Digest>Archives> Mar/Apr 2017

Keeping the Lights Shining Through Historic Reproductions

The Dan Spinella Story

By Donna Suchomelly

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Dan Spinella designs the lens assembly using 3D ...
Photo by: Dan Spinella

There is something about lighthouses that attracts and fascinates people of all ages. Perhaps it’s the romanticized notion of living by the sea, or the beauty that surrounds most lighthouses. Or perhaps it’s an interest in the history of lighthouses and their keepers. For some, the fascination lies with the beautiful Fresnel lenses that send their beams out across the waters.

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The lens frame is water-jet cut from Naval brass.
Photo by: Dan Spinella

Many readers may already know that Fresnel lenses were developed in 1819 by the French physicist, Augustin-Jean Fresnel to improve the optics that were then being used to light French lighthouses. Prior to Fresnel’s invention, the beams shining forth from lighthouse towers were created by the use of a system of single or multiple oil burning lamps and reflectors. These lamps were terribly inefficient, and with shipping increasing worldwide, a new optical system was desperately needed to guide mariners and their cargoes safely back to shore.

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Dan Spinella machines the frame components in his ...
Photo by: Dan Spinella

Fresnel investigated ways that glass prisms could be used to concentrate light into a single powerful beam. His revolutionary design was quickly adopted worldwide as the standard for lighthouse lenses, and it became the primary method of lighting used to guide mariners well into the twentieth century.

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The machined frame is sent to a vendor for ...
Photo by: Dan Spinella

In 1841, the first Fresnel lenses used in the United States were installed in the twin towers at Navesink, New Jersey. However, it wasn’t until 1852 when the United States government created the Lighthouse Board that the great lenses finally began to light the country’s coasts and gradually became the primary optic for lighting American lighthouses.

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Dan carefully installs the prisms and lenses into ...

Over the ensuing years as technology advanced, many Fresnel lenses were replaced by modern, less costly apparatus such as aero beacons, acrylic, and LED optics. The United States government had more interest in saving money than in preserving or protecting the valuable artifacts of our nation’s maritime history, and as a result, many Fresnel lenses were lost or destroyed. Then, during the late twentieth century, public interest in lighthouses increased dramatically. Preservation groups started to show an interest in restoring the lenses that remained in “their” lighthouses and recovering those that were missing. However, costs for these mostly non-profit groups were prohibitive. Recreating glass prisms and entire lenses of the same high quality as the originals was out of reach for most. That is, until Dan Spinella and his company, Artworks Florida, came onto the scene.

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Dan affixes lens and lamp components to the ...
Photo by: Dan Spinella

In 1992, Dan Spinella, a Staff Mechanical Designer for Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida with a degree in Mechanical Engineering, visited Florida’s St. Augustine Lighthouse. While there, he became interested in efforts to restore the light keeper’s house. Later that year, Dan volunteered to help with restoration of the lighthouse’s 1st order Fresnel lens which had been damaged by a vandal’s gunshot in 1986. Nineteen of the beautiful Fresnel lens’ prisms were broken. Although at that time Dan knew nothing about Fresnel’s design, he thought he could at least help by taking measurements of the prisms and providing engineering diagrams, so he offered to make drawings of the prisms for manufacturing purposes.

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A fifth order Fresnel lens manufactured by ...
Photo by: Dan Spinella

Later, while doing research into how the prisms were designed, Dan found the formula used by Fresnel back in 1822 to create the famous lenses, and he became so fascinated by what he’d found that he became “hooked” and had to learn more. Not only did Dan put all his research to work on the lens for the St. Augustine Lighthouse, but he also volunteered to help with the restoration of three lenses at the Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse and Museum, also located in Florida. It was then that Dan realized there was a need for replacement prisms for other lens restoration projects. He decided to combine the knowledge he had gained from his volunteer work and research with his work at Disney in design, engineering, and 3D computer modeling to start his own business - Artworks Florida Classic Fresnel Lenses, LLC.

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Photo by: Dan Spinella

Although Artworks Florida started out by manufacturing replacement acrylic prisms for Fresnel lenses, Dan has since expanded the business into other related areas. Today, in addition to the design and manufacturing of custom lens components used in the restoration of original classic Fresnel lenses, Artworks Florida also custom designs and manufactures historic reproduction Fresnel lenses. Currently, approximately 90 percent of the company’s business is reproduction lenses. Between 2004, when the company’s first lens was delivered, and September of 2016, Artworks Florida has manufactured 25 reproductions of Fresnel lenses in sizes ranging from 3rd to 5th orders.

In addition, Dan has produced several videos about Fresnel lenses for educational purposes that can be requested by lighthouse museums. You can view many of his excellent videos by visiting his website at www.artworks-florida.com or by searching for Artworks Florida on YouTube.

Remarkably, Artworks Florida has only one employee: Dan Spinella. Dan believes that by keeping his business small, he keeps costs down and can produce the lenses much more affordably for the non-profit groups interested in purchasing them. He further reduces costs by running a large portion of the business out of his home. Dan completes 50 percent of each lens himself, including lens and lamp design, brass frame machining, frame assembly, prisms installation, and final lens assembly. He also travels to locations for delivery and installation.

To complete the remaining 50 percent of the work on each lens, Dan subcontracts with several vendors, including a waterjet cutting company, prism manufacturer, and metal polisher. In addition, he works with Kurt Fosburg of Superior Lighthouse Restoration, LLC in Negaunee, Michigan, for the manufacturing of the lamps, service wheels, reflectors, and pedestals for the completed lenses.

The steps in creating a reproduction Fresnel lens are many. After receiving the initial inquiry from a client, Dan designs the lens assembly using 3D computer modeling to check for fit and function, to ensure the accuracy of each component, and to aid in the manufacturing process.

The next step is to create the brass frame for the prisms. Dan sends the design for the frame to one of his vendors to be water-jet cut from Naval brass, which is used for its durability in harsh environments. The frame is then sent back to Dan for machining according to the computer model. He then sends it out to another vendor to be sanded and polished to a mirror finish before being returned for assembly.

Meanwhile, the prisms are manufactured, from acrylic PMMA by another vendor using the same process that was used in creating historic prisms. The resulting acrylic prisms have a light transmission that is better than glass, and also hold up to sunlight and salty environments better than glass. Finally, the prisms are tinted to match the greenish hue that is seen in historic Fresnel lenses.

After the prisms are manufactured, they are sent to Dan where they are set and glazed into the brass frame, and final lens assembly is completed. Dan then transports the completed lens assembly to the location for installation.

Dan, whose fascination with the engineering and beauty of Fresnel’s lenses led him to creating the amazing acrylic reproductions, describes that moment when he steps back to look at one of his newly installed masterpieces (for what else could you call them?):

“That has to be the most rewarding part of the entire project, being able to deliver and install the lens, and see the appreciation of the lighthouse members that are responsible for maintaining or restoring the tower.”

As for what the future holds for Dan and Artworks Florida?

“I’d like to continue manufacturing reproduction lenses, with maybe a little more time on my hands after I retire from Disney!”

I think it’s safe to say that for Dan Spinella and Artworks Florida, the future is bright indeed!

This story appeared in the Mar/Apr 2017 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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