Saturday, August 15, 2009

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Floating Plant & Dredging Fleet Personnel

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has traditionally operated a wide variety of watercraft in support of the water resources and infrastructure under its purview. These vessels are found in the major waterways of the United States and its territories - once including the Panama Canal Zone when it was a U.S. territory, and South Vietnam during the war. Floating Plant (including the Dredging Fleet), as these vessels are known, are manned by civilian crews. The officers are licensed by U.S. Coast Guard; and presently most are graduates of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy or other U.S. Maritime schools.

The military-status of Floating Plant personnel has had a chequered past. During the Second World War and the Korean War, unlike their colleagues serving in the Army Transportation Service, they were militarized and called to active duty. At the tail end of the Vietnam War, during the organizational reforms of the U.S. Army, Floating Plant personnel were deemed civilians.

In order to identify the officers serving on dredges, towboats, and ships of 60 feet or more, the Corps of Engineers directed they wear uniforms starting in 1969. The officers already wore khaki Navy-inspired uniforms with a variety of insignia denoting rank. Up until this point, hat badges were improvised and worn at the individual's discretion. Some wore a Maritime Service-style gold wreath with a Corps of Engineers branch insignia collar device in the center; others wore ball caps or garrison caps with the same.

With the new regulations came an end to improvisation and officially sanctioned khaki uniforms, headgear and employee identification. The khaki uniform was retained and reefers abolished, and officers were given a combination hat. The means of determining an individual's position aboard is indicated by identification plates: Master, Engineer (rank) and Mate (rank). License state is indicated by the color of the wear hat's chinstrap: gold-colored for Coast Guard-licensed officers, black for all others. The Floating Plant personnel also wear a unique hat badge. The symbolism of the insignia is explained thus:
[...] silver Engineer castle with a gold anchor supporting on its stock, a silver eagle, wings displayed. The anchor represents the maritime functions of Floating Plant Personnel and the eagle represents Federal service.
The original directives provided for changing of hat cover from khaki to white, depending upon the season; current regulations do not state as such.

Governing regulations for Floating Plant personnel uniforms:
  • ? (30 October 1969).
  • ER 670-2-3 (20 April 1987).
  • ER 1130-2-520, Appendix S & W (29 November 1996).

It is really this hat badge and that of the U.S. Army Transport Service that piqued my interest in Sea Service hat badges. Having been raised in the Navy and always keen on matters maritime, I had never known that the USACE had a civilian-manned fleet of ships. I am still mostly unsure who strikes the current insignia, as they do not have U.S. Government contract manufacturer hallmarks; so for all I know, they may be made in some Army machine shop in Philadelphia.

Floating Plant, 1970s
55mm x 63mm. Gray gun metal body and gold anodized anchor.
No hallmark.

Floating Plant, 1990-present.
55mm x 63mm. Grey gun metal body and gold anodized anchor.
No hallmark.

Reverse of badge is coated in thin layer of dark gray acrylic; also on reverse, not the crisp detail lacking in the earlier version. The beak is damaged; perhaps due to poor stamping/filing.

U.S. Corps of Engineers Branch Insignia
25mm x 18mm. Gold-plated brass.
No hallmark. Circa 1950.

This example was worn on Floating Plant personnel garrison hat. This device is pre-Second World War; apparently it was passed down from through the decades via a thrifty Quartermaster.  Note cut-out windows and fine detail.

Floating Plant Variant
60mm x 70mm. Copper with "gold coating"
N.S. Meyer Inc., New York hallmark. Allegedly circa 1950s-60s.

This is most probably a fantasy or fake. This badge is comprised of elements found in unofficial (pre-1968 ) woven and metal variants of Floating Plant hat badges: wreath, castle & eagle.

The wreath is of traditional U.S. Army Transport Service & ROTC design; most Floating Plant variants are of contemporary period Maritime Service-style wreaths. The wreath has pitting as seen in casts. The reverse shows that the manufacturer had some difficulty in positioning the bars for soldering.

The castle has an N.S. Meyer Inc. New York hallmark. If this were a poor fake, we'd see evidence of sheared-off keeper pin posts.

Capping the emblem is an eagle; this eagle is MSTS officer-style (circa 1950s-1960s).

Overall nicely polished. Not quite sure what to make of this. Fantasy, fake, pattern or variant. Who knows?

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Hat Badge Production Methods

Maritime Service CPO obverse.
Red enamels and silver.

Maritime Service CPO Reverse.
Note silver toning of solder.

The methods of making a hat badge is similar to the process of making a coin: they can be cast or stamped... only there're additional processes after the initial coining (stamping). Casting a badge is often imprecise and lacks the crisp lines found in stamping. This entry will detail coining and die production.

Casting involves wax casting, molten metal and sand. Casting, more often than not, is the province of reproductions. A cast badge can be quickly identified by a seam along the edge, and a particularly hasty employment of the process is belied by pitting on the reverse. I have never seen a cast badge by any of the major insignia companies: Vanguard, Gemsco, Amico or Viking. Do not be fooled by the claim of "theatre created"; no Navy man or merchant sailor has been so hard up as a cast a badge in a ship's shop; sew a hash mark, sure.

Badge manufacture is a fairly straight-forward and precise process. If you take a moment to inspect a badge, oftentimes you'll notice the high level of craftsmanship employed and often crisp lines - this is an artifact of the stamping process. It takes five distinct phases to produce a stamped hat badge; these processes have remained, for the most part, unaltered since the Second World War to the present day.

1. Stamp

A sheet of metal is placed under a press and the metal is embossed with the design found on the die. Common base metals are malleable substances which respond well under pressure, such as brass or silver (never steel or iron). The die will have pins indicating proper line up of the obverse and reverse dies; in a single stroke by either hand wince or machine press, the die pairing brings up the design. Even crisper designs are achieved by two strikes.

On older badges, you can visually determine if the base metal is brass by the presence of verdigris. Verdigris is a pale green coating of the metal produced when the metal has been exposed to sea or saltwater over time. I personally think the presence of verdigris lends a handsome look to a badge.

After the stamping is completed, the edges are trimmed of excess metal (salvage) and the jagged edges are filed. At this point, the badge is pierced if necessary. Piercing may be done with a small precision drill or minute punch points. The overall effect is to not to bend the metal.

2. Solder & Fusion

Devices, such as screw shanks or attach pins are soldered onto the base badge. Common lead/copper amalgams of lead, copper or silver/zinc are used during this process. Here, the jewelers' or electronic machinists' soldering gun is employed.

On hat badges, you can oftentimes determine the composition of the solder by using the following visual cues. Lead is highly malleable, and has a quicksilver color; copper oftentimes develops verdigris over time; and silver/zinc presents a deep patina, sometimes almost black, over time.

A hard solder of silver is used with hat badges so manufacturers may enamel the badge or pass assay. Such solder allows the badge parts to not come apart or desolder during the enamel firing process.

Badges which are not to be enameled or have epoxy applied are polished; otherwise...

3. Enamel & Epoxy

After soldering, the badge is allowed to cool and enamels and epoxy are applied. In terms of actual badge production, this is an extremely time-consuming task. Enamel is a paste-like substance comprised of powdered glass and distilled water; epoxy is a resin paste.

After the the badge is cleaned in a bath of sulphuric acid and dried at 212F, either paste (glass in a molten state, resin in paste) is applied to the surface of the badge. Application methods involve either being either poured or brushed. The badge is then fired in a kiln between 1400-1500F for 2-5minutes - depending upon the enamel properties - for the enamel to fuse to the metal. This process is repeated for each individual color. The end product of enameling should be of a lustrous and uniform appearance without bubbles.

After enameling, the components of the badge are now stoned. Stoning is done via diamond or sand mesh cloth. At the completion of the process, the enamel is flush, with individual die lines visible.

4. Polish

Badges are now polished to a high luster. Polishing is achieved using high RPM diamond-brush polishing machines.

5. Plate/Anodize

Plating is an electro-chemical process of depositing metals onto the surface of the badge. Anodization is a process of altering the crystal structure of the metal near the surface and creating a sealed and overall corrosion resistant surface; the trade name for this is STA-BRITE. Various manufactures, have anodize hat badges since the mid-1970s; Ira Green was a pioneer in the field.

In terms of plating, maritime hat badges are found have nickle, gold, rhodium and silver plate. Since a badge is usually not plated in two metals, more other than not, badges are comprised of different parts and attached to each other via pins, screws, solder or adhesive (super glue anyone? I've seen Senior Chief badges with star applied thusly). To plate, the badges are placed on racks and lowered into a tub. Electrodes are put into position, the solution is zapped for a specified period of time and then parts removed.

6. Assembly
Once the badges are air-dried and removed from their plating rack, their constituent parts are assembled and the badge is complete.

Maritime Service CPO hat badge hub.

Die production
Die production is pretty exciting and having an actual hat badge hub or die is quite a gift.

First, an artist creates a large plaster model the badge. The model can be any where from two to eight times larger than the end badge. Once the model is approved, it is coated with rubber; the rubber is baked and then removed - creating an epoxy galvano. Next, a Janvier reducing lathe is used to reduce the image onto a steel master hub. Once complete, the master hub is then hardened via heat-treating.

The master hub is then used to make a master dies via a process called hubbing. Hubbing involves pressing the master hub into a steel blank to impress the image into the die. The master die is then used to form as many working hubs as needed through the same process, and then the working hubs are put through the same process to form working dies. These working dies are the ones used to produce the badges.

The process of transferring the hub to the die can be repeated as many times as necessary; the difference between a hub and a die is that the hub has a raised image and a die has an incuse image, so one forms the other.