Furniture restorer enjoys preserving pieces of history

January 26, 2004|JOHN T. DAVIS

Joe O'Rourke enjoys restoring antique furniture because he feels like he's "preserving a piece of history."

One of those pieces of history sits in the living room of his home on Upper Salt River Road near Parksville, where his shop, Turn of the Century Restorations and Antiques, also is located.

It's an old cabinet that he believes originally sat in the Federal Building on Danville's Main Street when the building was used as a post office. He got it from a customer who said she obtained it when the post office moved out of the Federal Building in the 1950s.

It was "filthy black," O'Rourke said, and it took seven hours just to remove and polish the brass handles on the piece. Now, beautifully restored, the "tiger oak" cabinet will hold 33 CD's in each of its 20 narrow drawers, and it's a useful part of his home-entertainment center.


As you might expect from a person for whom woodworking is both a livelihood and a passion, O'Rourke is a strong advocate for saving the "junk" people find in the dark places in their garage or barn.

Not only does it mean "preserving a piece of history," it also makes sense economically because new furniture that is made as well as the old stuff is going to be expensive, he said.

"If you like antiques, go to an auction and buy a chest of drawers for $30 or $40. Bring it to me and I'll strip it for you and refinish it," O'Rourke said. "You'll still have less in it that if you had bought a new piece."

Many of his customers, O'Rourke said, have a personal connection to the furniture they want restored.

"A lot of what I do for people is stuff that has sentimental value," O'Rourke said. "It belonged to their parents or somebody in the family. It's been out in the garage for 10 or 15 years, and they finally decided to do something with it."

Still, restoring furniture is tricky. The restoration woodworker is dealing with a piece of furniture that is not only old but probably has been improperly repaired sometime in the past.

"So much of it has been worked on, and it has been done in a way that's not going to last," O'Rourke said. "I try to take it back to what it was originally."

Sometimes that's possible, and sometimes it isn't.

O'Rourke will tell the customer when a chair or other piece of furniture is in such bad shape that he can't guarantee his work. "Then I tell the customer, you might want to put a Teddy Bear in it," O'Rouke said.

Normally, however, he guarantees that a piece will be fully usable after it has been restored. "If it's treated well and not misused, then I'll guarantee it."

Most of his business comes from repeat customers

Restoring furniture can be slow and tedious work, he said, but he's proud of the fact that 75 percent of his business is made up of repeat customers who were satisfied with the quality of his work on a previous job.

"I find myself trying to be a perfectionist when the stuff was not perfect to begin with," he said.

"If I wouldn't put it in my house, it won't go out of my shop. I use that as a basis for what I do."

For people who like to refinish their own furniture, O'Rouke suggests that they leave the stripping to him. It's very difficult to get antiques really clean using the "citrus strippers" sold in local stores. He uses a three-step "flow" stripping system that removes all of the old paint or varnish, he said.

"Refinishing can be fun," he said. "On the other hand, stripping is terrible, even for me. I only do it once or twice a month. I get two or three people to help and do a pickup truck load ... 15 to 25 pieces of furniture."

To O'Rourke, restoring furniture is "all about the wood," and he often finds that even though an antique can't be saved, its parts can still be used in making another piece of furniture.

"I try to save every piece of furniture," he said. "If I can't, I save the wood.

"In my opinion, parts are worth something. I'm kind of a junk man with this stuff, too. Old wood, I hate to see anybody burn it or throw it away."

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