City center upholsters lives as well as furniture

April 03, 2004|By ROB KASPER

THIS WEEK I tried to be an upholsterer.

Employing a variety of tools - a staple remover, an air-powered staple gun, scissors, a can of spray adhesive, a knife, a razor blade - I wrestled with the task of upholstering the seat bottoms of two old dining-room chairs.

The new material for the seats had black stripes and that meant any mistakes would be easy to detect.

The seats are now looking mighty fine, but only because Herb Davis guided me along, smoothing the material, coaxing me around the corners. Without Davis looking over my shoulder, those striped seat covers would have ended up looking like a zebra with the measles.

Davis has been upholstering furniture in the Baltimore area for most of his 69 years. He started at Penn Upholstery, spent some time at the old Stewart's department store, and operated his own business - Herb Davis Upholstery - in Baltimore. But for the last three years he has been at the Caroline Center, teaching women the trade of upholstery.

The nonprofit Caroline Center trains unemployed and underemployed women, readying them for work as geriatric nursing assistants, child-care providers, clerical workers and upholsterers. It sits on Somerset Street next to the Institute of Notre Dame, a Catholic school for girls in the heart of East Baltimore.

Later this month after the Caroline Center holds its graduation ceremony, some of its upholstery students will stay there, helping to operate the center's fledgling business. Already the operation has upholstered some chairs and sofas for a few customers who heard about the project and called the Caroline Center (410-563-1303).

The idea of raising funds for the center by upholstering furniture is part of a larger entrepreneurial effort among nonprofits known as the Baltimore Community Wealth Collaborative, said Margaret Colleluori, manager of the upholstery program. The Caroline Center, like a lot of nonprofits, relies primarily on donations, but it is also looking at ways to help sustain itself, said Sister Patricia McLaughlin, the center's executive director.

I visited the upholstery operation twice. On the first visit I wore a coat and tie, carried a notebook and scribbled down theory. On the next visit I wore jeans and a work shirt, carried two seats from an old dining-room chair set, and got the hands-on perspective.

"You learn the basics in this business and the rest is repetition," said Davis. Those basic skills, he continued, were as follows: "You have to learn how to measure material, how to cut, how to sew, how to take a piece of furniture apart, and how to put it back together."

For example, he said, a new piece of material going on a chair is always cut a little longer and wider than the one it is replacing. The excess is needed to pull the material over the frame. After material has been stapled to the frame, the extra can be trimmed, he said.

When an upholsterer looks at a chair or sofa, Davis said, he (or she) doesn't see the whole. Instead he sees the sections - back panel, side panels, front panels, and perhaps a skirt - that will be covered. Recliners are the most difficult to upholster, he said, because they have so many sections, eight or nine.

By now Davis has memorized the specifics of how much the labor will cost to upholster the piece and how much material the customer will have to buy. "For a wing chair the labor is $275 and six yards of material, for a sofa $375 and 15 yards of material, for a love seat $300 and 10 yards," he said.

On my first visit I watched Roxie Moyd, Deauntte Wells, Dorothy Geathers, Yavonia Myles, Gertrude Vaughn, Mildred Marshall and Linda McFatten as they upholstered old rocking chairs, sofas and wing chairs. Occasionally they would ask Davis for advice, but mostly they moved along on their own.

"I like this kind of work," Vaughn told me. "For me it is relaxing, stress free." Looking up from a sewing machine, Marshall said she too found "peace of mind" in the craft.

I tried to remember those reassuring thoughts the next day when I battled the chair seats. Instead of gaining peace of mind, my primary goal was keeping the high-powered staple gun from gaining a piece of my fingers.

On the first seat, Davis did the work and I watched. On the second one, I did the work, he watched and then he corrected my work. Covering the first seat took him about 10 minutes. Covering the second seat took me almost an hour.

He taught me a lot. He taught me to use medium-density foam to cushion the seat. It was nicer to sit on than the high-density type I had bought. He taught me to cut the foam a little longer than the seat, so the seat edges will be smooth. He taught me to use spray adhesive to hold the foam in place while the material is stapled on. He taught me to temporarily secure the material with four holding staples, one on each side of the seat, then to staple the material down working side to front, front to side, side to back, then back to side. He taught me to smooth the material rather than tug it, and to work carefully in the corners.

Primarily he taught me to appreciate the craft of upholstery. I now appreciate it so much that the next time I need a piece of furniture recovered, rather than trying to do it myself, I will send it to the Caroline Center and put it in the hands of skilled practitioners of the craft.

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