Antiques with all the trimmings Brothers' process eases restoration

December 02, 1992|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Staff Writer

Though Victorian antiques are popular and beautiful, collectors frequently reject otherwise desirable pieces because the ornate and intricately carved decorations have been lost or damaged.

Even if a piece is worth saving, the trick is finding a craftsman able and willing to carve a replacement -- at a less than prohibitive price.

Enter the Jeremiah brothers, of Illinois, Florida and Ellicott City, who not only use modern technology to make restoration easier but also have created a new range of trims on which craftsmen and decorators can use their imagination.

Bill Jeremiah, 55, of Ellicott City said that brother Mike, an antiques dealer in southern Illinois, had been plagued for 30 years by missing or damaged trim on what otherwise would have been good salable pieces.

"My brother started this in self-defense," Bill said. "When there's a piece missing or broken, you either whittle a new one yourself or you break off the remaining part to match or remove it completely."

Mike decided there must be a better way, Bill said.

He consulted their other brother, Clifford, a physician and amateur paleontologist in Florida. At the time, Clifford was working on a molding process to re-create from fossilized teeth the jaw of a prehistoric shark.

Mike spent a week observing Clifford's work and concluded, "If he can mold teeth, I can mold furniture trim," said Bill, who helped his brother during the years of trial and error.

"In the first couple of years, I didn't like the results," said Bill. "You couldn't see the grain and the texture of the wood and the pieces would not hold stain. It just looked too plastic."

Mike persisted and finally developed a latex mold that produced crisp, clean reproductions. Next, he devised a formula -- a closely guarded secret -- combining sawdust with a two-part resin mixture. The high-quality, detailed reproductions it produced so resembled carved wood that some people were fooled even on close inspection.

Last spring, Bill Jeremiah and his wife, Lore, began planning a postretirement career by introducing the reproductions at antiques fairs and flea markets.

"We are offering a new alternative," he said, recalling a man who examined their wares at an antiques show and told them he had paid a wood carver $125 "to make a piece we could have sold him for $12."

Though they have exhibited at antique shows in Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina and Maryland, they are refused exhibit space by some promoters because they are selling reproductions and not original pieces, the couple said.

However, Mr. Jeremiah said, "Once they have seen what we have, some have changed their minds."

This happened recently in Charlotte, N.C., where the promoter of a major show had rejected Mike Jeremiah for several years. The same sponsor had another show that included a flea market section, so he was able to exhibit, Bill said.

"I persuaded the sponsor to take a look at the pieces and when she did, she said we were in for the big show," he said. "We just came back from it and it was very successful."

In his workshop, Bill Jeremiah creates various pieces, particularly decorative shelves, in which he combines seasoned oak and walnut with reproduction trim pieces to show the versatility of the reproductions and how they blend in texture and color with real wood. The shelves have been big sellers because people insist on buying them at shows, even though they are made for display.

"I don't want to make shelves. I want to sell them the trim so they can make their own shelves," Mr. Jeremiah said.

"We have identified four separate markets for these," he said: The antiques restoration trade; the antiques

reproduction trade for new furniture made to look old; craftsmen who use the trims for their new creations; and, interior decorators who use them as accent pieces.

Mr. Jeremiah said his brother uses original pieces, ranging from early-Victorian (1837) to turn-of-the-century, to make molds in "the classic woods, walnut, mahogany and oak."

Heavy oak furniture was particularly popular during "the era of golden oak" and, because the casting process faithfully captures the wood's distinctive grain and texture, the oak trim produces some of the most impressive reproductions.

The inventory now includes nearly 1,000 different pieces, from delicate scrollwork and clusters of fruit to the large "North Wind" grotesque masks that decorated a vast double-door wardrobe.

After the castings are removed from the rubber molds, each one is sanded to fit flush against a piece of furniture or a wall, buffed on a wire wheel to remove casting flaws and sprayed with lacquer-based wood toner. The material is so versatile, an individual can restain or paint a piece to meet his own requirements, said Bill Jeremiah.

Inevitably, there is always some extra resin. This led to a new specialty, casting antique cameos for use in inexpensive, pop-art jewelry. The cameos come in many sizes and may be tinted in any color. They look authentic when mounted on earrings, barrettes or brooches.

"The jewelry has become very lucrative and is almost more popular than the trim pieces although I believe they are still the most important," said Bill Jeremiah.

Since the Jeremiahs started displaying their work, they have received orders from restorers, antiques dealers and cabinetmakers. Bill Jeremiah said he expects the trend to continue as more people see the reproductions and realize that their usefulness is limited only by the user's imagination.

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