Antique Mystique

Dominick Coiro restores what’s good about our furniture past
From trashy to flashy: Before the craftsman began restoring this pair of chairs, the nearly-completed one on the right looked just like the one above.

Opener1.jpg
Who do well-heeled Manhattanites call on to redo or renew their high-end antique furniture? Those in the know look to the masterÑDominick Coiro, a very special woodworker whose skills span centuries.
As Dominick pulls his minivan away from the just-closed Madison Avenue art gallery with the gallery’s owner in the front seat, a white stretch limousine stops out front. He asks his matronly passenger if she’d like to reopen the gallery to accommodate the obviously well-to-do guest. “No, it’s just [60’s music icon] Diana Ross.

She’ll come back later. I’ve got to get you while I have the chance.” So off they go, leaving Ms. Ross and company cooling their heels.

What is it about Dominick Coiro that places him in greater demand than a world-reknowned pop diva? The gallery owner could answer this question in a New York minute: This guy has the rare talent to restore her collection of Boulle-work furniture.

Hey kid, are you old enough to be doing this?

He’s only 38 years old, but Dominick already has two decades of high-end furniture restoration experience under his belt. “A lot of times, when I meet people for the first time, they aren’t expecting me at the door. They’re waiting for some older fella in his 50s or 60s,” he chuckles.

Long before he married his childhood sweetheart Marianne, he learned furniture restoration at the side of her father Clem, who repairs and prepares furniture for sale at a major New York auction house.

More than teaching woodworking techniques, Dominick credits Clem with teaching him how to think through the restoration process for himself. “It was hard to get some of his secrets out of him,”  the craftsman says. “I knew that he knew how to make a particular repair, but when I’d ask him what to do, he’d just look at me and smile. I made a lot of mistakes, but he was always there to guide me along.”

By the time Dominick was 20, he had set up a small shop in his attic (equipped with a 10’’ bandsaw and a few hand tools) and began restoring furniture on his own. “I restored a couple of small pieces for friends, my name got around, and people started bringing me things,” he says. 

These days, his 112 -car garage-size shop sports a huge array of old block planes, clamps, and a mainstay of stationery power tools. “I prefer to use hand tools,” he says, “but I wouldn’t want to cut through 3” mahogany by hand. I’ll rough-out a pediment on my bandsaw, then do all my finish-work by hand. Some of the most precious tools in my shop are the spring clamps (shown below) that I make from the seat springs of old sofas,” he says enthusiastically. “They’re pretty much like my third hand.”

Spring clamp.jpg
For light clamping, Dominick makes clamps from old seat springs. A scrap of veneer protects the furniture from the clamp’s sharp points.

While Dominick’s business still comes entirely from referrals, the value of the pieces he restores continues to grow exponentially. The priciest piece he’s restored to date, the stunning kidney-shaped desk shown below, displays the quality of his work. The owner paid more than $43,000 for it, then brought it to the expert for restoration.

Ornate desk COB.jpg
Dominick carefully restored this pricey beauty—a William IV kidneyshaped library desk, circa 1840.

Fix only what needs fixing

Some people define an “antique” as anything over one hundred years old. But Dominick says the value of a piece of old furniture lies more in its uniqueness than antique-ness. “A lot has to do with the provenance of the piece—who owned it and where it came from.” 

Before tearing into that old library table or any other piece you think might be valuable, he suggests you hit the books. “Auction house catalogs give an idea of the style, age, and origin of a piece.” Dominick also uses the Lyle Price Guide to American Furniture, by Anthony Curtis (Perigee Books), which tells how much similar items have sold for. Bear in mind, the age and origin of a piece can be elusive. “Unless the chair can talk to you and tell you where it was made, you may never know for sure,” he advises.

Whether value comes from a price guide or memories of sitting in grandma’s parlor, Dominick recommends a careful assessment before restoration begins. “The less work you have to do, the better off the piece is.” That means leaving patina, and the little dings and dents that give the furniture character.

So what should you fix? Dominick says broken parts, including hardware and veneers, need to be repaired or replaced. Look for signs of previous restoration, especially around joints. He notes, “If somebody tried to tighten up a table leg by driving screws from behind, they may have done more damage than good.” Deep water rings may require complete stripping.

On some pieces, you can get away with major restoration and not hurt the value, but you have to be careful. “When you get into a good Early American piece, you can lose half the value if you refinish it,” he cautions. However, if an antique piece has a modern finish on it, such as a polyurethane, strip it and restore it. 

In most cases Dominick can tell what kind of finish was used on a piece just by eyeballing it. When he’s not certain, though, he uses a 3-part test. Starting with a little denatured alcohol on a cloth, he rubs the finish in a hidden area. A shellac finish will get gummy. If the surface doesn’t soften, he repeats the test, this time using turpentine. A sticky finish now means a varnish. If neither solvent has softened the finish, he tries lacquer thinner. If the finish softens, it’s lacquer.

Antique renewal begins with the hardware

Dominick’s school of restoration abides by the three R’s: remove the hardware, repair the wood, and renew the finish. He’ll go to the fourth “R”—refinish—only if necessary, “I’d rather keep the old finish intact by cleaning it and polishing it back to its original color,” he says. 

To begin, he carefully removes the hardware and mounts (metal decorations attached to the furniture) and notes the location of each piece by marking its back with a scribing tool. Even the screws must go back into the same holes. “Before they were massproduced, screws had hand-cut threads so they can vary,” he explains. “If you put a hand-cut screw in the wrong hole, it can cross the threads and damage the hole.” To keep them in order, the restoration expert pushes the screws through a 3x5” index card showing their locations. 

Dominick cleans small parts in an ultrasonic cleaner, as shown below, using a solution of 1 part ammonia to 2-3 parts warm water. He soaks larger pieces in the same solution, brushing them with a soft-bristle brush to loosen the soil. Finally, he rinses the hardware with clean water and toweldries it to prevent spotting.

Cleaning Brass.jpg
An ultrasonic cleaner provides heat and agitation to clean hardware while you work on other things. Convenience has its price: Dominick paid about $600 for this toaster-size unit (available from McMaster-Carr, 630/833-0300, or online at www.mcmaster.com).

When faced with a missing mount, knob, or pull, Dominick has a new piece made to match the originals. A jewelry maker makes the rubber mold and metal casting for him (see “Casting Call,” below, to find a partmaker near you). Isn’t it expensive? “I find it cheaper than buying a whole new set of knobs,” he says. And, making one new part rather than replacing them all fits with Dominick’s credo of doing as little as necessary. Hardware and mounts go back on last, a few days after the finish on the piece dries.

Casting Call
If you’d like new parts cast and don’t know where to go, call the American Foundry Society. Or you can search for a foundry using their Casting Source Directory

 Mold.jpg
Molten metal is injected into this rubber mold, made from an original part. The resulting duplicate part is slightly smaller than the original.

Dominick’s Top 6 Antique Abuses
(or: “What NOT to Do to Your Antique.”)

 Drop-leaf table.jpg
American drop-leaf table, circa 1795.

  1. Water and alcohol rings. Mom always nagged, “Use a coaster,” and she was right. Today’s polyurethanes stand up to moisture, but not so antique shellacs. Put a pan under the plant, too.
  2. Vacuum cleaner damage. See those worn areas on Grandma’s buffet, about an inch above the floor? Your upright vacuum can scratch the finish, break off a pediment, or pop off veneer. Go gently.
  3. Oily wax buildup. Spray polishes put on a fast shine, but they also make it difficult to repair the finish if need be. Instead of spraying, every 6 months or so give the piece a nice coat of paste wax.
  4. Missing hardware. You never got around to putting that pull back on the drawer, so you put it in a safe place—now you can’t find it. Tape it to the back or bottom of the piece. Maybe the person who buys it from you will do the work.
  5. Mishandling. The leaves of a drop-leaf dining table were made to carry plates and food, not the table itself. Lift the table by the fixed top or apron. Going by truck? Put down a furniture pad and transport it legs-up.
  6. Poor repairs and restoration. Resist the temptation to “quick fix” loose joints or damaged finishes. Do the job right the first time, and you’ll likely not need to do it again.

Repairing water damage? Hold the mayo

One of the more common problems Dominick encounters is water damage, such as the nasty ring shown on the drop-leaf table below. The owner tried to repair the finish by smearing in a mixture of mayonnaise and cigarette ashes. “She certainly did more harm than good,” he says. Instead of folk remedies, first try to dry the ring out with a blow dryer on the “warm” setting.

Water damage.jpg
Due to deep water damage, Dominick had to remove the finish of this American table to repair it.

If the damage has penetrated the finish, Dominick first removes the finish. He then scrubs the damaged area with a brush dipped in denatured alcohol or acetone, being careful not to remove too much of the wood’s color. Water stains also can be bleached out. But, because this process removes the patina and can stain the piece, he considers it a last resort.

Like bad magic, a water stain that seems to be gone can reappear when the craftsman applies a finish. “Some rings never come out completely,” he says. “Get the stain as light as you can, but if it comes back on you a little bit, just look at it as character,” he grins. 

Putting the best face on a piece

Dominick sees bubbled, broken, and missing veneers everyday in his shop. For example, the turn-of-the-century rosewood cabinet being repaired in the photo below, “was probably left outside in a barn where it was damp, and much of the veneer popped loose,” he speculates. “Somebody tried to tape the veneer to keep it from falling off. But a good portion of the veneer was pretty much gone.”

Settee & Chairs.jpg
Restored settee and chair set, probably Biedermeier, circa 1845.

Still, Dominick repairs as little as he must, excising only the injured portions with a chisel or veneer punch, slicing with the grain. To fill the gaps, he takes a scrap of the old veneer to the hardwood store to match the color and grain. Because today’s veneers are thinner (at about 140 ”) than the veneers he replaces (which could be anywhere from 116 to 18 ”), he frequently resaws veneer from solid stock. “I’ll usually cut several pieces to see which one looks best,” he says.

Before gluing, he wets the new piece to get an idea of how it will look when finished. “Sometimes when you glue a piece in there, it looks great. Then, you apply the finish, and it’s like: Where did I get this piece from?” Dominick uses hide glue, he says, “not to make the piece historically correct, but because repairs made with hide glue can be undone if need be.”

Loose veneers are easy to find and fix. Dominick taps the veneer with his fingernail, and when the sound goes from solid to thin, he’s found a loose spot. “I save it by heating up the glue underneath,” he advises. He wets and wrings out a piece of clean cheesecloth folded to about 8 layers. Placing the damp cloth over the loose spot, he presses an old steam iron on the cloth for 5-10 seconds. “Once the iron hits the cloth, it’s shooting steam through that veneer, softening the glue,” he states. After removing both iron and cheesecloth, he rubs the veneer with a veneer hammer or rubber roller until the wood cools.

Iron.jpg
Dominick reactivates the hide glue under loose veneer with a damp cloth and an old iron. Note the newly replaced veneer on the left.

A shot in the leg cures joints

“Some people think they’re doing good to a piece by driving screws and brackets into [loose joints],” laments the artisan, “but there’s a tremendous amount of damage done.”Dominick’s mantra of joint repair is disa semble, clean, and reglue. That’s fine for parts that wobble on both ends, but what if disassembling the bad joint means weakening another joint? He advises, “I wouldn’t separate the joint completely, I’d just loosen it enough to get glue in behind it.”

To accomplish this, Dominick first softens the old glue by injecting a little warm water around the joint, letting it stand for awhile. He then drills a 18 ” “feeder” hole into the bottom of the mortise as shown in the drawing below. “I know I’ve hit the gap when the drill gives just a bit,” he says. Using a syringe, Dominick injects hide glue into the feeder hole and clamps the joint. Some places, such as where rails meet at a chair leg, share the ends of the mortises. In this case, one shot strengthens both joints.

116glue.jpg

Renew if you can; refinish only if you must

After completing repairs, Dominick’s first choice is to restore, rather than refinish. He starts by washing the entire piece with #0000 steel wool dipped in naphnaphtha, which deep-cleans the old finish. If a non-shellac finish is extremely soiled, he sands lightly with 600-grit wet sandpaper. After wiping with a tack rag, he French-polishes the piece using a padding lacquer.

Because removing the old finish also strips much of the piece’s charm and beauty, Dominick does it only as a last resort. He begins with a wax-free stripper (most stripping solvents contain carnauba wax that keeps the chemical penetrating into the wood). “I don’t want to go deep into the pores, I just want to remove the varnish on the surface,”  he says. To prevent damage to the wood when removing the finish, he gently scrapes it off with a modified putty knife; a radius ground on each corner keeps it from gouging.

After scraping, he washes the entire piece—including new veneer—with a 2:1 solution of wash thinner (lowgrade lacquer thinner) and denatured alcohol. On a varnish finish, he uses naphtha instead of alcohol. This removes the stripper’s residue and spreads the color of the original finish over the entire piece to help new and old veneer blend. 

When the piece is dry, Dominick wipes it with denatured alcohol. Then, using a badger or sable brush, he brushes on a 50 percent cut of shellac, followed by a French polish. His restoration, at last, is complete.

Read more about

Tip of the Day

Use Vise as "Calipers" for Odd-Shaped Pieces

Sometimes, we need to take the measurements of a piece of odd-shaped hardware. After trying several... read more