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Artisan: Labor of Love

It takes caring hands to work on the heirlooms of tomorrow.


Inside a shop that somehow suspends present tense just off a noisy Brook Road intersection, the classic English patterns — Chippendale, Hepplewhite, Queen Anne, Sheraton — are quietly celebrated,while chairs and bureaus come and go, newly lustrous from the attention they receive.

Time is the overriding motif here, and Edwards and colleague William Berry admit to working slowly as they rehabilitate icons of furniture history and create new ones that are nearly indistinguishable from the old. It is slow, detailed work and carries with it an appreciation for craftsmanship that is becoming rarer and rarer.

"It's a dying art," Edwards says, "this whole thing of making reproduction furniture. People try to take shortcuts and do it quickly, but it's a matter of heritage, of history, of maintaining a continuity that is important."

He recognizes that some people don't care about such matters and accept the fast-food equivalent of furniture made from fiberboard components with polymer finishes. Others care immensely and bring their old pieces — some of museum-quality, others more sentimentally significant — to be strengthened and finished by experienced hands.

Two mahogany settees, neoclassical in style, are being repaired for the Governor's Mansion. The Virginia Historical Society and Virginia House are among a long list of clients. Leslie Keno of the television program Antiques Roadshow stopped in recently to evaluate some furniture for a special customer, and there's enough work now to last until early next year, Edwards says with gratitude.

He's been doing this for 30 years, serving as an apprentice at Shamburger's Antiques until taking over the business in 1990. "It's a passion for me and a commitment," he says. "I want to do the best I can and keep a reputation for making things as perfect as they can be. I am carrying on the Shamburger tradition that was handed down to me." Some customers are third-generation collectors of the shop's work.

For the custom reproductions, Edwards determines what the client wants, where and how it will be used, and what existing furniture pieces it will need to match. With an emphasis on proper proportion, the design is drawn. Then, materials are selected from the woodshed in a process that's critically important. "You're trying to match color and grain and textures so that it all flows together," Edwards says. The chosen boards are cut and moved to the workbench, where hand tools such as planes, chisels, rasps, spokeshaves and scrapers refine the shape and create the joints, usually mortise and tenon or dovetail.

"You go through the assembly process," Edwards says, "and this is where your design takes meaning. After years of experience, you just know when the proportion is right."

Hand-finishing involves as many as a dozen steps. "Whereas a lot of people will build it and slap a stain on it and get it out the door," Edwards notes, "here, it's the second half of the process, and it takes time to get it right." Sanding, staining, more sanding and waxing can take days to complete but result in an object that has the patina of quality.

There's a bit of empty-nest syndrome when a long-labored-over piece finally leaves the shop, Edwards says. "You pour your heart and your soul out for this stuff, and a little part of you goes out with each piece."

Clint Edwards' Web site is www.clint edwardscustomfurniture.com.