Repairing and refinishing can be monotonous and time-consuming but, in the end, it usually is a task that pays well
No matter how much work we put into crafting a fine piece of furniture, somewhere down the road it’s going to need some work. Through the effects of time, exposure, humidity, wear and human contact, even the best piece can end up as a candidate for residence at the local dump (or worse yet, as firewood). As sure as cars need tires, wood furniture needs craftsmen who will assume the task of repair and restoration.
Most of us know few things parallel the satisfaction of completing a piece and marveling at it as the last finishing touches are applied. So why, you might ask, would one take on restoration? In some markets, there is an abundance of qualified craftsmen all competing for the same customers. In others, there is a clientele who value their antiques so much that no new piece will ever replace them. In every market, however, there is furniture that needs to be repaired, refinished or restored. While the work may not be as glamorous as making saw dust, the rewards can be equally satisfying.
Why get into restoration?
There is an abundance of furniture out there that has deteriorated or has been damaged by an amateur attempting to improve it. In an age when conservation is at the forefront of many people’s minds, it makes sense to maintain and restore yesterday’s treasures. Not only does it reduce the amount of harvested new material, it prolongs a legacy of craftsmanship that is sadly diminishing in today’s mass-produced furniture market. For quality-conscious customers who are unable to invest in fine new custom furniture, a restored piece is often an appealing alternative.
There is nothing like the education of deconstructing an old piece to discover techniques of joinery and construction. Through the years, I’ve learned as much from old pieces as I have from any fellow woodworker or reference work. That, in turn, builds a foundation of knowledge to be applied to future restorations or even incorporated into new custom pieces. It is a constant learning process and each piece represents a new challenge and revelation.
Realities of the business
The restoration business is dirty and there’s no getting around it. Often, a piece in need of serious restoration requires a multitude of steps. In fact, even the word “restoration” implies such things as cleaning, refinishing, repairing, and often partial reconstruction. Each step is essential, and there are no shortcuts to perfect results. In some severe cases, just getting the wood to a point where it is finish-ready can consume 90 percent of the work time devoted to it. This is after the finish has been stripped, stains have been removed, damages repaired, missing pieces remade, joints secured, etc. Patience is a must.
The advantages of being a woodworker are clear when it comes to restoration. There are many shops that will refinish furniture, but most will not undertake work where pieces have to be crafted or major repairs done. They often don’t have the equipment or skills, or will not take the time to do it. By taking on the entire endeavor, you provide the customer with a complete package. Craftsmen who collect and maintain antique tools will find that they use them in the most convincing way to accurately reproduce some old parts. It is also worth investing in a good set of carving tools because there is a great deal of fine-tuning when it comes to making a repair appear seamless.
Since restoration invariably involves a good deal of repair, this can be the most painstaking part. If it were always as simple as a broken leg or a weak joint, it wouldn’t be so bad. Unfortunately, there are a number of folks out there who are convinced they can fix anything with nails and a lot of glue. This is one aspect I encounter most and I can’t begin to guess how many thousands of nails I’ve pulled out of places they never should have been. Please tell all of your friends not to put nails in grandma’s antiques. Thank you.
Finishing in a restoration business is a different animal than conventional finishing on new pieces. Apart from the often-extended preparation time, some finishes work better with previously finished woods. There are a number of good resources out there to consult, and it’s worth building a library of reference for each situation you encounter. It is rarely a process as simple as establishing base color and spraying topcoats.
The bulk of a restoration business often involves antiques that should never be finished with modern finishes. Time must be spent learning to duplicate old finishes, including the French polish technique. Spot coloring, bleaching and finish surface repair are other common processes that require much practice before any attempt on customer items. While this may seem like an enormous undertaking, it is essential and the end results are extremely rewarding. So much of restoration is about getting back to basics, and I am a firm believer in having a solid foundation as a woodworker and finisher.
Broadening the scope
Through the years, it has become quite apparent that chairs suffer the most and, on any given day, I have at least 10 chairs in my shop. The most common problems are weak joints and loose tenons and, after that, issues with seats. Cane and rush seats, in particular, are common to older chairs and have a limited life span. Folks seem to think that a cane seat can be used as a step stool, and dogs obviously have an appetite for old rush seats. Years ago, I was restoring a chair for a customer and he asked me to recane the seat. When I explained to him that I didn’t do that sort of work, he challenged me to learn. It has become one of the most valuable additions to my restoration business.
Hand caning is becoming a lost art and few weavers will attempt anything beyond the basic seven-step weave. Applying machine cane is relatively simple and a wise addition to any chair-repair service. Removing the old cane is usually the greater challenge, so it’s worth investing in dedicated tools to remove it. Although there are a number of caners scattered across the country, most will not attempt any other sort of chair repair and many shy away from dying and finishing a seat. As those skills are part and parcel to the furniture restorer, it provides an additional incentive for the customer to bring their business here.
I’ll be honest in saying that I hand-caned several chairs before I got fast enough to make it truly profitable. Invariably, a chair that arrives to be caned will need some other repairs or finish touch-up. By offering a complete service of caning, repair, cleaning and polishing, a constant supply of work is assured. However, I am a woodworker at heart and could not be a full-time chair caner. It is a good supplement to the scope of my restoration service and fills the gaps when custom work or other restoration work business slows.
Rush weaving is not as difficult to master, although it is more physically demanding. If you want to get into natural cat-tail rush, it would be best to learn with a veteran weaver. Fiber rush and pre-twisted natural rush are very common and easily obtained. Although the labor costs seem to vary greatly by region, it’s been my experience that rush weaving is very profitable because of the time and materials involved. I would recommend weaving at the end of the day as it does wear out the hands and can make it difficult to control hand tools with safe, adequate precision.
Getting the business
Even if there are a number of restoration shops in your area, it is worth considering what certain shops don’t offer as this may be just the thing customers are seeking. After Hurricane Katrina came through New Orleans in 2005, a lot of area restoration shops advised people to throw out their treasured heirlooms because they were not worth saving. My customers always used the words “sentimental value” within the first few minutes of when I’d meet them. It was then that I realized the monetary value of their heirlooms didn’t matter if they really wanted them restored. It led to some messy, miserable restoration projects, but also to the most rewarding results — especially the reaction of the customers.
Through the years, I have tried diversifying my services, then specializing to see not only what was most profitable, but what services were in demand. It served to reveal what gaps existed in the local market and also what services I dreaded doing and subsequently dropped from the menu. The rewards of furniture restoration are many, and it often seems that a part of the customer is, in some way, also restored when they receive their resurrected piece. You will be, too — as soon as they pay the bill.
Dan Alleger is the owner of Dan Alleger Custom Woodworking in New Orleans, and has been involved with numerous restoration projects following Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
This article originally appeared in the July 2009 issue.