Thursday, August 18, 2011

Restorer's Conference in the Virginia Hills

I had the privilege of spending all last week with forty of the nation’s most achieved restorers. We bunked, ate, and fellowshipped together in the Virginia Hills at a conference sponsored by The Professional Refinisher’s Group. The event, hosted by Donald C. Williams, Senior Conservator at the Smithsonian Institute, lasted five days brimming with thirteen sessions.

There were lectures and demonstrations on topics such as casting and molding, piano finishing, special clamping situations, inpainting theory, French polishing, faux finishing, veneer repair methods, electronics for the shop, and more. Time between sessions was seized for further discussion. Needless to say, come Thursday afternoon, we all had a glazed look in our eyes. It was intense.

The week began on Saturday August 6th. Leaving at 4:00 am, I made it down to West Newbury, MA to meet up with restorer, Bruce Hamilton. From there we hopped in a rental car to make it down to Bridgeton, CT to Jim Young’s for the night. Jim showed us around his shop, Old Gold Furniture Restoration. The next morning, we got on the road for our ten hour drive down to rural Virginia. We were greeted by our host and his crew sitting on the front porch in rocking chairs, preparing for the big week, I guess.

Monday morning started off with a bang. Don Williams demonstrated casting and molding for replacement parts using silicone rubber, ethylene-vinyl acetate, and finally paper pulp.

The afternoon was spent marveling at the special clamping solutions used by Sharon Que, a violin restorer in Ann Harbor, MI. We were all on the edge of our seats with amazement. Often peering into other similar yet different trades unlocks so many fresh ideas to be utilized. The evening lecture was on piano finishing, taught by one of the premier artisans within that circle, Kevin Hancock.

Tuesday morning kicked off with Don Williams talking about color technology, inpainting theory, and the functions of the human eye. I couldn’t take notes fast enough.

Following that, the afternoon session was titled “Furniture Connoisseurship” taught by Bob Klein from Pensacola, FL. Bob is one of the most knowledgeable collectors I know when it comes to antique identification. Tuesday closed with Jim Young from Bridgeton, CT moderating a discussion on business practices. It was great to see in what areas we differ and in what areas we have consensus.

David Reeves from Knoxville, TN presented his method of French polishing Wednesday morning. He told his story of how he became acquainted with the trade and demonstrated just how simple a true French polish could be. The afternoon session was taught by Bill Robillard from Green Bay, WI on Electronics in the Shop. For a bunch of woodworkers to begin to understand electricity was quite a task. He did an excellent job. The evening closed with a surprise presentation of modern day shellac manufacturing. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. We were all blown away.

Don took the helm Thursday morning to demonstrate his method of veneer repair. This method cuts the replacement piece exactly to fit without removing any original material from the piece. He then segued into the topic of hide glue and related issues and closed with the conclusion to his earlier casting demonstration by casting pewter. Tredway Childress and Craig Cianciolo took the afternoon to demonstrate faux finishing techniques and how they can be used to beautify plain looking grain. Working for the House of Representatives, they have used these techniques on some high quality pieces with great success.

Don finished the evening with a paste wax making demonstration. We unshaven half awake, glazed over gaggle of guys watched riveted for two hours as an electric stirrer mixed the ingredients to the world’s most supreme paste wax. Afterwards, we couldn’t help but acknowledge how nerdy we really are.

Friday morning, Bruce, Jim, and I had to head out on the road again. Before we left, I snatched a sneak preview of Mike Mascelli’s demonstration of upholstery techniques. Later, I heard that his lecture alone was worth coming for. Wow. What an honor to be invited to attend such an unbelievable event.

Restorers of furniture are an interesting breed. We seem to never tire of discussing the effect of a substrate’s birefringent qualities on inpainting techniques like pointillism or striping. It never grows old to muse on the uniqueness of the French polish’s amorphous interface and how it’s radiance captivates the masses. And the debate will never die on the relation of the molecular weight of proteinaceous adhesives and its relevance for utilization in structural applications. We few, we band of brothers, are a rare breed. Our friends back home will never get it. Our wives just don’t understand. When shellac is the lifeblood running through one’s veins and the universe is believed to be held together by hide glue nothing appears the same ever again.

My sincere gratitude goes out to Don for all of his work to put this thing together. I am sure it was more work than he will let on to. Don, I will never forget this week. It has left a permanent mark in my mind and in my life. Thank you. … Thank you.


  1. Great to meet you in the hills, Joshua. Look forward to our pathes crossing again very soon...

    WEB in Atlanta

  2. You as well, Brian. Thanks for dropping by The Diary. Be well...

  3. Joshua,
    This conference looks amazing. Does one have to actually have a furniture restoration business to be part of the Professional Refinsiher's Group? I ask because working with wood and antiques is my passion; however, it is not my profession. That said I am always looking to improve my skills at restoring furniture, and this organization and its members look like a fine resource.

    You work and blog are inspiring me to ocntinue building my skills and take on more difficult restoration projects. I hope one day that I can turn my passion into a business pursuit like you have done.

    Thank you for sharing the details of the conference. Keep up the good work.


  4. Hi Ron,

    The conference was amazing. Yes, "Groop" as we affectionately call it is for those making a living at it. Beyond that there is no other requisite for membership. I would recommend to you that you look into The National Instiute of Wood Finishing in Rosemount, MN if you are looking to make this a career. Most people say this jump starts you about 10 years in the business. I agree. I would not be where I am without the Institute. You can read about it here:

    Be well, friend.