Eight local experts offer furniture restoration suggestions and services
In a “throw away” world where home furnishings go in and out of style at an ever-accelerating rate, how do homeowners create an environment that transcends trends, nourishes the soul with beauty, and reflects their principles to tread gently on Mother Earth?
Cape Cod is replete with craftsmen who have years of experience in accomplishing that very challenge. When selecting a table, bench or other piece from these businesses, customers are furnishing their living spaces with beautiful items that are a far cry from the stapled-together, particle board furniture so common in today’s market—items that look good for a few years and then fall apart and end up in the dump.
For this article we spoke with eight local craftsmen, who each shared details and anecdotes on unique restoration projects. Not only is this locally crafted furniture made to last, but most of these experts use reclaimed wood and other green materials to further enhance their Earth-friendly nature. Finally, by utilizing old wood, restoring inherited furniture, and using local sources, anyone can achieve the timeless beauty of a well-furnished space with a “sense of place” based on a Cape Cod aesthetic and a rich regional history.
There’s an artist behind high-quality furnishings
Designing and building furniture—is it merely “making furniture” or is it an art form? “It is useful art,” says Dick Kiusalas, owner of West Barnstable Tables. “It is conceptual art. It may be a piece of furniture but it is art.” Kiusalas should know: he has been repurposing old wood, metal and other found items into attractive tables, cabinets and benches for decades.
“It’s a playful process,” he says. Many of Kiusalas’ tables and cabinets feature visible remnants of their former lives. Old paint marks outlining stair boards show where a table plank had a former life as part of a staircase, adding both color and charm to the table. Besides the visible marks of a board’s past, Kiusalas explains that the color of the old wood as it oxidizes adds significantly to its beauty. The deep saturation of glowing, golden browns can only be achieved by time, he says, and cannot be replicated by any man-made stain.
In addition to Kiusalas’ work, the company’s showroom in West Barnstable displays the creations of several other local craftsmen, who all transform old materials into beautiful, high-quality pieces that pack a wallop in terms of history, texture and artistic appeal.
Cape conservator: Antiques have great value, so think before you paint
A quick survey of home furnishing and interior design experts may reveal that fine furniture with a wood finish is currently out of style, but the owner of Barrett M. Keating Conservators of North Falmouth thinks it is only a matter of time before the beauty of an antique’s original wood will be treasured anew. “The important thing with antiques [that are 100 years old or older] is not the market value,” Keating says, “but the inherent value.” For starters, there are a finite amount of such pieces, he says, and to find a well-crafted piece in good condition is rare.
Keating adds that not only does an antique’s rarity add value, so too does its history. “I look at these pieces and look at the craftsman’s tool marks,” he says. “I can tell how skilled he was, how fast he worked, which parts the apprentice worked on, and how much money the client had. I can read the piece like a story.”
Keating says he understands the lighter, brighter appeal of painted furniture popular today, but urges his clients to add a reversible barrier finish layer before any drop of paint. This layer will protect the wood’s pores from paint seeping in, and has a different chemistry than the original finish so the look can be reversed back more easily when decor or style change. Because the quality of many older pieces is so high, Keating says it makes sense—both historical and financial—to work with a trained conservator who can imbue a piece with a new look without damaging its long-term value.
Local artisan adds a little paint, a lot of character
What happens when a Brit expresses his Cape Cod vision on interesting old furniture? Magic, apparently. While working in house painting and construction, Peter Wrack began livening up old furniture as a hobby. Then, people began asking to buy the pieces he would create that were chock-full of character. “Older pieces of furniture were once made with better wood and have much more character than newer pieces which often contain a lot of plastic,” says Wrack. “The broken, old and unwanted pieces also tend to come with their own history, whether they are found on the side of the road or in grandma’s basement. I like to re-use, repair and combine old pieces of furniture together to make them into something unique.”
Some of Wrack’s favorites over the years are items he rebuilt from materials found in dumpsters, at yard sales or on the side of the road. One piece he particularly enjoys is “The Whydah,” a dresser he painted in the theme of the Black Sam Bellamy’s ship, which sank off the coast of Wellfleet in 1717. “Every single one of them carries its own story,” says Wrack, “and that’s what new furniture from the store could never offer.” Wrack, who operates his business Uniquely Painted Furniture out of Brewster, adds charm to individual pieces by incorporating his signature—placing an old coin, a British penny, into each and every piece.
Something to spout about—Harwich man transforms trash into nautical-themed treasure
Rich Benson of Cape Cod Whale Carving in East Harwich specializes in exquisite carvings of whales, which he mounts on attractive, seasoned wood. “I come across these old, old beautiful pieces of wood and I just can’t throw them away,” Benson says. “I know somewhere down the road I will use them so I have to keep every bit out of the dumpster.”
While Benson often uses new wood, whether sugar pine or bass, for the whale carving itself, he says he would never dream of mounting his one-of-a-kind carvings on an ordinary piece of stock lumber. That same philosophy recently inspired him to work on a crumpled old piece of copper, hammer it flat into a whale shape, and present the piece as an artistic Christmas present . . . to the client on whose property he found the copper piece in a trash pile.
How much wood would a woodworker re-use . . . if the woodworker found great wood?
One trend currently boosting the popularity of furnishings with a greener footprint is the appeal of rustic pieces. Saltwater Woodworks of Falmouth, for example, takes reclaimed wood and repurposes it into more modern pieces, each with its own story. “It is a completely different buying experience,” says owner Matt Sullivan, comparing Saltwater Woodworks’ commissioned jobs and one-of-a-kind items versus buying factory-made furniture and decor.
Sullivan tells the story of one old farmhouse in Lakeville that had to come down, and today its remnants can be found in a desk, benches and flooring in a new home. “These surfaces have a history, a story,” Sullivan says, pointing out nail holes, patina and other details. The company has also transformed old wooden benches from a local high school into fodder for some wonderful new pieces. “First we had to get rid of all the gum underneath,” Sullivan laughs. Next, they sanded the wood and stained it a cobalt blue, creating a strikingly modern cabinet, which retains its history. “I am not a tree hugger,” Sullivan says, “but reusing the wood appeals to me because it is so much more beautiful and interesting.”
“Bird’s” is the word for furniture restoration on Cape Cod
“We consider ourselves the original recycler,” says Larry Mathews, owner of Bird’s Furniture Restoration of East Falmouth. “We repair, refinish and restore furniture to make it good for the next generation. By the time you’ve cut down trees, processed the wood and put it on the market, a new piece has a much greater environmental impact than letting us refinish an existing piece for you.”
With the current popularity of painted furniture over stained, Mathews says about 40 percent of the pieces that came through his company’s finish room in 2015 did go home with a painted finish. “We will see that furniture again, to be stripped and stained when the style changes,” Mathews joked, in reference to the ongoing job security he enjoys courtesy of changing trends in home decor. Furthering the green impact, he points out that repairing instead of replacing offers the most benefit when an item needs to be re-glued, or if one chair needs to be fixed in order to save the whole set from being thrown out. With an expert’s touch, the piece, Mathews says, “is ready to be used again for years.”
Why buy new when you can dip, strip and re-use?
Known as a go-to resource for local interior designers, Dip ‘N Strip of Hyannis handles a wide variety of furniture restoration and rescue projects. “You can buy new, but what we do is such superior quality that you’d be amazed,” says company founder Dudley Scott. The company is experienced in repairing, rebuilding and refinishing. “We can rebuild drawers of old bureaus so they slide so much better,” Scott says, “and they are far superior to many new bureaus with pressed board sides and stapled backs.”
Scott is semi-retired but comes in to help owner Alex Bowyer. While designer professionals constitute the bulk of the company’s business—often bringing in heavy walnut and mahogany pieces to be lightened with white paint so they can fit in better with a more coastal look—Dip ‘N Strip also helps many local do-it-yourselfers. Scott says some customers’ pieces have purely sentimental value, such as items made by a grandfather, while others such as wicker sets would be virtually impossible for the customer to remove all those layers of paint on their own. By stripping and repainting, repairing and reviving, Scott says old furnishings can be given a new look, and a new life.
Local man seizes opportunity—now beams about his job
Scott Feen, owner of Atlantic Workshop in Chatham, says he was inspired to go into the business of repurposing items for the home just over five years ago when he learned that a beautiful house in Osterville was to be knocked down. Feen acted quickly, bidding with a friend on the right to go in before the bulldozers and take anything that could be salvaged. Together, they removed the kitchen, hand-hewn beams, the staircase and trim . . . and Feen’s new business was born.
Today, Atlantic Workshop finds new ways to display the Cape’s rich history in wood, metal and other materials with strong nautical and maritime references. Recently, Feen was working on a project to re-use the curved sides from a Hinckley boat abandoned to rot for 25 years to create a striking shark sculpture. He collaborates with local craftsmen for metalworking and glassblowing needs, depending on what each unique piece calls for. “I absolutely love what I do,” Feen says. “It is not work. It’s a real gift to be able to do this every day.”