Furniture maker raises the bar for craftsmanship

Fritz Sterbak has carved out a lucrative niche making antique reproductions


Many people gaze upon piles of scrap wood and see kindling. Fritz Sterbak sees building blocks for bringing history to life.

The Havre de Grace resident travels long distances - to Buffalo, N.Y., Philadelphia, Boston, Cincinnati - seeking castoff Victorian-era timber and carvings.

He spends up to a year on scavenger hunts to antique shops, amassing wood that he uses to make re-creations of antique bars that are in demand as furnishings for businesses and upscale homes.

"When I first started doing the bars I wasn't sure how well they would sell," Sterbak said. "But once I started designing them, I sold them almost as fast as my son built them. People are buying the bars for nostalgic purposes more than anything else."

His lavish re-creations are the culmination of 35 years in the antiques business, including stints building beds, cupboards, dining tables and stained-glass windows, often using materials salvaged from dilapidated structures.

"Over the years I've seen bars in shops and at shows, and I've kept the images in my head, never acting on my idea to re-create them," the 64-year--old craftsman said.

When he decided to pursue the idea, Sterbak was determined to build each bar from a unique design rather than mass produce them.

Refurbishing antique bars is not a new concept, but few people pursue the craft, and it is difficult to master, said Mark Charry, owner of Architectural Antique Exchange in Philadelphia, who has bought several of Sterbak's pieces to sell at his shop.

"Fritz spent years working with woods and carvings from the turn of the century before starting the bars," Charry said. "The experience and knowledge he's acquired over the years has enabled him to create authentic but original pieces."

Sterbak's interest in antiques began shortly after he graduated from the University of Tampa in 1968 with a degree in economics. His first focus was brass beds, inspired by pop culture stars of that era.

"I remember seeing Barbara Streisand lying on a brass bed singing, and about the same time Bob Dylan was singing `Lay across my big brass bed' from his hit song `Lay, Lady, Lay,'" said Sterbak. "I just knew because of their popularity the demand for brass beds was going to skyrocket. So I decided to go into the business."

He opened Splendor and Brass Limited, and his predictions about the popularity of brass beds proved correct.

"I sold all the beds I could get my hands on," said Sterbak. "I went to East Coast antique shows to buy beds to sell."

Later, he began designing brass beds, his first foray into designing furniture. His business flourished, and he was dubbed the "King of Brass Beds," said Charry, who met him in the 1980s when Sterbak visited his Philadelphia shop looking for stained-glass windows.

In addition to his bed-making factory, Sterbak opened Investment Antiques on Merchant Street in Havre de Grace. In 1990, foreign imports killed his bed business and Sterbak focused on his antiques business.

In 1998, Sterbak's stepson, Thomas, began building wooden cabinets and cupboards his father had designed. Thomas Sterbak quickly developed an affinity for woodwork. Later, they added kitchen tables to the repertoire.

Fritz Sterbak had built a reputation for constructing sturdy, high-quality pieces using rare woods such as wormy chestnut, found only in old hay barns.

"It's the most sought-after wood in the country and very hard to find," Sterbak said.

Sterbak's work caught the eye of Charry, who was taken by the quality of the materials and the craftsmanship.

"Most people in this business would go to the cheapest way of constructing these bars," Charry said. "But Fritz always looks for the quality approach. He puts a lot of labor into the pieces that decreases the profit margin and increases the quality of his work."

Eventually, Charry suggested that Sterbak consider re-creating old bars, and Sterbak liked the idea.

After 35 years of visiting antique shops, Sterbak's head overflowed with images of old bars. He sketched out designs that his stepson, Thomas Behrens Jr., would build, and a new business was born. In his first 20 months, Sterbak has sold 15 bars, ranging in price from $9,000 to $25,000.

On a recent day, Sterbak, donning a T-shirt and faded jeans, weaved a path through stacks of wood piled high in the basement of his store to a black walnut bar under construction.

"I had one man come in and see this one and he bought it for $25,000 and it's not finished yet," Sterbak said.

Sterbak said he is proud of his stepson's work, though Behrens said he needs some reining in.

"I've become skilled at making the bars, but sometimes I come up with crazy things," Behrens said. "My dad helps keep me in line and he helps me keep things symmetric and to specs."

Sterbak's bars are adorned with intricate carvings and pillars that he finds during his nationwide hunts for materials.

"I shop extensively for columns, crowns and winged griffins," Sterbak said, pulling out a prized set of the mythical creatures that he acquired recently. "That's one place my years of dealing antiques comes in handy. I know who deals in what, and they call me when they get pieces in they think I might want to buy for my projects."

Some customers say long searches for the right piece came to an end at Sterbak's shop. One of them, Kathy Styer, was seeking a bar for the basement of her Lancaster, Pa., home.

"Fritz's bars were like nothing I'd ever seen before," she said.

Styer commissioned Sterbak to custom design a $10,000 L-shaped bar, and she said the finished product was more than a showpiece.

"When people walk into my basement and see the bar, their mouths drop open," Styer said. "If he lived closer to me, people would be lining up to buy his bars."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.