Rebuilding the Past—A Portal to the 1950's

Behold the mighty "Muffler Man"!

From a time long before the internet and advanced advertising technology - when roadside shock value was the name of the game, businesses along the American roadside used all kinds of wacky signs and statues to lure motorists in. This big fella is an enduring testament to a bygone era of the kitschy American roadside landscape.

There is a lot of documented history on these giants already - so I won’t go into all of that here. But, if you are interested in the back story of the Phillips 66 Cowboy (a.k.a. Muffler Man) check out: and Both are excellent resources on the history and variations of these giants as well as information on the International Fiberglass Company that ended up producing them. The Roadside America link above actually has an interview with the owner of International Fiberglass and he goes through the entire history.

Ron and Maxine (the original owners) operated a Phillips 66 station back in the early 60’s in Havre de Grace, Maryland. When the sales reps came around showing off their new “sales booster” (a 20 foot tall fiberglass cowboy who looks like one of the lantern jawed characters from a 50’s Superman comic book), Ron opted to purchase one and have it permanently in place at his station.

He became an instant attraction. He originally was mounted on the roof of the station but was later moved to the ground and stood in front of it. Ron fashioned a special cart for the cowboy and he was even wheeled through downtown Havre de Grace for a parade. He is so enormous that he had to be leaned back at times to clear the power lines that crossed the road.

In the early 90’s Ron painted him in Desert Storm camouflage to show support for the troops.

By the early 2000s Ron had sold the station and retired but he knew he could not just leave the big fella out there alone, so he put him on a trailer and stored him at his home nearby. I was able to get in touch with Ron a while back and after more than a year of talking and going back and forth, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to buy the cowboy. In my opinion, he looks a lot like my good friend and old band mate Jeff Ball… So I am going to name him Jeff. (There is a pic below of Jeff mugging it up next to his fiberglass likeness).

No offense to the troops, but I will be repainting big Jeff back to his original colors (or at least very close to original). I feel that it is the right thing to do. He will become part of a service station installation at Ghost Town. He still has his original hat which is very uncommon as all too often the hats blew off and were lost or severely damaged.

The pics and video below are a sampling of some that I just took when we were moving him and a few vintage shots that Ron and Maxine still had… along with a shot of the two of them standing with the big guy right before we loaded him on the truck.

Removing cataracts from a vintage 60's color roundie television set

I have read different accounts and posts from other folks who have done this. I have also watched some YouTube vids of folks doing it. I am not criticizing anyone else’s strategy here - just saying that I personally found that many of the lengthy steps (pre-soaking - pre-heating - and scraping out the edges) were totally unnecessary.

Below are some pics showing the stages. The chassis on this set still needs to be recapped. The color and picture tube are actually quite nice… but the filters are bad which is keeping the picture from properly spreading out and filling the screen completely.

It was my first time doing this - but with the help of a friend - we were able to do 3 of these picture tubes in about an hr and a half.

In some of the pics of the tube - you will see that the perimeter has chunks of adhesive that were dug out. I did this on the first tube we worked on - but on the next one we found that this step was not necessary and just wasted time.

We supported the picture tube safely in a tall bucket and wrapped the tube with a heavy blanket for safety. There is a band of tape around the perimeter of the picture tube that we scored with a razor knife. We then used a heat gun to soften up the adhesive between the 2 pieces of glass. You can actually see the air getting in under the adhesive as it loses it’s attachment to the top glass. As you see this happening… you move the heat gun along. In one of the pics you can actually see the slightly darker area developing under the heat gun. This darker area is the indication that the adhesive bond has let go. Probably a good idea not to stay in one area too long with the heat gun … and also if the glass is cold to start with, you should probably warm it up slowly so that it does not crack from a sudden drastic temperature change. And the same would apply for not letting it cool down too quickly either… in case you are doing this in the winter in a cold garage (which I would not recommend).

We moved in a spiral starting on the outside edge… moving along the perimeter and working in towards the center.

Then with just a little pulling by hand - the top cover glass lifted off. If pulling it by hand does not work and you need a little more force… you can gently tap some wooden shims in between the two glass pieces and apply some more heat with the heat gun. Space 3 or 4 shims at even intervals around the perimeter and tap in very slowly. Remember that you are working on glass.

While the adhesive layer is still warm - it is quite easy to then peel off in one sheet . Then - a good cleaning with some lacquer thinner or acetone and then a final cleaning to the glass surfaces with some glass cleaner.

For re-assembly some folks like to put little pieces of double sided foam tape around the perimeter… this helps to keep an even gap between the two pieces of glass. Some folks also then seal the perimeter with some tape or even a bead of silicone caulking. This helps keep dust from getting in between the two glass sections.

We skipped the double sided tape and just put the 2 pieces of glass directly together and then taped around the edge seam.

The Spartan Mansion move

This 1950 Spartan had been parked for a long time about 25 miles from me.  Finally, after a couple years of detective work to track down the owners... I ended up buying it.  It definitely needs some love.  It has dings and dents and lots of wood on the inside will need to be replaced.  On the good side, all of the panels and cabinets are there to use as templates.  I will be taking everything out and starting with new flooring and underlayment as well as new insulation all around and wiring.  Big project... like I needed another big project.

This will be parked inside the Quonset hut and not only be a place to sleep - but also serve as part of the "motel / used car lot office" vignette.  I have a giant vintage motel sign that I am working on currently which will stand next to the Spartan - so stay tuned !... coming soon hopefully !  It will look awesome next to the trailer.  There is a pic of that sign below in it's rough stages so you can get the idea.

I couldn't resist putting a few vintage pieces in front of the trailer for a quick picture.

The Jamison Moon Rocket !

26 feet of space age awesomeness !  Back from a time when kids were allowed to play all day on dangerous steel cages and came home cut up and smelling like hot rusty metal... ahh the good old days !  There are several different styles of big rocket ship "cold war" playground equipment... but this one has the perfect curves and lines that make it an iconic sculpture.  There is a video at the end of this entry that I took just before we started dismantling it for moving down to ghost town.  In the video - it sits in it's original spot where it was installed in 1964. One of the pics below shows the guys installing it back in the day.  

Refinishing a Mid Century Modern Dresser / Credenza

This is one piece of a matching bedroom set. As you can see in the before pics the finish was pretty bad and there were some stains and scratches. Sanding veneer almost always darkens the color so it is nearly impossible to get the original color tone unless you heavily tint a sprayed on lacquer finish top coat.  I often spray on a lacquer clear coat but with this piece I went with a rubbed light color stain and then a rubbed on clear satin oil finish. For an oil rub finish - you can use Watco (danish/ teak oil) or AFM Safecoat makes great low and no VOC products. And I have done work for folks who are chemically sensitive and actually just finished pieces in olive oil for them.

The first step is to use a chemical stripper and carefully scrape off the existing finish. Stripping a piece first makes sanding much easier and also enables you to do far less sanding which greatly reduces the risk of sanding through the veneer. If you sand through the veneer - you pretty much have ruined any chance of having a natural wood grain finish. Wear gloves and be careful not to put dig marks in the surface when scraping off the stripper... so don't push down hard with your scraper.  I like using a wide plastic putty knife.

In many cases it is good to use a sanding block under your paper to keep the sanding perfectly level.  But when you are working with an old case piece that is not perfectly level or square and might have slightly raised areas on the edges (be extra careful when sanding the perimeter surface edges) block sanding is probably not a good idea.  For some pieces that have grain going in different directions - a random orbital sander is great... but more frequently I tend to hand sand in the direction of the grain. This lets me keep the most control on how much material I remove. When hand sanding use long full strokes - don't put a lot of pressure on the sandpaper -don't put your fingers in line with the grain -keep them slightly perpendicular to the grain - and try to sand all areas the same so that you don't have color variations in the veneer.  The deeper you sand - the more the wood tone of the veneer can change.  And - as you sand deeper towards the glue layer under the veneer, you will get less color absorption with your stain.

This piece came out pretty well. There are still a few finishing touches I have to put on it and probably one more top coat of oil rub. There is still a slightly darker area in the center where something probably sat for decades.  I was able to greatly minimize it - but you can still see it. I could have bleached this area and worked with it some more - but I chose not to do that this time.

Here are the steps I used on this dresser that you can apply to refinishing another piece:

-apply chemical gel stripper according to directions on can.

-scrape off stripper and wipe and clean off all residue really well with rags that are wet with lacquer thinner.  In some cases you'll want to make a second cleaning pass with extra fine steel wool (also wet with lacquer thinner) in the direction of the grain.

-after wood is completely dry do a very light sanding with 150 grit paper. Just a few passes... do not sand too much with the 150.  Then switch to a 320 grit and complete sanding noting the comments I made earlier.

-apply stain.  If you don't need the extra color - you can skip this step.  Often the oil rub finish is enough to bring out beautiful color in the wood.  If you do apply stain, make sure there is no tacky or standing/puddling stain.  I like to wipe on the stain, let it sit a couple minutes and then dry wipe it.

-after stain is dry - wipe with an oil finish... allow to soak in for a few min and then dry buff with some clean lint free towels.

-if you have kids or pets, or the piece will be in a high use area, it might be a better idea to use a spray-on lacquer finish instead of the oil rub (the oil finish provides some protection, but not as much as a clear coat finish).



Vintage Pink Bathroom Fixtures

I now have a usable bathroom in the town.  I still have to install a shower pan and shower wall panels before it is totally complete.  The American Standard pink 1950's toilet is a one piece low boy unit which worked perfectly for the smaller space with the curved wall.  The toilet seat is not the correct one and I am working on ordering a new one.  In between the toilet and sink is a vintage Blickman stainless steel medical cart which was a score from a trash pile.

The idea with the bathroom was not to create a giant master bath space - but rather just a small functional bath with a retro vibe and colors.  Once the diner is built in front and around this bath it will be the "restroom" in the back of the diner.

For now, I am going to leave the floor bare concrete. Eventually, I will either stain it or tile it.


Grabbing some parts at the Junk yard

I got in touch with a guy who had a great stash of 50's cars in a hidden junkyard a few hours from me.  For the most part the cars have not been picked over like 50's cars in most yards you find now.  But sadly, they have been sitting for many decades back in the woods and they are all way beyond any hopes of restoration or even rat rod builds.  I am talking frames that have crumbled apart and body panels that you can push your fingers through in most places.

On the good side though - there is a ton of stainless and trim and accessories that I needed for many of my cars in the town.

It was really really sad for me to break out the cutting wheel and start slicing up the 57 New Yorker - but it was the only option.  I grabbed the power seats and power windows and will probably sell or trade those.  I am going to use some of the trim on my 57 Saratoga to dress it up a little.  Stuff like the Fender eagle head ornaments - and possibly the New Yorker slashes from the rear quarters.  I am also considering recovering and using the New Yorker door panels on my Saratoga... but with my hand window cranks instead of the power windows.


Bathroom - 50's pink of course!

This is going to be the bathroom. It will feature a vintage 50's pink American Standard toilet and sink.  I also have a great assortment of vintage style Italian mosaic tile that I will be covering the walls with.

This bathroom will eventually be in the diner (after I assemble the diner in front of it.)

You will have to enter the diner to get to the bathroom.

The curved wall presented some framing challenges - But once I got a feel for how to fabricate and attach the bracing - and frame the wall into the curve... things started rolling along.

I think that I am going to use the rippled metal roof material for the walls on the curve.  It conforms nicely to the shape and has the retro industrial look that I want to achieve.


Rick Brown from Sol Shine did a really really nice install job.  Its not a huge system and eventually I will probably have to upgrade - but for now this gives me enough to run the well pump / exhaust fans / some lights and a power tool.

Building the Quonset Hut

With the help of some friends - I finally got the first arches up in October 2016.

The days were getting shorter but we started early and kept a good pace.

There are A LOT of nuts and bolts. And with arches this wide you have to be really careful when raising them so that they don't get away from you.  They are heavy and if something starts falling in the wrong direction - you can't stop it.

Site Prep

Just a quick entry and some pics to show the site and concrete prep.

Things happened pretty quickly so I did not have a chance to get all of the pics that I wanted.  There is a lot of steel in the foundation.  We spent a good deal of time tying rebar cages together.