With the rolling green pasture land and its wooden fence, you might guess that the tan-colored metal building at the end of a driveway off Country Club Road is for boarding horses. Step inside, though, and the only sound you hear is the methodical scraping of a hand tool against a piece of wood somewhere. The tenants of the building are scattered pieces of furniture, ranging in age from freshly-stained back to the period before the Civil War. If owner Richard Watts hears a noise and he’s not making it himself, he knows he has a visitor.
”I’ve got nothing against power tools,” Watts says, motioning toward a nearby wall of his workshop with a collection of specialized saws and drills that would cause any serious hobbyist’s pulse rate to speed up. “But they’re for building from scratch, not for restoring. On old furniture, a power tool’s just good for helping you mess up more stuff, faster.”
Fifteen years ago, Watts was a furniture salesman at a retail store. But his love for the craft went beyond the call of duty, and his customers and friends kept telling him he had a knack for woodwork and should start doing his own.
In his spare time, he began studying up on the mechanics of the subject. “I was self-taught, every which way you can think of,” he says now, with a laugh. “Reading books and magazines, watching how-to DVDs, watching other people work.”
When he thought he was ready, his first major project was building a mantel for the fireplace in his living room. He was pleased with the result but didn’t think it was anything special until one day a real estate appraiser was visiting and complimented him on the mantel. The appraiser patted the wood and said, “There’s no telling how old this thing is.”
That was the day the wheels (hand-cranked, not power) started turning in Watts’ head, and led to him open his own shop in 2001. Though he occasionally builds custom pieces from scratch for clients, the main focus of Watts Woodworking is repairing and restoring old furniture, both antique (technically, 100 years or more) and vintage (old, but shy of the century mark). Along that route, his tasks often resemble a museum curator or a detective, more so than a woodworker.
He goes on searches, Internet and otherwise, to find an exact replacement for the latch, key, hinges, etc. that have gone missing from an old piece. On an especially good day, he’s also able to match the original nails, bolts, and screws that the furniture’s first builder used.
Watts has also learned to repair old fashioned cane-bottom chairs by hand. Nowadays that job is done mostly by machines, but he says the mass-produced variety of seats are clearly inferior. “The first couple of chairs you cane by hand,” he recalls, “you think your arm is going to fall off. But over time, it gets better.”
He cautions new clients, with pieces to be restored, not to be in a hurry: “I usually like to look at a job and think about it for a day or two before I start.”
One reason for this is the nature of the refinishing process itself, he says: “You can show somebody how to build a table, but you can’t show them how to restore one. Every job’s different. And sometimes the exact sequence you do things in is as important as what you do. I look at a piece of wood and have an idea what the next step is, even though I can’t explain why.”
In the 1990s, a bestselling novel by Nicholas Evans titled “The Horse Whisperer” became a hit movie with Robert Redford, and shed light in popular culture on a little-known process by which some horse trainers with mystical leanings use a kinder-and-gentler method to “break” a stallion from wildness into good behavior.
Think of Watts as a “wood whisperer.”
A wood whisperer has two main natural enemies: (1) paint, and (2) paint remover.
In a nutshell, Watts’ philosophy is, “Why go to the trouble of making something out of wood if you’re just going to cover it up with paint? People who paint over old wood don’t realize what they’ve got.” He’s frequently dismayed to see a beautiful table or chair from the 1950s or older that’s been painted some gaudy, trendy color just to match a wall or floor. And he refuses on principle to use paint remover for undoing the damage. Sandpaper and hand tools are his method of choice for removing a coat of paint, even in crevices so tiny that the tools required look like they came from a dentist’s office. At the moment, several dozen random pieces of furniture are arrayed end-to-end and back-to-back on his shop floor. There are no placards or tags on them, and his description of them as he gives a walking tour is from his memory alone: “This table’s got burn damage. I’m guessing it’s about 80 years old. This is a baby bed, from the 1850s. It’s made of solid pine. Here’s part of a bar that was salvaged from a restaurant fire. And this piece over here is an old travel trunk. You don’t see as many of these as you used to...”
Trunks are his favorite thing to work on, of late, Watts says: “They’re rarer than furniture. They’re from an era when travel was slow, so when people took long trips they might spend a couple of days or more living strictly out of their trunk. Mechanically, there are a lot of interesting variations in the way they were made, and they might have handles and hangers and belts and snaps that you don’t see on other types of pieces.”
Another project that’s especially close to Watts’ heart is the church pulpit that sits in a beam of sunlight from the door. A work in progress, most of it is covered with dark red enamel paint, and the other surfaces vary between bare wood — a nice walnut, he says — and residue from smoke and burn damage.
The pulpit was rescued from the ruins of Jasper Alliance Church on Highway 5 after an arson fire last December. “I’d say it’s at least 60 years old. I’ve still got a lot of work to do on it yet, but I think it’s going to look really nice when its done,” Watts says.
People often ask Watts if he ever gets stressed out by the long hours of methodical handwork, detail and repetition. “Actually, the opposite is the case,” he says, with a grin. “This work is my relief from stress, because it takes my mind off all the things in the world I need to be worrying about. In the past I’ve had people work with me and at some point they say, ‘I can’t do any more of this; it’s driving me crazy!’
“So the work’s not for everybody. I’m guessing you can’t do it unless it’s in your heart.”
Dale Short’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org