How to Talk to an Artisan or Contractor

*this teaching moment applies to many types of situations…
nothing here intended to be derogatory —
just silly sweeping generalizations and fiction!*

You have a lovely valuable antique (above) worth $5000 that needs work.
Here are several scenarios and what it may get you, especially with people who are not seasoned in the business and know to qualify whether you know what you are asking for:

To an ingénu who does not know to qualify:
“Hello, I have a cabinet that needs refinishing.”
“I’m sorry, we don’t refinish furniture.
I recommend you call Joe’s Strip-N-Dip Studio.”

*now you will be taking your lovely antique to someone who may strip and dip it and ruin the finish, patina, ruin the veneers or permanently alter/ruin the structure*

To Joe’s Strip-N-Dip Studio refinisher:
“Hello, I have a cabinet that needs refinishing.”
“How long will it take?  Can I drop it by today?”
“Anytime.  It will take about two weeks.”
*now you will be taking your lovely antique to someone who will strip-and-dip it
and devalue the historical and monetary value and possibly ruins the veneer or structure… understand not all refinishers are cavalier and many do not dip-and-strip (pan stripping) and many understand the value of an original finish… we know such refinishers, they know when not to touch an antique, and are very good…
and you don’t just drop it off and have it in two weeks.
they are busy because they are GOOD.*

To a seasoned conservator who knows you may not know what you need:
“Hello, I have a cabinet that needs refinishing.”
“I’m Mitchell; may I have your name?”
“Joe Bloe.”
“Can I ask you a bit about the piece?”
*mitchell and j.bloe proceed to have a conversation that talks about the cabinet above and mitchell explains that refinishing will ruin the veneer and is unnecessary
and how a conservator like ourselves might handle the situation and now, we’ll ask you to send us an image to begin the process of working together….*

*now you will be taking your lovely antique to someone who knows what it needs*


Think about it.  When you call your doctor you don’t tell them that you need a by-pass.  You tell them you are having chest pains.  You talk about symptoms.

And yet, more often than not, people who call artisans and contractors,
refinishers and conservators will say what their furniture piece needs to have done.
I learned this early on in my time designing for contractors, when a very good cabinetmaker told me that I should draw the elevations and visual details of how I wanted a cabinet to look, and they would provide the working drawings for me if I wanted the best price.  Sometimes architects spend a good amount of time drawing mundane details when in fact the way they tell the cabinetmaker to build the cabinets will double the price and may not even be as well-built as if the cabinetmaker offers their expertise.

So next time, try this:
“Hello, my name is Josephine Iwannadothisright.
I have a valuable heirloom veneered French cabinet that has some issues
(tell them as much as you know about the history/type of object).
I found you in Google under conservators (or however you found them).
Do you do this type of work?”
“Hi Josephine.  Mitchell here.  What issues can you see?
What made you think your cabinet needs treatment?”

“Some wood is lifting on the face.  It also looks like it is bleached or has lost color.
This cabinet has been in my family for a long time and I know it is at least 100 years old.”
“Is it possible for you to take an overall image of the cabinet and also a detail of the issues and send it to us so we can see what we are discussing?”
“Yes.” or “No, I’m bad with a camera.”
*either one of these will result in the next level, a first pass via photo
or a on-site assessment.  from there mitchell will be offering an estimate,
making suggestions for the overall health of the cabinet as mitchell will possibly see issues that j.bloe didn’t see (a door hinge is failing), and our new client will decide what choices s/he wants to make, fully understanding the choices they are making.

Other tips:

  • The specialist you like working with may be the best resource
    in future for recommendations on other items.  Ask them.
  • Don’t assume that a site of artisans or restorers or even museums has vetted their list;
    ask to see examples and check out their resume; ask questions!
  • Good artisans usually are a bit busy, be prepared to wait or make a
    compelling argument/request as to why you need to come first!
  • When it comes to a valuable antique, will often want to come and
    pick it up / deliver it themselves unless it is quite small.

©MPF Conservation
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About dkatiepowellart

hollywood baby turned beach gurl turned steel&glass city gurl turned cowgurl turned herb gurl turned green city gurl. . . artist writer photographer. . . cat lover but misses our big dogs, gone to heaven. . . buddhist and interested in the study of spiritual traditions. . . foodie, organic, lover of all things mik, partner in conservation business mpfconservation, consummate blogger, making a dream happen, insomniac who is either reading buddhist teachings or not-so-bloody mysteries or autobio journal thangs early in the morning when i can't sleep
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2 Responses to How to Talk to an Artisan or Contractor

  1. Dan Antion says:

    You might have to go to an even more basic level. I had customers who didn’t know what veneers were. One woman ask me to make a piece of furniture to match a piece she had. When I told her that I wasn’t sure I could match the veneers, she was genuinely sad to hear that her piece had veneers. She said “I always thought it was solid wood” as if veneers were a sign of much lower quality. She decided not to proceed.

    To your point, I had a woman give me 6 chairs to “fix” – they had been dipped and refinished to match a new table. The joints all became loose, and her husband had repaired them with 1-Minute epoxy. In this case, the one minute was about how long it lasted. I had to grind the epoxy out to expose actual wood, and then build the mortise pockets back up and re-cut the mortises to fit a now slightly smaller tenon (but one that would accept glue). Fortunately, the shoulder covered all of my work.

    I have great respect for the work you guys do. My limited projects like this were always for repairs that would be somewhat cheaper than replacing, or fixing something that was broken, but had sentimental value, albeit no historic value. I never took on any work that would require refinishing or repairing a finish. I knew enough to know that I didn’t know what I was doing in that area.

    • Dan,

      The veneer myth is one which is pervasive. I think the idea, especially in the U.S., came from years of advertisements stating new furniture for sale was made from (superior) “solid wood”. When I confront this idea in a client I usually point out that veneers have been used into antiquity. That much of the fine furnishings from Louis XIV through XVI are all veneered. That usually does the trick and then we can move forward.

      Oh, the stories we could tell about the many mortises which have been engorged with successive layers of hide, then pva, then epoxy and finally, to top it off, colored acrylic craft glue. Yikes!Then there are the nails and sheet rock screws to top it all off!

      As to traditional finishes, I would be happy to share with you a great resource for shellac as well as support and teaching on how to French polish, etc. It is not as difficult as one might think and what amazing finishes can be created using this medium.

      Thank you for your thoughtful comments and sharing your experience. Best!

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