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The Connecticut Post:
Brookfield’s Blll Oakley may not have personally known Maj. William Jackson, secretary and personal assistant to Gen. George Washington in the 1770s, but he is familiar with the 6 foot-long, drop-leaf, solid mahogany table that Jackson, Washington and’ Maj. Gen. Lafayette often dined on together.
“The table is owned by a distant cousin of Maj. Jackson who lives in Litchfield County. About four years ago, we did some minor repair work and touchups to it,” said Oakley, 52, owner of Oakley Restoration & Finishing LLC, a 15-year-old furniture restoration business at South End Plaza in New Milford.
The 2,000-square-foot shop performs restoration, refinishing, touchup and maintenance to furniture from all time periods.
This includes cabinets, tables, chairs, clocks and breakfronts, along with decorative accessories, such as boxes, tray stands and mirrors. The business also fabricates custom-made furniture.
Over the years, some pieces Oakley and his staff have worked on include a 16th-century Italian credenza and 18th-century European dining tables and chairs.
Oakley also restored a circa-1820s American tall-case, or grandfather, clock valued at $30,000, after it broke into about 100 pieces when a dog knocked it over. He’s also repaired many items that suffered fire or water damage.
Restoration costs are based on the amount of labor involved in working on each piece. Chair repairs range from $60 to $175, table repairs from about $1,500 to $1,800.
“I’ve been going to Bill for the past 12 years,” said customer Christopher Cassels of Ridgefield. “His work is meticulous. He has a fine attention to detail and respect for the material. He always retains the architecture of the wood, which is very important.”
For the past five years, there has been a decline in antique buyers, but Oakley advises customers to be careful about choosing furniture made in modern times.
“The decorating trend now being shown in all the home and decorating magazines has been more contemporary furniture,” he said.
“The quality of today’s furniture is not what it used to be. It’s light and flimsy and won’t last very long,” Oakley said. “In contrast, early to mid 20th century furniture came out of the Midwest and its structural integrity is unmatched in today’s furniture, which is mostly outsourced. Manufactured furniture uses a cheaper quality of wood to keep costs down and profits up.”
To find quality furniture, Oakley recommends visiting consignment shops, tag sales. auctions and estate sales.
“One of the most rewarding parts of what we do is bringing something back to life after it has been damaged. and seeing customers grateful response in having their cherished possessions back again.” Oakley said.
The Litchfield County Times:
An Artisan in New Milford
It’s a shame how many people never find their true calling, that one career choice that means more than a paycheck and is a meaningful and enjoyable way to earn a living.
In that sense, Bill Oakley, owner of New Milford’s Oakley Restoration and Finishing, is among the fortunate. Not only has he found a most satisfying career-he runs a full restoration workshop that both repairs and restores old furniture while customizing and fabricating new models-but he can pinpoint the moment he discovered this calling.
It happened in the 1980s in New York City. After tooling around town for a number of years, working jobs that ranged from copy editing to script writing to restaurant food service, he noticed himself developing a passion for woodworking. Though he followed that interest in a high-end furniture workshop in lower Manhattan, he seems to recall his time there as more of a hobby than a job.
Then, one fateful day, he stumbled upon a restoration shop in Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Captivated at the beautiful detail of the furniture in this shop, he suddenly felt the whimsy of a child staring through a pet shop window.
“It was like a Dickens novel,” Mr. Oakley recalled. “I walked in and asked the owner [Edward Berks] ‘Do you ever teach anybody how to do this work?’ Like that, he said, ‘I can’t find anyone interested in this. So I’ll hire you.'”
The setting may have resembled a Dickens novel, but absent was the resentful entrapment of a brutal working environment that formed the theme in so many of the 19th-century stories. Under the tutelage of Mr. Berks, Mr. Oakley happily spent the next two and-a half years in that city workshop, learning how and when to peel, strip, rebuild, reproduce missing parts, clean, fix and revitalize an array of wooden crafts and furniture.
Following the hands of a skilled restoration master, he was taught a necessary, though sometimes underutilized, craft. It was different than the woodworking he had grown accustomed to. Fixing each piece felt like solving a puzzle. Moreover, this job was tantamount to bringing life back to history.
Mr. Oakley speaks fondly of his time working with Mr. Berks. After all, it was an apprenticeship, an old-world method of schooling that many people in this age of online college courses and certifications have only read about in grade school textbooks.
Unfortunately, after a few years Mr. Berks passed away, but not before leaving Mr. Oakley with enough skill and talent to establish himself as an antiques restorer in the greater New York City area. Around this time, he was living in Brooklyn with his then-girlfriend and now-wife, but in 1994, once they had their first daughter, the couple moved to Connecticut.
His first establishment was in New Milford’s Sterling Place. The business grew steadily, servicing clients from Litchfield County to New York City, and after only a few years, he moved to his current spot in South End Plaza off Route 7.
The newer site, where he has been for the past 11 years, has the initial exterior of a mechanic’s garage, but instead of the leaking sound of an air compressor or the rattling noise of a high-powered hydraulic wrench, the brick-and-mortar alcove swells with the high-pitched squeal of a circular saw. And instead of having engine blocks and other automotive parts perched for retooling, Oakley Restoration and Finishing is packed with dressers, chairs and tables, some being built to suit and others on their way to restoration.
Mr. Oakley, who figures his shop works on six to eight projects at any given time, does have a few rules about the revitalization of products. When it comes to antiques, he will only restore but will not refinish. Refinishing involves a chemical stripping of the original finish, and can prove a detriment to the product’s integrity. He doesn’t do conservation, a method which doesn’t replace missing parts and only maintains the existing finish, as that is better left for museum pieces.
That said, his time in this business has yielded him the hands of a seasoned carpenter, with the savvy of an interior decorator. For those looking to furnish a room, economically but classily, he has some sage advice.
“People spend thousands of dollars on a living room set, when it would have been better to just go to a tag sale or an estate sale, pick something up and have it refinished,” he said. “If you restore old stuff, you never go wrong.”
In his professional opinion, too many of the pieces sold at contemporary discount furniture stores are of poor quality and poor craftsmanship, slapped together in an Asian factory with inferior wood, spit and staples, then dyed and lacquered over. As he has seen time and again, these products hardly ever match the longevity of pre-World War II American furniture, because according to Mr. Oakley, “There were a lot of artisans in the country back then.”
He favors that term, artisan, which is how he describes his four employees. After all, a substantial chunk, he guesses at least 40 percent, of his business now includes fabricating furniture.
Though he laments the fact that fabrication isn’t the most profitable sector, he proudly displays pictures of original works created by his most senior employee, Nathan Meyer. These are the pieces that won’t be gotten from a mass-production factory. They must be fabricated by hand to meet specifications.
Mr. Oakley illustrates this point with a photo of a chair Mr. Meyer built, one on which he utilized an artist’s eye and an exceedingly steady hand to carve lions heads out of the wooden frame, allowing the finished product to better resemble a medieval throne than a dining room chair. Even as Mr. Oakley boasted about his employee’s talent, Mr. Meyer was in the shop, carving intricate flowers into the base of Spanish cupboard he was in the midst of fabricating.
“We may never make another one like that again,” noted Mr. Oakley on the distinguished nature of his company’s original works.
In a sense, Mr. Oakley is to Mr. Meyer what Mr. Berks was to him. Mr. Meyer came to him, an artist just barely out of high school, about a decade ago, and over the years he’s been carved into a brilliantly skilled craftsman.
“I was working in a deli, and I had done some sculpting and things like that, but not a lot of woodworking,” said Mr. Meyer. “In the beginning here, I was doing some sanding and stripping and things like that. Then Bill taught me the basics, and I took it from there.”
Now he’s so proficient that whenever Mr. Oakley is on the road he has his protégé run the shop. And ever since he joined the International Society of Appraisers in 2001 and became an accredited appraiser of personal property in 2003, Mr. Oakley has come to spend a fair amount of time away from the shop.
It’s the fact that his company has such a wealth of offerings that keeps him moving. As Mr. Oakley describes the scope of Oakley Restoration and Finishing, the list starts small (restoration, refinishing, fabricating) but soon swells with afterthoughts (appraising, onsite maintenance, custom finishing).
“The thing I like about this business is it has such a variety of things to do,” said Mr. Oakley. “I could never just strip, sand, strip, sand. I need the variety of challenges.”
One last bit of advice, and this is something he can’t stress enough: Do not polish antiques. Polishing products are based in silicon and can be harmful to old furniture. Instead use a paste wax, and remember that less is always more.
The Danbury News-Times:
10 Tips About Caring for Wood Furniture
- To clean the finish on your wood furniture just use warm water and mild dish soap. Cleaning furniture with water won’t hurt it — just be careful not to soak it. Use an old toothbrush for hard-to-get areas. Wipe the dirt off the surface with soft cloths or paper towels until they come up fairly clean. Then dry off any residual moisture with a soft cloth.
- After a good cleaning, the best way to protect the finish is to use a good-quality soft paste wax. Apply a thin coat as directed on the label. Wait five minutes and buff lightly with a soft (shoe) brush or cloth. Wait another 30 to 60 minutes and buff/brush again with a bit more vigor. You’ll see a beautiful shine return to the finish that will last for many months.
- Keep your furniture out of the sun. The temperature of the summer sun coming through a window can go above 140 degrees. It will cook fine finishes, fading and destroying them over time, and dry out and shrink the wood, which will cause cracks.
- Don’t place wood furniture near heating units or vents. Dry heat will cause the wood to dry and shrink, leaving cracks. Use a humidifier in the drier months to bring the moisture up to the 40 to 45 percent level.
- For a quick-fix touch up, use the appropriate color shoe polish on scratches and chips, especially to make them less visible on the feet of furniture. Carefully using a matching-color felt-tip marker first will hide it even better.
- When polishing metal hardware, take it off the furniture first. Take your time and make a note to remember what piece goes back where. Use a quality metal polish to get it shining again. Once it’s buffed, put it back on, being careful not to scratch the wood surfaces. I recommend that you don’t try to do this all at one time. It can be a lot of work, so take a few days, doing a few pieces at a time, instead of getting tired and frustrated with trying to do too much.
- Wood isn’t hungry! You cannot feed furniture. No matter what the advertising says, wood cannot be fed or nourished or enriched with polishes or oils. Once it has a protective finish over it for beauty and protection, the wood is sealed. Polishes and oils will not penetrate it.
- There are several ways to remove the white hazy ring or spot that the hot coffee mug or hot pizza box made on your table. The least invasive way is to rub it with a mild abrasive, such as non-gel toothpaste mixed with baking soda or cooking oil mixed with ashes. You can rub it in a small spot with your finger or use a soft cloth on larger areas.Another method that has excellent results is to place a soft cloth or towel over the spot and iron it carefully for 10 to 20 seconds at a time with the iron at a medium setting. You can turn the iron up a bit if needed. Always keep the iron moving and check your progress frequently.
- When shopping for new or antique furniture, look at the back, inside and undersides of furniture and drawers. Many times it tells you more about quality than looking at the “show” side. The so-called “secondary” woods can speak volumes about the age of the item and the quality of construction.
- Restoring or refinishing an older or antique piece of furniture to its original glory might seem like a good idea, and many times it is. But it’s important to get advice from someone who is knowledgeable about the item you are considering. You may find that your piece is valuable and just needs a proper cleaning. Any more extensive work should be left to a professional.
Bill Oakley has owned and operated Oakley Restoration & Finishing in New Milford for the past 16 years. He previously ran his antique restoration business in Brooklyn, N.Y.. His websites include www.oakleyrestoration.com and the new www.GreatFurnitureTips.com or you can e-mail him at Bill@oakleyrestoration.com.