A carved eagle sign is restored to glory on a firehouse in Norwood, New Jersey.

The Eagle Rises

The Back Story

For a couple of centuries the old Dutch Colonial home on Blanch Avenue in Norwood, N.J., was a familiar landmark to people who lived near it. Early on, it may have provided some rest to George Washington, Alexander Hamilton or Benjamin Franklin as they traveled from Philadelphia to Albany or Boston; it may have been a gathering spot for farmers from the Harrington Township during the 1800s and early 1900s. Eventually it did become a restaurant and inn, popular with people coming up from New York to get away from the city for a relaxing evening in the country.

At one time it was called the Brandy Wine Inn. Then it was called Timothy’s. Then one early morning during the 1990s... it burned to the ground.

Teams from most of the firehouses nearby battled the blaze for hours, but they could not save it: the destruction of the old place was complete—except for an antique hand-carved wooden eagle, which escaped the destruction and was brought back to the Norwood Fire Company’s #1 Station on Broadway where it was hung on the east-facing gable as a tribute to the history of the old inn and the fire fighters who tried to save it.

As old woodcarvings go, the eagle held up pretty well. But everything has its day. And maybe this one eagle’s day had finally come when the unfortunate combination of being rescued from a blazing inferno, the slow passage of decades of time, and the stresses of hanging outside in the weather for who knows how long, caused its head one day to just fall off.

That was another unfortunate event, and totally unbecoming for a symbol of such deep significance.

Red, white and blue LEDs were inserted around the edges to give the eagle a dramatic halo lighting effect. “It really jumps out to people driving down the street at night,” says Stephen Hoey. As old woodcarvings go, the eagle held up pretty well – until one day its head fell off.

Picking Up the Pieces

The headless carving remained on the side of the building for some time before the fire fighters decided to contact Brian Hamilton from KDF Reprographics, Inc. about a replacement. KDF is a custom printing and sign fabrication company located a couple miles from the firehouse in nearby Rockleigh, N.J., and is equipped with state-of-the-art digital printing and 3-D CNC routing capabilities. Hamilton is KDF’s business development manager and also has an extensive background in model making, custom fabrication and graphics.

Stephen Hoey, KDF’s president, says that the size of the gable dictated the overall size of the eagle. “Because we were replacing it, we wanted it to be a more grand sign that people would see,” Hoey says. “The other one was nice, but it was kind of tucked in there and it was small. The way we saw it, we wanted something so when you drove by, it really jumped out at you. So we tried to maximize the space that was there and make it as large as possible in that space.”

The fire fighters told Hamilton that they wanted to keep the same “feeling” of the eagle, but they wanted to update it. The original eagle held a shield in its talons that displayed the stars and stripes. The fire fighters liked that, as well as the fact that it was a dimensional eagle. They also wanted to incorporate the stars and stripes and they wanted it to be carrying a banner. And, they wanted the eagle to be fierce looking, with its wings spread. Finally, they wanted to incorporate the name of the fire company (Norwood Fire Company #1).

The body was carved from two layers of 18lb. Precision Board HDU with a MultiCam 3000 CNC router.

The final element of the design was to choose the colors, which were taken from the original shield—a decidedly red, white and blue American theme. “They wanted to keep the feeling that was originally on the shield, and we didn’t want to do another shield because in the design it wasn’t really working,” explains Hoey. “So instead, we incorporated those color and design elements into the wings.”

After considering all the elements, Hamilton created a working design for the new eagle that was essentially a composite made of elements from a number of photos of eagle images sourced on the Internet. “We compiled the images and started looking around for the best way to build the eagle from the photographs we had,” says Hoey, eventually arriving at the outline of the 3-D eagle that was used. When that was approved, he and Hamilton began planning for fabrication.

In all there were nine individual 3D elements to be carved and assembled. Magic Sculpt was used to add detail after the elements were assembled.

New Parts

With a final design approved and a production plan in place, Hoey began the job of importing the 3-D files into Vectric 3D, a third-party software application that creates the G-code needed to drive the CNC router and allows for it to cut on three axes. Hoey was in charge of the 3D CNC routing, which was done with the company’s MultiCam 3000 Series CNC router.

They also obtained outlines for the banner, which were hand cut in three pieces. The layers, folds and other textures in the banner were carved on the CNC using Enroute software. 

“The eagle was a 3-D file that we found but the wings were different, so we had to modify the wings,” Hoey says. “Because of the size, we weren’t able to cut it as one piece, so we removed the wings from the 3D file, rotated them and then imported those files into Vectric 3D.”

In all there were nine individual elements to be carved and assembled. Each wing has two parts; there are two parts for the eagle’s body and three parts for the bottom banner. The material chosen was Coastal Enterprise’s Precision Board HDU. The wings were carved from two layers of 15lb. weight, two inches thick; the body was carved from two layers of 18lb. weight, three inches thick and the banner from 15lb. weight, two inches thick.

Hoey says they chose 18lb. for the body thinking it would hold more detail. “But as we were going along we realized we could have done it all out of the same 15lb. weight. It was pretty flexible. We thought we were going to hand carve a lot of texture into the wings and feathers and things like that, but it was mostly all done for us with the router. We only needed to add a little texture with some steel wire brushes.”

The set-up and routing for the eagle and wings took about two days.
Once cut, Hamilton assembled the pieces and did all the hand fabrication, along with the painting and gilding. 

The banner was cut in three pieces, painted, masked and re-registered, and then the lettering was incised into it with another mask, gilded with 22-karat patent gold leaf and clear coated.

Some additional Abracadabra “Magic” Sculpt was added to build up the shoulders after the elements were assembled. Hoey says this had to be done because the wings were sourced separately from the body, and when they were connected, seemed slightly amiss. “Even though it was smooth, you could see that separation when you stood back,” he says. “It just didn’t feel like it was going to be realistic-looking, so we went in with the Magic Sculpt to build up the shoulders.”

Assembly involved screws and Gorilla Glue, with all the screw holes filled with Magic Sculpt. The complete assembly was attached to an aluminum frame on the back, to which is attached the rest of the framing that secures the sign to the building.

The bulk of the eagle was painted with custom-mixed Matthews paint, using an airless sprayer. Details around the face, feathers and eyeball were airbrushed.

Details and More Details

Hoey says the project was pretty straightforward, but at first glance, some details can be overlooked. For example the bulk of the eagle was painted with custom-mixed Matthews paint, using a SATA HVLP paint spray gun. But a lot of details around the face and in the feathers—and the eagle’s eyeball—were airbrushed.

I asked if that much detail would get lost considering the average viewing distance.

“Details like the eyeball are really for us,” says Hoey. “We went around to a couple of different taxidermists and we were able to get an eagle eyeball for reference.” And even though sometimes at 20 feet details like that get lost to the casual observer, “When you’re looking at it from the ground those little details still come through,” says Hoey. “You can see the texture. Before we did any painting we wire brushed the details in the feathers, on the wings and also did some airbrushing afterwards. You can still see all those details standing on the ground.”

On installation day, Hoey says the only “slight challenges” involved the fact that the completed eagle was about 12-13 feet across and it needed to be transported. Luckily it only had to go about a quarter mile from the paint shop to the firehouse. It was placed on a couple of 4x8 sheets of plywood on the back of a flatbed pickup truck and with a police escort, the crew walked with it down the street, holding onto the tips of the wings.

The banner was made from three separate pieces. Lettering was incised into it, gilded with 22-karat patent gold leaf and then the pieces were clear coated.

Once there, Hamilton supervised the installation, which was accomplished with the help of the crane truck operator and a few assistants. There were two existing pieces of steel that remained on the building after the old eagle was removed, which the new support frame was built around. The rest of the installation was a matter of careful measuring, framing it out, attaching some channel to the back and making sure it all matched up.
Then (with the help of the crane truck) the new eagle flew home…


The last little touch is that this eagle lights up at night. Before final assembly, holes were chased through the back of the wings and red, white, and blue LEDs were installed that follow the edge all the way around. An additional spotlight washes the “Norwood Fire Company #1” letters. “Driving down the street at night, it’s dramatic,” says Hoey. “It really jumps out.”