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Antique Furniture Repair: A Primer on Who and Where to Find Help

by Fred Taylor (03/21/12).

If you need to find someone who can repair a piece of antique furniture, check them out carefully.

Sooner or later, most of us who hang out with antiques get the urge to do a little repair—nothing major—just a little fix here or a touch up there. It seems so terribly easy; why pay someone to have it done? But one thing usually leads to another and, before we know it we are in over our heads, if not on this project, then on the next one. Finally, it’s time to admit that we need the help of a professional restorer who knowledgeable in the field we have elected to muddy up. That admission, as hard as it may be, is nothing compared to the difficulty of the next step—actually finding someone who can do the job the right way for the right price in your timing.

The obvious place to look for help is on the Internet (once, we would have let our fingers to the walking through the Yellow Pages), but it is not the only place. Check out local trade papers, talk to dealers and, most important of all, talk to friends and neighbors. Get an idea of how many people do the kind of work you need and then try to narrow down your choices to three or so. If those don’t work out, you can always start again.

The most important step is to get face to face with any person you may be interested in hiring for your work. If the article you need worked on is too big to just throw in the trunk, call and make an appointment for the repair person to come to your location. You will know in a matter of minutes if you can do business with this person. Most people have a kind of radar that warns them when something isn’t quite right. Pay attention to it. If the initial meeting goes well, then proceed with the plan. If it doesn’t, just pass and go on to the next interview.

Next, you must satisfy yourself that the person can in fact do the work. There are a number of ways to check it out. The best way, if possible, is to actually go to the place of business where the work will be done and see other work in progress and see finished work if that is an option. However, do not rule out a shop just because there is no showroom of finished work. It is the nature of the business to get completed work out the door as soon as possible. Remember that repair and restoration people don’t get paid for working on things. They get paid for delivering finished goods. Note the people doing the work. Do they look like they know what they are doing? Does it look like the work proceeds in an orderly fashion or does chaos and confusion reign in the workplace?

If a personal visit is not appropriate for some reason (and there should be very few acceptable reasons), the next best thing is to see photos of finished work, preferably before and after. This won’t always tell the entire story but it will give you an idea of the capabilities of the facility and a photo album should be able to show you a much wider range of work than that in a showroom or shop.

Then there are the questions to ask. This is the hard part for some people but it is absolutely necessary. The most important thing to ask for is a list of local references. The next most important thing to do is to check the references. Naturally, no one is going to give you the name of a dissatisfied customer, but what one customer will accept may not be what you are willing to accept. If at all possible, see the work done for the references and discuss with them how the job went. Were their expectations met? What parts of the deal, if any, were they not happy with?

After securing references, talk about what you want done. Is there something to be matched? A color? A sheen? A shape? Hint: you must provide a match for the restorer to work with. Do you have an impending event that affects the timing for the job? Can that schedule be met? When can they start and how long will it take? And is that a solid date or just a guess or an estimate?

Perhaps the most sensitive question for both sides is the matter of money. There has to be a clear understanding, preferably in writing, of what will be done and what the cost will be. If there are contingencies, what are they and what will they cost? Who pays for such incidentals as transportation if that is an issue? How is payment to be rendered and when? Many restorers ask for a front-end deposit. While I disapprove of this practice, in some cases it is acceptable if a quantity of expensive material must be purchased to do the work. But advance payment for professional services should never be asked or given.

Another touchy issue that must be addressed is the question of liability. Check with your homeowners insurance or business insurance to determine if your property is covered for loss, fire, theft, etc., while in the possession of another. If there is any question, ask the restorer if he or she has insurance that covers your property while in his/her possession. This type of coverage is not normally provided in business liability insurance but must be covered under a separate policy called bailee’s insurance. Ask your insurance agent for more details about that.

The final consideration goes back to the initial contact you had with the prospective restorer. Do you feel confident about doing business with this person?

Fred Taylor is a antique furniture Worthologist who specializes in American furniture from the Late Classicism period (1830-1850).

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Send your comments, questions and pictures to me at PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or info@furnituredetective.com.

Visit Fred’s website at www.furnituredetective.com. His book “How To Be A Furniture Detective” is now available for $18.95 plus $3 shipping. Send check or money order for $21.95 to Fred Taylor, PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423.

Fred and Gail Taylor’s DVD, “Identification of Older & Antique Furniture,” ($17 + $3 S&H) and a bound compilation of the first 60 columns of “Common Sense Antiques,” by Fred Taylor ($25 + $3 S&H) are also available at the same address. For more information call 800-387-6377, fax 352-563-2916, or e-mail info@furnituredetective.com.

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6 Responses to “Antique Furniture Repair: A Primer on Who and Where to Find Help”

  1. I love the photo you have up. I have this very same table which my aunt and I ‘antiqued’ back in the 1970s, it is a lovely shade of greenish. Thank goodness it peels off like fingernail polish.

    Refinishing furniture has been a passion of mine for many years. I have a project that I am working on now where I am rebuilding the bottom of this unique dresser/desk/curved shelving unit. I picked it up off of the side of the road and it looks like it had been sitting in water. I am using fiberglass sheeting and bondo to rebuild and strengthen the bottom. It is a challenge but so far it is working really well. I will have to post some before and after photos.

    Thank you Mr. Taylor for all the knowledge you share.

  2. I heard Fred Taylor speak at an ACNA antique convention (Antiques & Collectibles National Association)
    in Dallas and he really knows his stuff!

    His “show and tell” repair and antique identification presentation was really informative.

    Linda Miller
    Consignment Pal Resale Directory

  3. Great article! As an antique dealer and a skilled woodworker, I love the advise and information you provide.

  4. Tillie Menish says:

    Mr. Taylor, your articles are always so informative. Thank you for taking the time to share your knowledge with your readers.

  5. Another great place to find a professional restorer/conservator is to check with the American Institute for Conservation, they have a link on their website to “Finding a Conservator”. The Society of Gilders is also great if you are looking for frame repair and gilding.

    Nice article with very valid points especially the point about “go with your gut.”

  6. Good read. It seems we are sometimes afraid to entrust our furniture to repair shops so we decide to repair it ourselves. Thanks for posting.

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