work on the inkwell. I chose a spot that was small and hidden away on the back of the inkwell. I applied the wash on a section, and then used a paper towel to wipe off the excess. What is left behind is a shaded metal where the raised portions pop out from the darker crevices.

inkwell closeup

I tested a section on the back of the inkwell.

After the success of the test, I began applying the process on the rest of the inkwell. I started at the bottom and worked my way to the top.

inkwell closeup

I applied the wash in small sections. Using a large brush, I slopped it on as I tried to make sure that if filled all the cracks and crevices.

inkwell closeup w ink

I then used a paper towel to wipe the wash off the raised areas.

I continued this around the entire inkwell. Most places required two coats. In areas where I wanted to emphasize the shadow, I would wipe off less of the wash.

inkwell wide

In-progress photo where you can see that the base of the inkwell now has a slight blueish tone, and the details stand out better than the upper parts of the inkwell.

Completed inkwell patina

Completed progress on the inkwell.

Overall, I am thrilled with how this turned out. If you want to get a closer look at this inkwell, you can find it amongst the other beautiful items in the new civics exhibit at the Stutsman County Courthouse.

final product

Field Trips: Setting the Hook for Life-long Engagement

I have always been a storyteller. My notebooks from school contained bits of stories or skits, things I found amusing, or ideas that would not leave my head until I had them down on paper. I still carry a notebook for that reason. My love of storytelling was a part of what made me an engaging teacher. Like a good story, I had to hook my audience. Right now, my focus is on field trips and how we can create a memorable experience. Students are not going to remember all of the facts that you try to cram into a visit, but they will remember an activity or experience they can’t do anywhere else. Some sites come with a built-in hook. The Ronald Reagan Minuteman Missile State Historic Site is a great example. Where else can you go 50 feet underground and see the keys that could start a nuclear apocalypse? That is my hook. Once hooked, we can dive deeper into the history, stories, and people. But just like fishing, you often need more than one lure, and that is what our sites are currently developing.

Several of our sites are currently working on revamping what happens on a field trip. We want to move past the formula of watch this video, follow these rules, and complete this worksheet disguised as a scavenger hunt. These sites are developing hands-on activities and programs to engage students. Up at Pembina, they are working on creating a game that simulates the fur trade. It is still in development, but once completed, it should make for a great learning experience. The Ronald Reagan Minuteman Missile State Historic Site is developing new educational days where students can learn about rockets and UAVs (drones).

Museum staff with fur collection piece

Site Supervisor Jeff Blanchard shows off some of the props collected for Pembina State Museum's fur trading activity to Sites Manager Rob Hanna.

Programs are not the only solution. Take all of the new changes coming to the Stutsman County Courthouse. A hands-on exhibit that teaches about civics and the role of elected government officials people tend to vote for while not know what the position even does is a fantastic learning tool I wished existed when I was teaching government. This highly original new exhibit has the potential to reach kids outside of a historical context. We added LED lighting to show off the marvelous mechanisms of these magnificent machines and inspire the mechanically minded student. The history may not hook them, but the engineering might. I have the pleasure of touching up the paint on the courthouse's new 1908 Burrows Adding machine. I am not going to lie. I could have finished it in a day, but I am taking my time so that it can spend more time on my desk. It is that cool.

man works on vintage typewriter

Art fabricator Jonah Eslinger designed and installed LEDs into a typewriter for the new civics exhibit at Stutsman County Courthouse.

But not every school is going to be able to travel to all of our sites. The Chateau de Mores is most likely never going to give a field trip to students in Fargo. We need to address that. For the past few months, we have been working on developing a new program we are calling Ask-an-Expert. Using Skype, our fantastic content experts at the sites will be able to engage with classes across the state. The idea is simple. Our sites have created a list of topics that connect their site themes with the content covered in North Dakota Studies. Teachers can introduce the content to their students, have them think up questions, and then as a class call-in and have students ask their questions to experts. It is still in development, but we have run a few tests, and we were excited to see students engaging in historical thinking. In the next month or so, we hope to have some more information for teachers on how they can take part in testing this program out with us. We are excited by the potential and the possibility of expanding our offering and working towards adding full-fledged virtual field trips of sites.

Field trips allow students to see the concepts that they are learning in school in action. For some students, it may be the first time that they experience a museum, historic site, science center, or wiring closet. (Yes, I took several field trips to check out wiring closets.) We have an excellent opportunity to create lifelong museum-goers. All we need to dangle the hook and see what bites.