Paints & Brushes


The industrial revolution brought new
materials & tools to artisans.

An early American painter had to mull his own paint each morning. His choice of pigments was limited and availability was inconsistent in most locations. As the decades passed, more supplies became available to painters. The first American fire engines were dark green as often as they were red. As more pigments became available, color schemes turned to mixed colors like those on fine carriages. Often the wheels and running gear were a cheaper color and the body was a more costly color. The wheels needed repairs and repaints first. Sometimes a transparent glaze of one color was painted over a different base color on the body. By the 1850s a paint job on a hand engine could account for a sixth to a quarter of the total cost of the apparatus. Due to the slow-drying varnishes being used, a paint job could take two months to complete.

Above is the kit of a traveling painter working in 1915. There are specialty tools, patterns for corner designs, books of gold leaf, water transfer decals, clip art, bronze powder and brushes for lettering, striping, stenciling and gilding. Brushes in the 1800s came as just hair in a ferrel, and you made your own handle. On many small brushes the ferrel was made from the quill end of a bird feather. Today these same brushes are made using a plastic tube. Sizes were often described with bird names to describe the size feather needed for each size brush.

Varnish in the 18th and 19th centuries was made from tree resin. Some species of trees produced resin that was flexible, some was crystal clear, some created a harder finish. Trees all over the world were tapped and their sap tested for desirable features. A paint job consisted of many layers of wood filler, primer, color coats of pigment in varnish, decoration and several coats of clear Copal varnish to protect the decoration. Every few years an engine could get another coat of clear and all the colors would be bright again. Varnish technology was complex and it took several different varnishes to seal and decorate a fire engine.

The stripes on a fire engine lead you around the vehicle. As your eye follows a stripe it brings you from one feature to the next. A wagon builder once told me that the stripes "narrate the vehicle". They get you to look at this and ignore that. They also set a mood, an air of refinement and precision.