Just like new again

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Based in the Atlanta suburbs, Alan Noel completes intricate restoration work on fine furniture as the owner of two businesses, A. Ross Noel and Associates and Noel’s Woodworks, which employs four independent contractors in a co-op setting.

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Noel has been restoring furniture for more than 30 years, yet he prefers the title restoration specialist.

“As far as my profession goes, when you walk into an antique store or someone’s home and you see furniture that has definitely been refinished, in my opinion, whoever did the work did a poor job because you can tell it’s been done,” Noel says.

“We do restoration; not refinishing of fine antiques and fine furniture. We’re restorers. And what that means is that we try to make things look as if they’ve been very well taken care of and keep the original character and patina and all that to mimic natural aging.”

He believes that the most important skill necessary for success in this line of work is to consistently offer a good product, one that reflects not only his own skills and expertise, but also respects prior work.

“You never know what’s going to come through the door and what skill set you have to have to take care of that particular project. That’s the most interesting part of the business.”

From music to antiques

Originally from Hopewell, Va., Noel attended Atlantic Christian College in Wilson, N.C., in the early 1970s. He majored in musical studies, since he could play guitar, and was unsure of his career path. Then he got a job at Williams Antiques, a dealer that offered restoration services, where he learned traditional finishing techniques.

But music remained his main ambition. He toured with various bands until he was 32, when he decided to settle in Atlanta and got a job repairing medical equipment at Children’s Heathcare of Atlanta.

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“I liked the work and thought it was interesting, but because I had a lot of free time on my hands I started refinishing furniture for my first apartment,” Noel says. That led to more refinishing work from the hospital’s staff and Noel had a full-time business going by 1983.

In the luxury market

Restoration customers can generally afford the work, according to Noel.

“Most of my clients definitely have money. And when you grow up in an environment like that you tend to have an appreciation for the finer things in life. So when your dining room table gets screwed up, you’ve got to have it fixed and you have the means to do it. It’s not about money to them; it’s about the presentation of their belongings.

“When I first went into business, Atlanta was fabulous. There are so many people here and it was a very wealthy city. There were young people buying furniture and having grandma’s furniture restored. In 2009, that market collapsed and many restorations shops went out of business. But, since we’re in the luxury market, our business picked up and now we’re just slammed.”

Noel is a people person who really cares about his clients, which is great for business. For example, he’ll often fix additional items at no charge and has been known to gift a rocking chair to an expectant mom.

“I give away a lot of things, but it has paid off in spades,” says Noel. “I know how to run a business, that’s for sure, and how to keep clients coming through the door.”

Busy shop

Noel’s shop usually has about 25 projects in progress, ranging from simple repairs to a complete restoration. He’s an expert finisher, well-versed in gold leafing, water gilding and color matching, as well as production and architectural finishing. He does cane and rush seating, flat reed seats, wicker furniture, floor repair, veneer repair and even offers services to cut glass and mirrors.

He can also rely on the talents of his four associates: Scott King, Michael Layton, Michael Livingston and Brian Webster.

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“We work as a team and they all have their strong areas of what they’re good at and that’s how I disperse the work out to whichever craftsman I believe is best suited for the job,” Noel says.

What’s his biggest challenge? The weather. He says no matter the season, dealing with the different temperatures and levels of humidity is always a struggle. The shop can get very hot in the summer, but any type of cooling system would interfere with his finishing.

Future plans

Noel teaches at the Highland Woodworking School and has written for several publications, including Woodshop News. Retirement isn’t far off, but Noel can’t imagine ever really getting out of the business. He enjoys being part of the local business community and bartering with other merchants that he’s known for years. He also gets a kick out of meeting new clients, who are often the children of previous customers.

“I’m 63 now, so within another year I’m going to start handing over the operations to an associate and eventually will phase myself out of the business in the future. But in the immediate future I will still continue to teach as much as I can and write as much as I can.

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“When you run a business in the arts — and I consider this the arts — you never retire because you’re going to be interested in it for the rest of your life. I’ll never stop going to junk stores or estate sales. Whenever there’s junk to be seen, I’m looking. It’s just in my blood. This business is really something you have to have a passion for.”

Outside of the shop, Noel and his wife purchase and rent real estate, a lucrative sideline that he wishes he started a long time ago. 

“In my opinion, real estate is a great way to create wealth. In my own business, I owned my building and had income coming in from that shop on my building, so basically I had an income-producing, free shop with no utilities for a good 15 years. Every penny that I made was clear profit and that really created a lot of wealth for me because I spend that on real estate.

Contact: A. Ross Noel and Associates, 5105E Peachtree Industrial Blvd., Chamblee, GA. Tel: 770-936-0667. Website: www.a-rossnoel.com.

This article originally appeared in the October 2014 issue.

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