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Gamewell and other fire alarm boxes- restorations/repairs

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  • Gamewell and other fire alarm boxes- restorations/repairs

    I haven't found much in the way of new posts on this topic here so I thought I would post this and also mention the folder I added to my web site that specifically addresses the correct, historically sensitive restorations of these antiques- pre 1930 era.

    I've remained silent far too long on the carnage I've been seeing done to these antiques under the guise of and improperly termed: "restored" (usually by people trying to sell them)

    A 100 year old antique should never look like it is a cheap reproduction that just shipped over from China, and that is how most of the "restored" antique boxes look to me.

    What is being done to these boxes? I see these boxes being sandblasted, original casting defects filled in with cheap bondo, sanded down with what must be 600 grit paper and given a super bright red ultra gloss powder paint or automotive paints, then comes the silly, totally un-authentic "Gamewell" eagle toppers and finials that look like they were made in China out of plated potmetal for flagpoles being added to the boxes as though they were original.

    Replacing the original broken glass with cheap plexiglass.

    "Decorating" or "enhancing" the box with gold/white/silver pinstriping, highlighting the logo, polishing the brass hinges etc.

    None of these can in any way be considered restoration items, restoration doesn't involve adding on what never was, replacing perfectly good original antique bolts, screws and machine screws with new brass ones just so that they can be polished.

    What people forget is that each of us is only a temporary steward for these items, as they pass down a succession of different owners and each one of them makes changes, sandblasts, replaces bolts, eventually the irreparable damage will leave little of the original.

    Museums do not "restore" antiques like this, they clean and conserve, now, if a box has ugly, half ripped off newer stickers and grafitti plastered all over it then I consider that box a candidate for what I will call a "city crew repainting" as they would normally, routinely do every few years on boxes in use.
    They leave the inside alone and repaint the outside, no eagle toppers, no gold/white/silver logo highlighting, no polishing brass that was meant to be and was originally painted.

    I have a FDNY box recently purchased that the previous owner repainted with super high gloss paint because the previous owner to him had sandblasted the aluminum box. He also polished the brass, both of them made damaging mistakes, sandblasting damages the metal, wire wheels and polishing brass also wears away the metal.

    I have completely un-done that "restoration" and returned the box back to a more appropriate original appearance.

    Here's a good example of how someone tried to "restore" an aluminum Gamewell box, this is just so ridiculous, the guy ruined this antique completely:

    The one who had this box obviously, and amazingly appears to have tried removing the old paint using a freaking angle grinder of all things! Can people really be this stupid?? obviously so as the photo proves!
    The picture of the back and top of it tells the whole story of what happened, on the right a piece of the metal is broken out and gone.

    Here's what this sad horror story of an attempted "restoration" tells us-

    This person started grinding the old lead paint off with an angle grinder, grinding deep grooves into the metal as he did it- these will show through the repaint like nothing else!

    As he was almost finished he either lost control of the angle grinder and it kicked back and shoved the box off the table, or otherwise somehow the box FELL off whatever table or workbench was being used, and it landed on the top and broke that piece out where it hit- probably the concrete floor in a garage or driveway.

    And this is how someone takes a 90 year old antique that was worth about $350-$450 and assigned it it's new value after "restoration" of 99 cents on his Ebay auction some time back, it's worth about that much now as scrap.

    I'm not looking for "debates" on this issue, and this forum here is probably not the best place to do that anyway, but new collectors need the information and guidance so they don't make the same careless mistakes as the one who ruined that aluminum box did, they also need to be taught the value of retaining a 100 year old antique in as original a condition as possible. As coin collectors all say- never clean coins, there's a good reason for it- it ruins their value and damages the metal.

    For those who are interested in a more sensitive museum type non-destructive restoration, I will continue posting photos and articles on this here:

    Restorations of Gamewell & other fire alarm boxes
    The correct way to do a restoration of a 100+ year old antique


    Here's an example of one of my 1896-1906 era boxes that had been left in it's as-found 100 year old antique condition, all I did to this was clean with hot soap and water, the mechanism was cleaned separately and oiled with clock oil. The box only needs the two missing glass pieces replaced and it is restored to working and clean condition. It will not be sandblasted and repainted or have anything else done to it, you can't replicate a 100 year patina as the paint on this has, this is what a museum would do with something like this- clean and conserve and restore to it's original working order.

    The paint is on tight and not peeling off.

    Last edited by wolff; 01-18-2015, 11:50 PM.

  • #2
    Originally posted by wolff View Post
    a "city crew repainting" as they would normally, routinely do every few years on boxes in use.
    They leave the inside alone and repaint the outside, no eagle toppers, no gold/white/silver logo highlighting, no polishing brass that was meant to be and was originally painted.
    I realize you said you weren't looking for debate. Which is fine. But I wanted to point out that not all boxes are kept in the condition you posted above. Many are still in service.

    Take for example this beauty in Buffalo, NY, Box 117. Sorry for the poor lighting- it was 10 pm.

    And this one in downtown Portsmouth, NH:

    Notice the white lettering on the box in Buffalo. And also notice the reflection of the mortar joints on the top of the box in Portsmouth in the first picture. Granted, both of these boxes are more recent than the one you posted, but if they've been repainted it has obviously been done with care and not anything that I would describe as "city crew". Next time I'm in Boston I'll make it a point to get some pictures of the boxes there to compare them as well.

    While I agree with you that using a grinder to remove paint is nowhere near the best idea, I won't disparage anyone that puts time and effort into a restoration of these pieces of history. IMHO, whether it's preservation like you have done above, or restoration like so many others do, it really doesn't matter. What matters is that these boxes are saved from the scrap pile and the owners get enjoyment out of them.
    Last edited by dfelix22000us; 01-24-2015, 01:13 PM.


    • #3
      If you are on Facebook, there is a great Gamewell Box Group. We have quite a few members. Great source of parts, information, restoration tips, etc etc etc.
      "Loyalty Above all Else. Except Honor."


      • #4
        ten characters
        Last edited by wolff; 08-05-2016, 05:23 PM.


        • #5
          I have 3 FDNY boxes in my collection, here was one of the doors as found, obviously it was corroded and had been wet and it barely functioned

          After cleaning to remove the crud and restore it back to working condition, it now looks like this other one I have, this is cleaned and the mechanism lubricated, the bare brass has not been polished or painted, it never had been originally

          The corroded one in the first photo was also missing this brass dust cover that I slipped off another to measure and clean:

          I purchased the same heavy gage brass sheet this was made from originally and fabricated an exact replacement using this one for a guide. This is what should be done when possible because finding just a replacement dust cover will be nearly impossible. The new one will be given a chemical patina to age it to match the rest.

          Here is another box I have who the former owner painted with high gloss auto enamel, and polished the brass that never was polished- in fact a lot of these spade handles appear to have had a nickel or other silver colored plating on them, this one either didn't or it was removed chemically or mechanically just to polish the brass.
          The box shell when he had it had already been sand blasted to bare metal, so that was a lost cause retaining any original paint.

          I removed this newer style door which I don't like the looks of anyway:

          And replaced it with the older style door I had and then after lightly sanding the former owner's glossy automotive paint I repainted the whole exterior with a Sherwin Williams satin alkyd red that very closely matches the original red inside, and this is how the exterior looks. These particular boxes originally did have either white or silver instructional lettering, but the brass guard and hinges were originally just painted red like the rest and that is how I restored this back to:

          Obviously my option to keep the exterior in an as-found appearance was not there, the shell had been sandblasted and painted by the previous 2 owners, the door did not have a box with it and it would never match any other shell I could ever find in color etc., and while it's paint looked pretty good, vandals spray painted some black on it and let it drip down, so due to those two reasons it was repainted and matches the shell now.

          This returns the box to it's antique but clean and in working condition like it would be in service. Nothing inside was repainted or polished, the inner box door even still has the Stewart Steel maker's name on it in faded white letters.

          I did not sandblast anything
          Last edited by wolff; 08-05-2016, 05:24 PM.


          • #6
            Originally posted by FWDbuff View Post
            If you are on Facebook, there is a great Gamewell Box Group. We have quite a few members. Great source of parts, information, restoration tips, etc etc etc.

            Hi, I am on facebook and know the group, in fact I was posting there a couple of weeks ago or so and the group owner messaged me that he didn't like my comments about the repainted/modified boxes and eagle toppers added to them, one thing lead to another and he threatened to remove me from the group and ban me if I continued posting what he claimed were "disparaging" remarks about other member's "restorations", so I told him I was leaving the group and wished him well. Must have been the gold colored eagle topper issue where I stated that these flag pole eagles looked fake and stupid on a 100 year old antique. I addressed no one in particular there in any post, for all I know he's the one selling them and got sensitive over it.

            I don't know if my leaving the group also deleted my posts there or not, but I also found the facebook format really stinks and it's not a good layout for this type of content.

            I took the photos and content I have there and also put them on my web site so they act as a resource and alternative for people searching for information etc.
            Last edited by wolff; 02-07-2015, 11:42 AM.


            • #7
              Here is the complete article titled:

              "40 second drama: What happens when you pull a fire alarm"

              By Herbert Johnson
              Photos by W.W. Morris

              Popular Science magazine, May 1950 starting on page 162

              The magazine is now out of copyright, and in the public domain.

              Someone was selling the four ripped out pages from the 1950 original magaziens to sell separately, destroying the magazine in the process. I purchased half a dozen original and intact magazines and will be offering them complete for less than the $24 ripped out article was listed on Ebay for. It just amazes me what is going on with people destroying antique books and periodicals just to sell ripped out pages and pictures from as "art prints"

              Also, here is a free copy of the article to download instead of destroying more 65 year old magazines.


              A larger scanned version than mine can be obtained for free from Google books, this page is here for a public service, if someone wants to buy the article the original complete Popular Science magazines are sold on Ebay for around $7, I saw at least 6 for sale from $5 to about $10.
              It is a very cool article and names many of the parts inside the box, it shows box 723 which has recently been removed for some reason and replaced with an O'Brien post according to Google street view which shows "before" and " "after" where you can see the newer concrete and the bottom half of an O'Brien post waiting for the box to be installed on top.

              The mechanism in the article appears to be a Brown Bros make, that was probably removed in the 70s to be replaced with the police/fire intercom.

              Don't pay for article pages ripped out of old periodicals and sold on Ebay and elsewhere.

              Last edited by wolff; 04-15-2015, 01:50 PM.


              • #8
                hello, I am currently restoring a SAFA street box (Gamewell competitor), if anybody has any tips on restoration, please let me know. I just finished getting all of the paint stripped off, and I will soon start to prime it. If anybody has a Safa box, could you please let me know where it grounds?, I can't find any ground bolt or wire. Also, I plan to hook the box to a bell once it is done. I know they run 12 volts DC 100 Milliamps, but I cannot find any gamewell gongs or bells, I also don't know exactly how to wire the bell either. Can I use a regular fire bell?, what changes do I need to make? Thanks


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