The 18th-century Queen Anne armchair looks like a goner. It is barely in one piece after an ocean voyage from the mainland. Only one of its legs remains; the others have been broken and are missing. Pieces of wood have chipped off the back. The fragile upholstery, the original wool-and-cotton needlepoint cover, is intact but may not survive further handling.
In Kirk Davis' skilled hands,
damaged antique furniture
is restored to its old glory
By Suzanne Tswei
The insurance company declared the chair a total loss, but the owners consider the aged walnut wood chair an heirloom and refuse to give up hope.
"Anybody else who takes one look at that chair would say, 'No way,'" said Kirk Davis, furniture repair extraordinaire. "But not me. That's why I am the furniture doctor, and I've been the furniture doctor for 30 years."
The job isn't as difficult as it looks, although it will require about 80 hours of extremely skilled and careful wood carving and furniture repair, said Davis, who advertises himself as "furniture doctor, master restorer" in the Yellow Pages.
It would be easier if the broken pieces were not missing, but the owners have good photographs of the chair that will allow him to duplicate the legs and restore the chair to its former glory.
"It's always easier if people save the broken pieces," Davis said. "That's one advice I can offer. I can either reattach them or use them to make copies. At least I have photos in this case. It's really difficult when there's nothing to go on."
In those hopeless cases, Davis delves into antique books to find pictures and then tries to re-create the right look for the broken furniture. But the trick in restoring furniture isn't only in the repairs; it's knowing when to stop.
"With the majority of my work, the furniture is antique, fine-quality, one-of-a-kind, hand-made pieces. When it is an antique, you don't want to make it look new. You want it to keep that aged look," Davis said.
That means not filling the worm holes or shining up the worn finish. To match the aged wood patina, he looks to mainland sources for aged walnut to carve the new legs. New walnut tends to have a green tint, while antique walnut has developed a golden brown tone.
After he's done with replacing the legs, the horsehair stuffing will get a fluffing with either a fine ice pick or a needle. He will replace the worn webbing and retie the internal parts of the chair before reattaching the upholstery, which he had to remove from the frame to repair the chair properly.
"It will take some real engineering to get this done," Davis said. "The upholstery really is still in pretty good shape. I just have to be very careful when I tack it back on to make sure there are no tears along the edges. The needlepoint is, after all, hundreds of years old."
Davis provides estimated repair costs to his clients, and the prices depend on the difficulty of the job. Often, he finds that money is no object with his customers, who gladly pay the asking fee to see their furniture properly restored. The furniture is not only valued for its history, but often holds sentimental value, as well.
"One lady was practically in tears when she came to me," said Davis, recalling the repair of a massive 17th-century Italian curio chest made of solid ebony with fancy inlays and trims.
"The whole thing was cracked and broken. She was very emotional about it. She and her husband had just moved here, and she wanted it repaired in time for a New Year's party," Davis said.
The job took "a lot of focus and time" for about a month, and he completed the job in time for the rare antique to be the featured attraction at the party.
"Most of my projects are very time-consuming and detailed. After I was done, you can't really tell that the piece had been damaged," Davis said.
Some of his jobs aren't as involved or have anything to do with furniture. Davis has restored antique doors, broken marble table tops, cracked coffins and refinished kitchen surfaces. But every job requires skill and experience, he said.
"Even repairing the hairline crack on a baby grand piano -- it's not as simple as you think," Davis said. "I can do it without refinishing the piano, and you won't be able to see the repair at all."
His local jobs often involve termite-damaged pieces, for which he has a special solution. He's developed a secret compound to fill up the holes, which is a simpler repair than having to replace entire pieces of damaged wood, he said.
Not all his jobs involve antiques. Davis said as long as a piece has a good frame, it's worth paying for repairs. It's poorly made furniture that is meant to be thrown away after it is worn or damaged.
Davis, 51, grew up in South Central Los Angeles and discovered his woodworking talent while making a cat-shape door stop in junior high school. He apprenticed at a custom furniture manufacturer after high school and also traveled to learn from other masters. Placing an ad in the New York Times helped launch his business years ago.
"What I find is that if you have the skills, you are going to be in demand. What one of my teachers told me was, if you learn as many different skills as you can, then you won't ever be out of a job," said Davis, whose specialty is woodworking but who is equally proficient in upholstery, faux painting and other types of jobs.
His employers generally are wealthy clients or insurance companies, both willing to put him up in hotels or luxury residences with full expenses. An insurance job brought him temporarily to Hawaii about 10 years ago.
On a later job he brought his wife, Hitomi, a Japan native. While dining at a beachside restaurant, he jokingly asked if she would like to move to Hawaii. She surprised him with an immediate yes.
"We love it here; it's a great place to raise a family," Davis said. "And I find there are not many people with my kind of experience in Hawaii." He has enough local jobs to keep him busy and continues to travel to the mainland for jobs.
Davis used to work out of a small workshop at his East Honolulu home but recently moved to a Sand Island warehouse in order to take on students. He has taken on a few apprentices who demonstrate serious commitment and natural talent.
"I am perfectly willing to share what I know. Of course, there are some secrets -- 'specially the things that I developed myself -- that I will never tell. These are ancient, African tribal secrets," Davis said jokingly.
The best students are those who have artistic ability and an eye for aesthetics, he said. Interested students may contact him at 395-9571.
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