Old wood gives antique look to new furniture


June 05, 1994|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Staff Writer

It's old, it's new, and it's environmentally conservative. What could it be? Bet you didn't guess furniture.

But antique-style armoires, breakfronts, tables, beds and cabinets, newly made of salvaged old wood, are proving a popular addition to the regular line of fine and homey old furnishings at Gaines-McHale Antiques.

"We are primarily antiques," says Jean McHale, "but it happens every day in this business, people will come in and say, 'For this particular kitchen, I've got to have a dresser that's this wide, this tall and it has to have a place to put my milkshake machine' . . . But you could look for six years and not find that exact piece."

A few years ago on one of her frequent buying trips to France and the British Isles, she discovered that salvagers in England have been assiduously saving old wood, mostly pine, from floors, doors and panels in houses and buildings slated for demolition, and using it to construct new pieces in old styles.

So now she simply sits down with the client and designs something that will fit their needs.

"Old wood, new construction" is what Ms. McHale and her partner and husband, Michael McHale, call these pieces, some of which are built in their own shops behind their 32,000-square-foot showroom-storehouse in Otterbein, and some of which are build abroad.

Old wood is simply better for furniture, Ms. McHale says. "New wood just isn't the same. They're force-feeding trees, the trees have wider pores," and you don't get the tight grains. Since few old trees are being cut for lumber, the salvaged old wood gets new life as a stereo cabinet, entertainment center, or farm-style table.

"Quite frankly, the Brits have been doing this for decades -- and not telling you what they're doing," Ms. McHale says. It's a practice that can make it hard even for savvy dealers to distinguish old-new pieces from actual antiques. At Gaines-McHale, new pieces constructed from old wood are clearly marked so there's no confusion. Because most of the pieces are custom-made, clients know exactly what they're getting.

While other importers do armoire conversions and stripping/finishing, few shops in the country put as much emphasis on newly constructed pieces.

Bert Anderson, owner of Antique Imports in Frederick, a five-story emporium of antiques imported from the British Isles, says while his shop offers armoire conversions and makes coffee tables out of "large, ugly" old chests, what Gaines-McHale is doing is fairly rare. "Most of this kind of thing I'm aware of is done in England," he says. "It's really a specialized activity -- because you need good workshops and good craftsmen and you have to have the ability to design good furniture."

Some dealers do create a few items from old wood. At Grant Antiques in Savage Mill, owned by Ed and Jane Grant, there are tables and coffee tables made from salvaged wood and antique grates. Most of these items are imported, Mr. Grant says, though do a small amount ourselves."

As long as dealers are upfront about what the item is, Mr. Grant says, he sees nothing wrong with custom-making an item with a touch of the past. "There are things that get made that were never made, were never really available in pine," he says, citing JTC large, elaborate bookcases as something that didn't exist in the past, but are needed now.

"I see a lot of value in doing old wood, new construction, for a couple of reasons," Ms. McHale says. "I think the recycling aspect is really good. They're tearing down old buildings -- are they going to burn [the wood]?" Instead, she says, "It becomes pieces of furniture that you don't have to cut down -- how many trees? -- to get a board.

"Aesthetically, it makes a prettier piece of furniture. The woods that were extinct and no longer exist are in those pieces of furniture. You're just recycling it into a new form that maybe will fit what you need better than what it came from."

Besides that, original antiques are getting scarce, she says, while demand for the old look is there.

A craftsman in England makes some of the new pieces from old wood for the shop. Ms. McHale points out a magnificent breakfront-entertainment center, with a wide center section for television equipment and smaller, stepped-back side compartments. The doors on the television-space part of the piece open and then slip back into pockets on either side, so they're out of the way. The doors are decorated on the front with "old books" behind wire mesh; the "books" are actually resin reproductions of old book spines. On either side of the doors are columns topped with antique capitals Ms. McHale found in England. The whole piece is a rich, honey color; the books are muted red, brown, green and blue, and the mesh is black.

On another piece by the same artist, the doors have intricately carved decorations of leaves, arrows and ribbons; on a matching bookcase, the ends of the wooden ornament "dangle" off the top rail and over the shelf space below.

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