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    Re: antique compass revival - questions.
    From: George Huxtable
    Date: 1999 Oct 05, 5:12 PM

    Russel Sher asked-
    >Hi - I recently unearthed an old Sestel gimbaled compass. It requires
    >filling with fluid and needs a new card - the existing card seems to be
    >A friend of mine used baby oil to fill a compass -  any suggestions/better
    >ideas on this?
    >Does anyone have a contact for Sestrel (UK?) - there is a type number on the
    >pivoting section inside the bowl.
    >I will probably just use it for display, but would like to restore it.
    First, here is my short reply.
    Sestrel was a UK maker who produced some fine compasses, but alas no longer
    exists. I do not know if replacement parts are available from anyone else.
    I refilled a Sestrel Minor compass with Johnsons baby oil three years ago,
    and since then have used it with complete success. There has been no
    discolouration of the fluid, which is still sparkling clear, and no bubble
    formation. The viscosity of this fluid may be very slightly greater than
    that of the "official" filling, as the compass is just marginally
    overdamped, but not such that you would ever notice the difference in use
    at sea.
    You say the card seems to be moth-eaten. If it's simply discoloured, you
    may find that dismantling the compass and carefully wiping the card clean
    is enough to restore it.
    The Sestrel Minor is a dome-top compass with full internal gimballing and a
    three-inch card. It is nicely illuminated from below. Many of these
    compasses became available as war surplus after 1945. I have one in use,
    and one as a spare. Sestrel also made larger compasses, some very big
    indeed, and you may have one of these. I would guess that the principles
    will be the same.
    Now, for a longer reply, I will tell a story about my problems in trying to
    fix a Sestrel Minor after its dome was cracked in an accident many years
    That was in the days when one could obtain a spare dome. The compass was a
    spirit filled version, and when replacing the dome I emptied the old
    filling, dismantled and cleaned the innards, and refilled with the
    recommended strength of isopropyl alcohol, before we set off on our Summer
    cruise. All seemed well until a cleft started to appear in the underside
    surface of the dome. Clearly, the alcohol fluid was somehow attacking the
    plastic dome and eating it away. The new dome and the alcohol fill were
    completely incompatible. Urgent action was called for before the dome
    became eaten through, when it would become quite useless. So I emptied out
    the alcohol fill and replaced it (as a stopgap) with plain water, which had
    first been boiled up to remove bugs and some dissolved air. Water is a
    reasonably  satisfactory fluid for filling a compass, as long as you can
    avoid freezing temperatures.
    That was good enough to see us through the remainder of the cruise, but on
    return to the UK I decided some expert advice was called for, so visited a
    certificated compass adjuster and agent in the South of England. He
    provided a new dome, emptied the water, cleaned and dried the inner
    components, and refilled with oil. The oil, he told me, was a special oil
    that was used in food processing, and which he had found eminently
    satisfactory for compass use. It came from a large drum which was marked as
    some form of colza oil. The compass was then beautifully clear to read.
    Off on our next cruise, we were heading down-Channel out of Poole, on a
    clear (and cool) night, when my wife, on watch, woke me to say she could no
    longer read the compass. I presumed, at first, that she had been overdosing
    from the Port bottle but then found that I couldn't read it either. The oil
    fill had gone completely cloudy. She looked rather like a gypsy
    fortune-teller peering into her crystal ball, waiting for the mists to
    clear. We deduced that this was the effect of the cool (but by no means
    freezing) night temperature on the oil. It was, obviously quite unsuitable
    stuff to put in a compass that has to live out-of-doors, in a cockpit.
    The rest of the passage involved attempts to keep the compass warm enough
    to be readable. We found that if we clasped it in our hands for most of the
    spell at the helm, that would suffice. Otherwise, we planned to dunk it in
    a bucket of warm water from time to time. When we arrived at the end of
    that passage, the oil was poured away, the compass dismantled and cleaned
    and dried, and once again it was filled with water for the remainder of the
    By this time, we had acquired another old Sestrel Minor, so after we got
    back home, the compass that had given us all the trouble was retired, and
    languished on a shelf, still filled with water, for some years.
    When I read, in a sailing mag, a recommendation for filling with baby oil,
    I decided to give it a try. I had presumed that a compass, being
    constructed from non-ferrous materials, would be rather immune from rust
    even when filled with water, so it was a surprise to find rust stains
    around the bowl. Where had they come from? I had, of course, quite
    forgotten that a compass contains some highly ferrous elements, namely the
    magnets. Some corrosion had started there, but it wasn't too serious, and
    cleaned off easily as a brown powder. The staining on the bowl and the card
    wiped off well. The compass took about 750 mL of oil, which was dirt cheap
    at our village shop. Before filling, I tested a bottle of oil in our
    refrigerator at home. If it could withstand refrigerator temperatures, that
    was certainly more than the crew could do. No cloudiness at all!
    Filling a compass through the small hole provided is much easier if a
    syringe is used. I found that a syringe, supplied for refilling an ink-jet
    printer with ink, did the job nicely. There's some wobbling about required,
    to get the last little bubbles of air out, but this isn't hard to do. No
    bubbles have appeared since, no cloudiness, no rust, just a clear sharp
    view of the card.
    Now we have a compass that is as good as new, and with luck this long and
    sorry saga has come to an end.
            George Huxtable.
    George Huxtable, 1 Sandy Lane, Southmoor, Abingdon, Oxon OX13 5HX, UK.
    Tel, or fax, to 01865 820222 or (int.) +44 1865 820222.

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