Getting the lead out of Tabernacle benches

Work deemed expensive but justified.

Sanded benches, pre-painting. — Stacey Rupolo

Tabernacle benches over a century and a half old have received a painted-on lead sealant as part of their ongoing restoration. The sealant, Ecobond, renders the bench paint nonhazardous by EPA standards, Ecobond representative Paul Barthel said in a telephone conversation with The Times.

“The hazardous lead in these benches has since been sealed and treated by using a product that actually reduces the bioavailability if accidentally ingested,” Mr. Barthel wrote in an email.

Bioavailability refers to the degree to which lead is absorbed by and affects the body.

Ecobond or related products are used to mitigate lead on everything from bridges to lighthouses, Mr. Barthel said.

An early view of the benches and their under-oak habitat. “The benches were built in 1846 and 1861 and were out in the elements until 1879 when the Tabernacle was built,” CJ Rivard, executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association said.

Retired painter Fred Huss advocated for Ecobond to be used on the benches at the venerable Oak Bluffs institution. A former Camp Meeting Association board member and a third-generation worshiper at the Tabernacle, Mr. Huss said his familiarity with lead paint and the regulations governing its remediation informed his decision to push for sealant to be part of the bench restoration process.

“[It’s] a more expensive way to do it, but the right way to do it,” he said.

Mr. Huss said he was one of the first Islanders to get the state’s lead-paint certification, and thereafter always made sure his crews had masks, Tyvek suits and other safety gear necessary to work with lead paint. During his time as a painter, he said, his company painted at least 40 to 50 cottages at the Camp Meeting grounds.

Adalberto Silva, the contractor hired to strip, seal, and paint the benches, has done a sound job of employing HEPA vacuums and following other state lead protocols during the refurbishment process, Mr. Huss said.

A specialist in the restorative painting of antique buildings, Mr. Silva said he worked with a six-person crew to prime the benches with the sealant before rolling on two finish coats with a conventional paint. His team has also sealed and painted a number of Tabernacle chairs that he described as much more time-consuming than the benches due to the greater intricacy of their construction.

An autobody jack rig customized by woodworker Robert Gatchell to dismantle the Tabernacle benches for restoration.

In addition to consulting on the painting aspects of the benches, Mr. Huss has directly assisted woodworker Robert Gatchell with repairwork on them. He lauded Mr. Gatchell’s patient carpentry work, much of which necessitates tricky dismantling of wood joints that have been reinforced with everything from hand-cut nails to deck screws over the years, he said. The separation work requires use of a reciprocating saw to cut through the nails, Mr. Gatchell said. It also requires an autobody jack Mr. Gatchell customized himself, Mr. Huss noted. The jack slowly disjoins wooden parts without damaging them, Mr. Gatchell wrote. Some parts too aged or decayed are replaced, then “everything is put back together, using construction adhesive and stainless steel screws.”

As a kid, Mr. Huss recalls playing in and around the Tabernacle like it was a “jungle gym.”

He also remembers activity of more serious concern.

“I gnawed on those benches when I was little,” he said. He said he imagined other kids must have too.
Lead is widely known as a neurotoxic metal, and is especially harmful to young children’s brains. It was a common component in paint prior to 1978, when it was banned, and endures on buildings and furniture, among other things, that were painted before the ban. Lead paint is the primary source of childhood lead exposure in Massachusetts, Department of Public (DPH) health epidemiologist Alicia Fraser told The Times in August. DPH data shows that Vineyard children are tested for lead half as much as the rest of the state, and have blood lead levels slightly higher than the rest of the state.