Bucks County furniture renovator goes dazzling in Penndel
It is not difficult to find quality furniture. Check chairs, tables, and other stubby old pieces placed on the sidewalk on trash days.
A few weeks ago Mark Reisner, a furniture renovator, was walking down Trenton Road in Fairless Hills when he struck gold.
“A chest of hope,” he said. “Mahogany legs and solid cedar.”
The coin was lying on the curb on its back, a broken leg, its door open.
“Really beat. Bumps. Dings. Water rings on the lid. Yeah, they probably used it as a coffee table, he said, shaking his head.
He stopped. He asked the owner if he could take it. Of course, the man said, telling Riesner, “That’s crap.”
Reisner put the piece in his SUV and drove it back to his store in Penndel, an oversized shed behind the house. Then he worked his magic, sanding, staining, sparring.
“I’ve been doing this for so long, I can tell what it’ll be like when I’m done,” he said.
In this case, the Chest of Hope has turned into a gem. Sold for several hundred dollars.
“It amazes me that people don’t realize what they have,” he said.
Reisner is among the declining men in a declining business. There are approximately 16,000 furniture finishers employed in the United States, down a few percentage points over the past 25 years.
“What I do is a skilled trade, it’s a dying trade,” he said. “And I think that’s because the biggest battle in this area is having patience. This takes time. Have you ever heard the term “watch the paint dry”. That’s most of what you do, watch the stain and the spar dry. When you put an app, you have to look at it. Is it pooling in certain places? Is it absorbing in others? Should you remove or apply more? You read the wood. Wooden furniture is alive. Each room has its own personality, its own quirks. So you watch and wait and edit.
“And that takes years of practice,” he said.
The lack of new recruits in the furniture repair business can also be a question of money. The Bureau of Labor Statistics pegs the average salary at $35,000, although some earn as high as $50,000. Of course, an independent body shop with a strong clientele and top-notch work probably earns a lot more.
For Reisner, it’s not about the money.
“What’s worth it is the reactions I get,” he said.
When someone sees Grandma’s old dresser, or an uncle’s old banker’s chair, or Grandpa’s Kennedy Rocker, or Mom’s old refurbished dining set, it’s is like an actor who lives for applause.
“Tears in my eyes,” he said.
It’s usually also when he gets the backstory of the piece.
“Every piece I receive has a story. It might not be beautiful furniture, but it’s sentimental, things people have known since they were kids, something that’s been in the family for years,” did he declare.
He walked over to an oak dining table, brought by an older woman.
“It was his grandmother’s dining room set,” he said. “It’s where she sat and she had carved her name on it with a fork,” he said, running his finger over the spot.
Several days of sanding, a week of staining, training, and sanding, and the dull piece was shining.
“I knew it would be,” he said.
He got into the furniture building and restoration business at the age of 19, nearly 40 years ago. It was accidental. He worked for a retail store in Bensalem, driving a truck.
“I was injured and was assigned to light work in the back room, where they built and refurbished furniture,” he said. “There was a guy there, Old Man Joe. italian guy. He was 5’3. Strong. He fell in love with me. They needed help in the store because they were growing up. He showed me everything. Tapestry. Leather. Marble. Welding. Building. Finishing.
His apprenticeship under Old Man Joe was old school.
“He didn’t call me by my first name for two years. So my name was “Hey You”, “Hey Stupid” and “Come here”. I had to earn his respect, and it didn’t come until I got good, that I proved myself. At the time, this kind of training was acceptable. That’s how the old ones trained the young ones.
It was never personal, he said. The old man wanted him to be competent, not his best friend.
Reisner worked for other furniture makers, including Lane Furniture, and then started his business in the late 1990s.
“With furniture, everything has changed in the last hundred years. Back then they used real wood. Today it’s resins, plastic, faux wood. Everything is expensive and many are fake. But it looks good. And that’s the selling point, how it looks, not how it’s made. It is an illusion. What they do is put plastic or paper veneer over plywood or particleboard and it looks awesome.
It’s junk, though. He sees him regularly. He recently witnessed the worst case of furniture fraud, when a Princeton professor brought in his office to redo.
“I had refurbished boardroom furniture for them, and they got to know me,” Reisner said. “His desk had been sun damaged because he had been sitting in his office for years, yellowed from the sunlight. He tells me the desk is custom made. He had it built by hand by a store in Connecticut 25 years ago. He picked up all the lumber.
When he started sanding, he discovered that the tiger-cut streaks (seen on expensive, high-end pieces) were fake.
“The veneer wasn’t even wood. It was paper over two inches of plywood,” he said. “Not even good plywood. It was gnarly.
The teacher was in disbelief.
“He called me a liar. I said, well, you come here and I’ll show you what I’m talking about.
When he arrived, he showed her the room.
“The teacher said to me, ‘Do you know how much I paid for this? $25,000.’ He thought he was getting a bespoke hardwood desk.
What he got was basically Ikea with no Allen keys and the cardboard box. He had been deceived and never knew.
“They sold her looks,” he said, still on edge.
I took my dad’s old record cabinet to Reisner weeks ago.
It was beat up, junk, really, but it had been around since I was a kid, so it was sentimental.
Some of my father’s old records are still there (including Reader’s Digest “Mood Music for Listening and Relaxation”). My dad bought it when he came back from WWII with his GI bonus. It was dark wood, but I had no idea what kind. Reisner looked at him like a doctor examining a patient.
“It’s two woods,” he said. “The legs are solid cherry. The top is in golden oak.
Can it be fixed, doc?
“I’ll see what I can do,” he said.
He texted update photos of the work in progress. In one photo, the cupboard’s warped, water-stained top is attached.
“Looks like it’s in furniture intensive care,” I texted my sisters, who eagerly awaited updates.
A week later, after one coat of Golden Oak Stain and eight coats of UV Spath, it looked the same, but was smooth and clean, and had a nice deep glow.
“Good for another 75 years,” Reisner said. “Just dust it off with a dry cloth. In one year, apply a coat of Old English with a clean cloth. If you need to clean it, a little Dawn (dishwashing liquid), at most. Then, sternly: “And no pledge!” This stuff makes the wood dirty. Attracts dust and dirt.
He wrote these directions on my receipt so I don’t forget or mess anything up. The way he spoke, I could almost hear Old Man Joe.
Columnist JD Mullane can be reached at 215-949-5745 or [email protected]