Furniture Makeover

Don’t be so quick to throw out that hand-me-down chair or table

BY Christine R. Gonzalez

Alma Fennell, owner of Drapery World, positions
cording on a reupholstered Victorian chair. Photo by Allison Potter.
Alma Fennell, owner of Drapery World, positions cording on a reupholstered Victorian chair. Photo by Allison Potter.

It might be old, neglected, and scarred, but there is value in repurposing solid wood furniture, both financially and psychologically. Whether you tackle the project yourself or hire a pro, it feels good to save an old favorite from the discard pile.

Interior designer Alma Fennell encourages furniture shoppers to think about the long run. Instead of buying cheaper plastic, pressed wood, and man-made particles, a better investment is to restore family treasures or buy a used piece made of durable real wood.

“What people are purchasing today is junk, made out of cardboard, pine, particle board. The lifespan is about seven years then it goes into the landfill, which harms our environment,” says Fennell, owner of Drapery World in Wilmington. “We rebuild and reupholster old existing furniture. When we build it, we use nothing but hardwood frames. Our showroom displays antiques that you can modernize. Apply any fabric you’d like to put on it and have an excellent piece that will survive 100 years.”

Fennell is an expert seamstress. She can fabricate, upholster, or restore a variety of things. She makes drapes, coverlets, valances, and cornices. Most anything pertaining to decorating can be applied to furniture restoration — even furniture in unexpected places.

“I just did an airplane!” she exclaims. “This gentleman brought in the chairs and we met the government specifications, did the paneling all around the cockpit and the passenger part. We did all that. We can do boats, yachts … you know the Arrive Hotel downtown? We did the outdoor cushions around the pagoda, a green fern pattern, it is absolutely beautiful Sunbrella material that stands up to sun and water.”

For those who are ready to hand off their restoration hiccups to the professionals, businesses like Master Craftsmen Services in Wilmington are willing to pick up the pieces.

“A good percentage of people walk in and the first thing they say is ‘I know how to do this’ but they end up bringing their project to us. We usually make more money when people do things halfway and create problems for themselves,” owner Ed Mayorga says with a good-hearted laugh. “We do a lot of fixes where the order says DNTH or DNTW in big letters — Do Not Tell Husband or Wife.”

Mayorga is always ready to offer advice on a restoration project.

“I don’t mind offering little tidbits on the type of finish for a DIY guy,” he says. “A lot of people walk in and want to know exactly how we are going to do the restoration and we tell them, whether we end up with the job or not. The word gets out when a company is helpful.”

Master Craftsmen Services has seen some unusual restoration and creation jobs, from cleaning and sealing bronze Turkish foot warmers to making end tables out of beer barrels and portholes. They do simple jobs like rewrapping wicker chair legs to totally redesigning a couch.

“We had a lady bring us a sofa and loveseat, and she wants the structure redone,” Mayorga says. “She wants it more square, more contemporary. She wants the arms to be square, she wants the back to be straight across. She is redesigning a piece of furniture she has had for 10 or 15 years. That’s what we’re known for, being able to do exactly what the customer requires.”

Mayorga says many companies specialize in one thing or another — upholstery, wood finishing, cane work and so on — but he is able to do all types of furniture restoration.

“It’s amazing some of the things we have done, repurposed,” he says. “We’ve made tables out of pianos that were very old. People want to know, ‘I know you’ve never done this before, but can you…’ We have never turned anybody away yet. A man brought in a hatch from a ship, a crosshatch of wood, a very large rectangular piece and we made it into a glass-topped dining room table for him. He was delighted.”

It is not unusual for his business to use cowhide or alligator or other strange things in upholstery.  Alligator skin legally can be purchased from a couple of places on the West Coast and one in Chicago.

With outdoor activities curtailed by the pandemic, many people have turned to new, stay-at-home hobbies, including DIY furniture restoration projects.

“When COVID happened, we saw a rise in paint sales and custom orders,” says Jody Dorsey, owner of Wilmington antique store Flea Body’s. “What’s a better way to make yourself feel better than a makeover?”

Other benefits include it is often cheaper to refurbish, there is sentimentality in keeping grandma’s chair, older furniture is usually made from real wood, and often the pieces are made in America, she says.

Adding color to an old piece of furniture with paint or fabric is a simple way to add a personal touch to a project.

“When I first started professionally 12 years ago, painted furniture was not that popular. It has more appeal now,” Dorsey says.

In fact, the interest in painting furniture seems to be trending. The introduction to furniture painting classes offered at Flea Body’s always fill up quickly.

The upswing in DIY projects applies to all types of people and includes all types of painting. Dorsey says seniors like to do a craft with paint or decoupage. Others like technique classes on glazing, waxing, or embellishing. There are many options for choosing paint types — chalk based, mineral based, acrylic, milk paint and more.

One embellishment currently popular is Saltwash. The product, produced in Wilmington and used throughout the world, gives a layered, coastal look to projects.

Dorsey advises new DIYers to pick a furniture project with good bones. Do some detective work to make sure the furniture is solid wood, and not just wood veneer. She says to check the back or bottom of a piece. Compressed layers means laminate. A sign of real wood furniture is dovetailed drawers, which look like joined puzzle pieces.

“Make sure it is sturdy and don’t use any rotted or moldy wood. It’s hard to get mold out,” she says.

Furniture restoration can produce fun surprises. Dorsey and her staff have made some interesting finds in secret compartments, including old letters filled with apologies and blush-worthy confessions. Unclaimed relic family photos adorn their office refrigerator.

“My manager bought a piece from auction, took all the drawers out, and found $900 taped up in it!” she exclaims. “Every piece of furniture tells a story, if they could talk, furniture could write awesome books.”

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