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Wood Floor of the Week: Refinishing a Historic Lighthouse in 1979

Ryan Kushner

The East Brother Island Light Station. Photo by Frank SchulenburgThe East Brother Island Light Station. Photo by Frank SchulenburgPhoto by Frank SchulenburgPhoto by Frank SchulenburgA bedroom featuring the Douglas fir flooring in the lighthouse. Photo courtesy of Tom ButtA bedroom featuring the Douglas fir flooring in the lighthouse. Photo courtesy of Tom Butt

When retired wood flooring veteran Eugene Stone recalls refinishing the wood floors of the historic East Brother Island Lighthouse in 1979, he remembers fondly both the positive and the not-so-positive experiences of the unique project. Among the “positive” were the gorgeous sunrises visible from the island, located in the strait that separates the San Francisco and San Pablo bays, as well as the time spent working with his father and stepbrother. Among the “not-so-positive” was every time the island lost electricity, as well as the huge waves made by passing tankers during the boat rides to the shore.

At the time of its wood floor’s refinishing, the East Brother Island Lighthouse had recently been saved from demolition by a nonprofit, and numerous community members and organizations chipped in to restore the long-neglected structure, which was built in 1873 and is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Stones Hardwood Floors, owned and operated at the time by Stone, his father Ernest and his stepbrother Lynn Adams, was among the companies that pitched in on the restoration, volunteering to restore the lighthouse’s vertical grain Douglas fir flooring.

The family flooring team used their own 17-foot boat to get to the island. The ride was big enough to fit all their equipment in, recalls Stone, who was in his 20s at the time. Though East Brother Island was only about a half a mile from their launching point at the San Pablo Yacht Club, Stone says the trips to and from the island were memorable—but not for their relaxation.

“You had to be really careful with the tankers going by,” he recalls of the boat rides. “As they went by the island, they were going real slow, but they made really big waves.” On an early journey to the island, one wave nearly claimed a buffer as it rattled their vessel.

“It takes five minutes before the waves get to you,” Stone says. “You learned to pay attention.”

Once they arrived at the island, depending on the tide, they would occasionally need to lift everything out of the boat with a crane that was stationed on the dock.

“Depending on how the tide was, you could be 15 feet below, or right up next to the jetty,” Stone recalls.

The Douglas fir throughout the two-story building was covered with gray paint, which they began sanding off with their Clarke F12 12-inch drum sanders using 3M abrasives. The work was extensive but went smoothly enough—until the breaker on the island tripped, and the sanders went silent. Unfortunately, the breaker was located all the way back on the mainland. This meant that each time the power went out, which happened several times, Stone had to get back in the boat, go back to shore, walk a quarter of a mile to a community center, flip the switch and hope it worked.

“I had no way of communicating with them [to see if it worked] because there were no cell phones,” Stone says of his father and stepbrother, who remained back on the island. “All I could do was flip the switch, get back in the boat, go back and hope to hear the sanding machines running.”

Once the paint was sanded off the floors, they finished them with oil-modified urethane. The entire project was completed in two weekends, with the crew boating to and from the island each day.

Stone says the blare of the lighthouse’s foghorn was one of the best parts of the project, even though “when that foghorn went off … your feet were coming off the ground.” Toward the end of the project, Stone was offered the chance to set it off himself. “That was one of the best experiences of my life,” Stone says of activating the foghorn. “It was worth all the blood sweat and tears, firing that thing off.”

Now, almost 40 years later, Stone is retired from hardwood flooring, and the lighthouse has been turned into a popular bed and breakfast. While Stone has yet to try out the B&B, he still looks back with pride on the work and the family teamwork that helped restore the historic landmark.

Suppliers:

Abrasives: 3M | Sander: American Sanders | Finish: DuraSeal

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