Town Diary - October 2001
At Doug Roberts' shop.
Doug Roberts is a long time resident of Barkhamsted and is a familiar face to many because of his active participation in many town organizations. We paid Doug a visit on October 17, 2001 to see what was going on in his furniture refinishing and repair shop located in the Riverton section of town.
Doug has operated his business for over 50 years and his bread and butter is furniture refinishing work. But he also does a lot of work on chairs and is an expert on 19th century American chairs, especially those of the Hitchcock style. He does a lot of work re-caning and re-stenciling chairs as well as general repair work on chairs and other furniture.
Photo - Doug Roberts working on a cherry table.
Today, Doug has just completed a refinishing job on a mahogany dining room table. Work on this piece has stretched over the last two weeks and included stripping off the old finish, sanding to remove dents and scratches, applying a stain, glass varnish, and several coats of polyurethane (3 coats on the legs and bottom, 5 coats on the table surface and sides). Each coat is rubbed down and is left to dry for two days before the next coat is applied. The finished product sits gleaming on the floor of the shop, and is just about ready for its owner to pick it up (the owner lives in town).
On any given day, Doug will normally have three to five pieces in various stages of completion. For example, a finish coat may be drying on one, while he is applying stain to another, while a third has just had a part glued and clamped. Today is no exception. Besides the mahogany table just completed, Doug is working on an oak commode (it has been repaired and will be refinished), a cherry table (came in with the table cloth glued on- Doug removed it, sanded the surface and will refinish it), and a decorative sap bucket (will remove white paint, replace a hoop and refinish it). He has also just completed re-caning a chair seat. Doug canes six to eight chairs a year. In the distant past he also did rush seats, but now he farms out this task.
Photo - repairing a wooden sap bucket before refinishing.
Doug knows his business because he's been at it for a few years. After a stint in the Army he looked for work at Sterling Engineering in 1946, but work there was winding down after the war and they were not hiring. So Doug did odd jobs such as shingling roofs and carpentry before becoming one of the first employees at John Kenny's Hitchcock Chair Company in the summer of 1946. For almost a year, he helped get the old chair factory in working order. Doug decided to start his own business and at first worked out of the family garage in partnership with his father. They used wood working machinery purchased from Bob Stone, who had occupied the chair shop before Kenny (Bob made clock cases). In 1950 the Robertses built a bigger shop just up the road. A year later Doug's father, who had previously served as a State Representative, returned to the legislature and worked in the shop only part time. They did refinishing work, furniture repairs and also built furniture "from scratch", including drop leaf tables and corner cupboards.
The shop, then on School Street in Riverton, was right next to the old Hitchcock Chair factory. Occasionally Doug got repair work sent over to him by Hitchcock Chair. One day he noticed a familiar looking guy knocking on the door of the Hitchcock factory building, which was closed at the time. Disappointed, the man turned to leave when Doug recognized him as General Camp, his old commander at Fort Knox basic training. Doug called to him by name, and ended up repairing the General's chair, which he had with him, and later got the job refinishing half of the furniture from the General's house (he lived in Morris, CT).
During the 1950s and 1960s Doug maintained a steady business of refinishing and repair work. Back in those years, chair repair and stencil work were at a peak because the antique stenciled chairs were very popular. Many customers had purchased these chairs in less than perfect condition and brought them in to Doug to be repaired and restored. Over the years he has accumulated about 1,000 stencils (before losing some in a fire), most of which are used on chairs, although Doug has said he has stenciled everything from a "tin can to a grand piano".
Besides the usual bread and butter work, Doug would occasionally get some unusual orders. One involved the construction of a large number of luggage racks (the type on which you would set a suitcase), and another for a couple dozen "six-board" pine blanket chests. Furniture that Doug made himself typically utilized pine, cherry or butternut. Sometimes the orders were downright weird. One such job involved the sanding and refinishing of the top of a grand piano. During a wild party, inebriated guests had carved their initials all over the top of the piano! Another was for the old silent movie star Pearl White. Just about everything in her house was painted red, white and blue. She appeared at Doug's shop requesting some changes to a bunch of original Hitchcock chairs. You guessed it! Doug painted them all red, white and blue.
On November 27, 1997 Doug's shop caught fire and was seriously damaged. The fire started when a large piece of cardboard carton from Hitchcock Chair fell against the wood stove that supplied heat to the shop. Earlier Doug had retrieved the cardboard, which had blown into his yard and had a little ice on it. Doug propped it up near the stove to melt the ice before he burned it. After Doug had gone to lunch, the ice melted and the cardboard was less stiff and fell against the hot stove. The timing was such that while Doug was at lunch, the fire had just enough time to spread before he returned to discover the blaze. Had the fire started mere minutes earlier or later, the damage would have been much less or avoided entirely.
Photo - Doug outside of his shop with a cane seat chair.
But the damage from the fire was extensive and Doug decided not to rebuild the old structure. He put up an attractive new shop near his home, moved into it in September 1998 and continues to work to this day, although at slightly reduced hours (about 32 hours per week). Besides helping his customers with a wide variety of refinishing and repair services, Doug also has a number of visitors interested in another area of his expertise- local history and genealogy. A recognized authority on these topics (he is the designated Town Historian for Barkhamsted), Doug enjoys helping people track down a lost branch on the family tree, coming up with the name of that school teacher from the late 1930's, sharing photos of old Barkhamsted or telling a funny story from the town's past. So no matter what your business, whether you need that dining room table spruced up or some information from an earlier time, see Doug Roberts and chances are you will go away happy.
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