Ad-Express and Daily Iowegian, Centerville, IA

December 15, 2011

Antique furniture turns into lifelong hobby

By Brooke Sherrard, Daily Iowegian
Daily Iowegian

CENTERVILLE — For one retired teacher, a hobby that started as a change of pace from teaching has lasted decades and salvaged countless pieces of antique furniture.

John Holeman, who worked as the band director at Centerville High School from 1965 to 1988, said he first started refinishing antique furniture in 1965 to give himself something to do that was completely different from teaching.

He said he learned how to work on the antique furniture through a combination of watching other people, reading refinishing books and experimentation.

It was a “ ‘learn while you earn’ sort of thing,” he said.

At first, Holeman worked on furniture for his family. He outfitted his daughters’ rooms with a variety of antique pieces and, over the years, filled his house with them. Now, he gives pieces to friends, sells pieces he buys and works on pieces that people bring to him. He said he looks for antique pieces at garage sales, estate sales, consignment sales and auctions.

The woods he most commonly works with are oak, walnut, maple, pine and cherry, he said. These woods were readily available at the time most of the pieces he works on were first made, between about 50 and 150 years ago. He said oak is the most popular.

Holeman said most of the antique pieces that people contact him about refinishing are furniture that has been in the family. He said one that particularly stuck out to him was a round oak table that had claw feet with glass balls larger than baseballs.

“It was her great-great grandmother’s piece, and she wanted it preserved in the family,” he said.

Holeman said some antiques should not have their original finish stripped off. Sometimes he tries to talk people out of having pieces refinished. However, if the owner really wants to have it done or if the piece needs major repair, he is willing to do it.

One time, Holeman said, he brought a kitchen cupboard in pieces from the farm where he grew up in Grundy County. He drove it down to Centerville in the backseat and trunk of his car and took it into his basement.

After refinishing and reassembling the kitchen cupboard, he discovered it was too large to fit through the doorway of basement workroom. So, he enlarged the door to be able to get the cupboard out of the basement.

Holeman said he has started to avoid doing some of the most intricate and time-consuming pieces, like spindle chairs. He said it is difficult to refinish spindle chairs because he does all his stripping by hand.

Stripping by hand takes much longer than dip stripping but is better for the furniture, Holeman said. He said the main problem with dipping the furniture in tanks to strip off the old finish is that it weakens the glue in the joints so that the furniture often has to be taken apart and re-glued. He said he sees this problem occasionally when customers bring him pieces that have been dip stripped.

“It is much quicker than hand stripping, but with hand stripping you get a better finished product,” he said.