Restoration is vital to maintaining antiques
Artisans battle TV myth that refinishing harms value
by Leigh Elmore
When it comes to the meticulous work of antique restoration, which requires such an eye for detail and appreciation for old things, it's not too surprising to find that many of the expert restorers today learned the craft from their fathers or some other mentor. In such a business, steeped in the stories and the objects of the past, tradition rules, and traditions are passed down one generation to the next.
Jaime and Steve Craddock in their workshop at Craddock Restorations. (photo by Leigh Elmore)
That certainly is the case at The Craddock Restorations in Kansas City, KS, where father Steve Craddock founded the business in 1975 and son Jaime now works in partnership with his father.
"I grew up in and around the business," Jaime Craddock said. "I learned it from Dad and I have gained an appreciation for antiques."
Their work environment helps. Steve Craddock lives in an 1896 house originally built by John Coughlin. It sits in a large shady tract of several acres, with the workshop located in an old barn that was rebuilt on a 1900s era foundation. It's a little bit of the country inside the city limits.
Like many in the restoration trade, what started out as a hobby evolved into a thriving business for Steve Craddock.
"I was always interested in old things, encouraged by my aunt and uncle who lived in the country," Steve said. Those family ties are important to their business.
"Everyone has a family and every family has a piece," (that gets passed down generation to generation), he explained. Eventually, that piece is going to need a restoration to retain its look and value.
Yes, that's right – restoration to retain value.
There's a popular misconception in the antique and vintage trade that any alteration of an antique's finish will diminish its value. This has been largely the result of items shown on the PBS television program "Antiques Roadshow" where the experts often say not to refinish a piece because it loses its "patina" and hence the value goes down.
Curtis Kimble of Craddock Restorations works on a chair.
However, there are a lot of caveats that go with that opinion, boiling down generally to what Jaime Craddock will say, "It depends on the piece. Unnecessary work is what damages an antique's value," he said.
Writing in the May 2016 issue of Woodshop News, columnist Bob Flexner addressed the fact that "Antiques Roadshow" has given refinishing a bad reputation. "This message is most unfortunate because it is leading to the destruction of a great deal of wonderful furniture," he maintains. The situation where refinishing diminishes an antique's value is very rare, Flexner said, primarily if a really old hand-crafted piece had been meticulously cared for and kept out of the sunlight and was in museum-quality condition."
There is a small, but very enthusiastic, market for these rare pieces of furniture that have survived in near-original condition," Flexner said. But most furniture is used continuously. "It is used and abused and, most importantly for the finish, it is exposed to a lot of light. So the finish on most furniture deteriorates. Now, however, people are often hesitant to refinish – even common mass-produced furniture from the 20th century.
"It's going to take a long time, and a great deal of loss, for us as a culture to finally realize that we have gotten seriously off track when it comes to the preservation of our furniture treasures," Flexner concluded.
Knowing what's what
Expert restorers know how to work appropriately with a damaged finish. "If it was abused we try to take care of it," said Jaime Craddock. "But if it's from everyday use, we work with it. We try to make any object look well-maintained, not just refinished."
Even the workshop is vintage at Craddock Restorations.
Steve Craddock emphasized that they use traditional finishes, such as shellac and varnish. "That raises some eyebrows," he said, "they are not as durable, but they are more authentic."
In Higginsville, MO, people know that if they need a restoration or refinishing project done, then take it to Keaton's Refinishing, which is located in an old Seven-Up warehouse near downtown. Kenny and Liz Keaton have been in the restoration business for 30 years and more recently Liz started a small antique shop in the front of the building. The workshop is spacious and well lighted.
Kenny and Liz Keaton in their Higginsville shop.
"I do everything involved with restoring antiques, but woodworking is my main passion," Kenny Keaton said. "I love the older antiques and we've always had a broad spectrum of projects, restoring, rebuilding and refinishing," he said.
"What they tell you not to refinish (on "Antiques Roadshow") are the finest of the lot," Kenny said. "And that's not what people bring us. So we have a job of educating our customers on the value of restoration."
"People ponder what to do with a family heirloom," Liz Keaton said. "Their choice is to keep it or sell it." The Keatons strive to show a customer that a restored heirloom has value to a family beyond just the monetary value.
"The only reason that we're still in business is because of sentimental value," Kenny Keaton quipped. Well, maybe not entirely. "Actually, we've been in business for 30 years and we have never been really slow." A good reputation goes a long way in the marketplace. "I got established here when there was nobody else around."
Kenny will still scour auctions and sales for old hardware to put in his inventory for restoration use and for re-sale. "I don't use modern screws," he noted. "Only slot head screws, no Phillips heads, I'm very particular. I also find and use square nails."
Hardware examples at Keaton Refinishing.
The project on the bench on the day we visited was not a woodworking job but a metal and canvas baby buggy from the early 1900s. "I uncovered the original canvas, which is painted fabric," and he was addressing the rusted metal and spoked wheels at the time.
"We get a lot of repeat business, much of it from Kansas City and Lexington," Keaton said. "I think I've stripped just about every piece in Lafayette County."
In Billings, MO, Bob Lefever is the go-to restoration expert at Bob's Powerhouse Antiques, which is also an antique shop. "I've been in the antiques business since I was nine years old," he said, "that makes 39 years."
"I do full restorations, redesigning, carving, custom wood building; about anything that people need," Lefever said. "If you bring in an old dresser without a mirror, I will find you the right mirror."
Lefever's philosophy behind his restorations is that the finished piece should reflect its original purpose. "Unlike what you may hear on television, a 200-year-old piece that hasn't been taken care of is going to need re-finishing. A lot of finishes have become old and rugged and need to be refinished."
Steve Craddock of Craddock Restorations shows a roll-top desk that came from the Roe family estate, the family that Roe Avenue is named after.
While Lefever isn't enthusiastic about altering old antiques, he did consent to cut a 14-foot farm table in half for a customer, so it could fit in their house. "When it was done it looked original. That is the artistry of it," he said. "Everything I use is from parts and pieces. I know what I need to marry together."
Michelle McDonald, friend of Lefever, said, "He can show me things that have been worked
incorrectly and how he would have done it differently. He's been dealing with this stuff all his life."
He notes the change in tastes as time goes on. "The younger generation doesn't like the older furniture. A lot of them are going the painted way
. If you're going to paint it, don't tell me," Lefever said, ever the traditionalist.
"The silver lining of this painted furniture
craze is there will be those wanting to return
the piece to its original grandeur and beautiful
Over in Gardner, KS, another father-son restoration tradition continues at Butler's Restoration. Butler's Restoration was founded by John Butler, and has operated as a family business since 1969. During that time, the business added to its customer base by word of mouth and repeat business. "Our reputation has grown the business where we have several customers from other states that send us their restoration projects," said Michael Butler who is the current owner and operator.
"We welcome the small jobs, such as chair regluing, as well as the more tedious and time consuming full restorations. Whatever your needs, we can take care of them," Butler said. Re-upholstery is one of his specialties. There is also a small antique shop at Butler's Restoration. "We offer only quality antiques in excellent condition. We have some very nice furniture and glassware as well as other collectibles."
Beyond the business aspects of restoration, there is a real feeling of satisfaction that a restorer gets to experience when a project is completed. "It so much fun to take an old rocking chair that was in shambles and turn it into a new treasure," said Steve Craddock. "Some customers will just burst into tears of joy. I tell them 'don't be embarrassed to react. And for me that provides a lot more than just the monetary reward."
Leigh Elmore can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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