I recently returned from an information- and inspiration-filled four-day conference of the Professional Refinishers Group and I feel obliged to share a bit of my sense of the value of this unparalleled assemblage of mind and skill.
When I first became involved in furniture touchup, repair, finishing, spot finishing and refinishing, I found a phenomenon not unusual among craftsmen who might compete against one another. They all had secret methods, materials and arcane formulas that they jealously guarded. Even among friends and professional associates, a shared finishing schedule might leave out a critical ingredient, just enough to make my work a little better than your work.
During my 40-plus years as a touch-up and repair technician, sales representative, instructor and consultant, I’ve been involved in several serious attempts to facilitate better communication among persons with a similar interest in the broad field of furniture and related wood products, particularly in regard to finishing and repairing finishes. These attempts included involvement with guilds, associations, shows, blogs and forums. Most have suffered from the same self-protective insularity and sometimes ego-driven competitiveness.
How the ‘groop’ began
The Professional Refinishers Group was born in early 1998, the brainchild of Alan Marriage, a refinisher in Mountain Home, Idaho, and took the form of a daily moderated email conversation. Marriage, in the background, kept control of the conversation, carefully avoiding the bickering and “flaming” that characterized other nascent forums and chat rooms. As an enthusiastic member almost from the first, I believe that this nearly anonymous forum encouraged people to lower their guard, admit that they didn’t know everything and take advice. While disagreements were common, the nature of the conversation allowed peer review from members all over the country, and eventually internationally. As the group (also known as “Groop”) gained in members, its credibility increased.
Marriage forged a relationship with Mitch Kohanek, who directed the Wood Finishing Program at Dakota County Technical College in Rosemount, Minn. The group joined with Kohanek in organizing a Wood Finishing Conference at the school in 2002. Marriage died in an auto accident in September 2003. Fortunately, there were several people who had the passion, knowledge, and persistence to not only keep the group together, but to continue to grow it, well past most of our expectations.
The membership has included well-known writers on the subjects of finishing and refinishing, restoration, preservation and appraisal. Several of the country’s top museums have been represented, as well as employees or principals of finish manufacturers. The moderated format prevents advocacy for their products and services.
While the group does not set standards, practices or prices, this sharing of knowledge has increased the quality of the work being performed, reduced the time required and encouraged more efficient use of resources. At the same time, the confidence and pride in their performance that the technicians have gained has allowed many to raise their prices while increasing their business volume, scope, versatility, profitability and overall job satisfaction.
For a number of years now, the group has had an annual gathering for the better part of a week, wherein individuals or groups have conducted instructional seminars, many hands on, as well as lectures, video presentations and site visits.
Several of these gatherings, also known as “Groopshops,” were hosted in Rosemount, home of the National Institute of Wood Finishing, and elsewhere. Smaller regional gatherings have allowed members to share their experience through tours of historic structures, museums, schools of woodworking and restoration and shops. Experts and novices have benefitted.
This year’s topics
This year, the setting was in a really out-of-the-way location in the mountains of Virginia, where two Groopshops had been held previously. The classroom was a 36’ x 40’ three-and-a-half story, post-and-beam barn that had been moved from Illinois and rebuilt to serve as shop, laboratory, storage and classroom space for numerous classes on woodworking, finishing, casting, varnish making, gilding, veneering and tool making.
Topics featured at the 2014 Groopstock event were presented in an informal and interactive manner, with a lot of hands-on and probing questions. Many of the members attending are experts in several fields, making for animated and fascinating discussions. Some of the topics included:
• "Onsite Workbench Assembly" — Two presenters demonstrated and explained a new ultra-light, folding, portable workbench. For someone working onsite in a museum exhibit or doing restoration on architectural features, a truly robust but lightweight workbench is a must. Much better than what is available for sale and it makes a statement for a craftsman.
• "Replacing Missing Wood/Chalk Fitting" — As a part of the restoration of a vintage violin, the presenter discussed and demonstrated chalk fitting in depth. Students worked with the process to familiarize their fingers as well as their brains with this method of replacing wood with minimal removal of the original wood.
• "Foundry 101" — In this multipart presentation, instruction was provided to build a backyard furnace for the casting of metal parts.
• "Branding and Marketing"
• "Transition from Handwork to Machine-Made Furniture"
• “Inpainting and Color Theory" — This covered details of color matching, material use and brush work for what might be called “touch-up,” but as “inpainting” earns much greater income.
• "Insect Eradication" — A very effective and inexpensive way to eliminate bugs in the wood, presented by an expert conservator.
• "Eggshell Lacquer” — This covered use of Urushi lacquer, especially as used for an eggshell finish, becoming popular again. Esoteric, demanding, expensive, but doable.
• “Repairing Polyurethane" — This is for pianos, guitars and lots of furniture, typically with thick polyester or polyurethane coatings. If you are not doing it now, someone else is getting that business.
• "How the House Rostrum was Restored" — A historic narrative of the recent restoration of the U.S. House of Representatives Rostrum by group members.
• "Making Historic Varnish"
Two group members posted daily reports of the 2014 Groopstock at http://donsbarn.com/musings and www.workbenchdiary.com.
For information, visit www.professionalrefinisher.com.
Greg Williams, formerly senior touchup and finishing instructor for Mohawk Finishing Products, is now a freelance instructor and consultant. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared in the August 2014 issue.