Renewing the luster of family furniture

Wednesday September 12, 2012

MONTEREY -- For the past two decades, Graham Dean and his colleague, Frank MacGruer, have shared a passion in their desire to bring new life to old furniture. This Saturday, the Bidwell House Museum will host Dean as a guest speaker on the art and science of antique furniture restoration.

MacGruer and Dean are well known regionally and nationally as longstanding partners who share a passion for the painstaking work they both describe as a labor of love. And it's a labor appreciated by visitors to the Bidwell House, who enjoy the subject of restoration, said Barbara Palmer, executive dir ector of the Bidwell House.

"A highlight of any visit to the 1750s Bidwell House Museum is the opportunity to see the collection of furniture," Palmer said. "The museum is furnished with pieces of a well-to-do family living in this frontier region from 1750 to the 1850s. Visitors often marvel at the collection and the condition of most of the furniture. The museum does its best to protect and care for it."

Palmer said most people who own old furniture passed down through the generations or found at an antiques shop or yard sale want to live with and use the pieces, not just look at them.

"Frank MacGruer and Graham Dean have decades of experience restoring antique furniture," she said. "Dean will tell about ap proaches to preserving wood surfaces, best cleaning and maintenance practices, how to approach worn or stained finishes, and what to do about unglued chair and drawer joints. Questions will be welcomed at the end of the talk."

Complementing artisans

MacGruer entered the field in 1972. He was seeking employment after graduating with a degree in studio arts from Trinity College. He said a visit to the professional restoration workshop of Ed Berks changed his career path for life and led to a five-year apprenticeship in New York City and the Berkshires.

"I thought I might like to build furniture, but what I saw was the beginning of my lifetime work with restoration," MacGruer said. "I had rudimentary knowledge of woodworking, and I had grown up in a house filled with antiques. Ed, a master restorer from a family of restorers, was pleased with my abilities and aptitudes, and he was able to shape my education in restoration without my having learned any bad habits from other trades."

Carpentry and restoration, MacGruer added, aren't the same trade. In fact, carpentry and cabinet making are not the same, nor are restoration and refinishing, he emphasized.

"Restoration is the trade and art of repair performed on the structure and finish of antique furniture that returns it to the condition it should be in, after it has existed in service to a household for all its years of use and possible misuse," Mac Gruer said. "There are numerous special tools and techniques used by a conservator or restorer that are not in the general tool bag of the cabinetmaker, carpenter, or to some extent, the refinisher."

For his part, Dean said that the personal value of a piece of furniture often outweighs any monetary assessment.

"Bringing back a treasured family heirloom is something that is very worthwhile," Dean said. "It does not have to be a 17th-century desk. It does not even have to be a piece that is particularly valuable in Bidwell terms. It may be your grandmother's chair or something your grandfather built. It is a different kind of value but equally important."

On Saturday at the Bidwell, Dean is excited to fill in for his longtime partner, who originally was scheduled to give the talk. He emphasized the symbiosis that continues to drive both men with enthusiasm for their craft and their collaboration.

"I had worked with wood for several years," he said. "In 1992 Frank was looking for help and that is when we started together. It was a whole new world for me and a fascinating one. New wood and old wood have to be approached very differently. Working with Frank for the last 20 years has been a real education. I can honestly say that I never stop learning." Wednesday September 12, 2012

What: Graham Dean, expert antique furniture restorer/conservator, will speak on antique furniture restoration

When: Saturday at 10 a.m.

Where: Bidwell House Museum, 100 Art School Road, Monterey

Information: (413) 528-6888,


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