BROOKLIN — A thorough inspection of a water-damaged antique desk led to furniture conservator Joshua Klein’s discovery of a secret compartment.
The 200-year-old tiger maple piece belongs to Castine antiques dealer Leila B. Gray.
“He took the back off and he found a three-drawer secret compartment,” Gray said. “Who would take something like this apart? Probably nobody knew about that secret compartment. It was in our house for over 20 some years. He takes his work very seriously.”
Unfortunately, the secret compartment contained dust, no treasures.
“I would say we’re so fortunate to have a craftsman of his caliber in our part of Downeast,” Gray said. “We used to travel two to three hours to southern Maine to get a serious piece of furniture looked over and repaired.”
“His furniture restoration, he calls it conservation, is of such of a high standard that it’s really a joy to work with him,” Gray said. “He doesn’t do artificial repairs of high quality furniture. He goes deeply into it.”
Klein, who does business as Klein Restoration, discovered his love for conservation after studying luthiery, or stringed instrument repair and construction.
He studied at The National Institute of Wood Finishing in Rosemount, Minn. His training included hand-tool and power-tool woodworking, wood science, coating technology, conventional refinishing methods and technology as well as conservation ethics and methodology.
“The majority of the pieces I work on are more than 150 years old,” he said.
Furniture conservation could be likened to solving a mystery even if every piece doesn’t reveal a secret compartment.
“It’s my job to figure out if there’s something bigger going on,” with furniture that could contribute to its decline,” Klein said. The first challenge with every piece is deciding what to do. “It’s really a career of problem-solving.”
Klein first assesses a piece of furniture looking for previous repairs.
Please note: everyone should put away their duct tape and Gorilla glue.
“They really jeopardize the life span of the piece,” Klein said.
He also considers why the furniture is important to his client and what its value is to them. Is it monetary, sentimental or historic?
“If it’s all they have of their late grandmother, that’s going to dictate my treatment,” he said.
Klein develops a proposal documenting the antique’s condition and recommended treatment.
“I’m looking for treatments that are reversible,” he said. “Minimum restoration and reversibility” are conservation “buzzwords.”
Klein follows “the 6-foot-6 inch rule.” That means repairs should not be evident from someone 6 feet away but should be seen from a distance of 6 inches away.
“I want to be invisible in my work except when you get 6 inches away,” he said. “I’m not in the forgery business. “I’m in the conservation/restoration business.”
Treatments range from structural repairs, such as replacing a missing table leg to finish work.
The goal is to preserve a piece’s “patina,” or a well-cared-for antique. Incidentally, Klein has “patina” on the Klein Restoration van license plate.
“I think I love this work because it’s always different,” Klein said.
But Klein Restoration is just a facet of his work.
The Wisconsin native has been contracted to write a book detailing the handmade furniture and tools of Jonathan Fisher, Blue Hill’s first minister.
Klein got his first look at Fisher’s creations and inventions just 18 months ago.
Often, house museums have a lot of furniture but the pieces don’t have any connection to the house, said Klein. “I was blown away by what I found,” Klein said. For a rural artisan in the first quarter of the 19th century, “the documentation is unparalleled.”
Not only did Fisher make his own tools and furniture, he kept meticulous records of his activities, expenditures, incomes and other bits of daily life.
Usually, one element is missing from a house museum, Klein explained. If there is furniture, then the tools used to build it, aren’t around. If both furniture and tools are still in existence, there’s usually no documentation.
What’s also rare is that Fisher never had an official apprenticeship considering the level of craftsmanship he reached, Klein said. “His furniture survives and in its context.”
Local historian Brad Emerson, who is on the board of Blue Hill’s Jonathan Fisher House, said that much study has been given to Fisher’s art and theology and the house itself but not so much his furniture-making.
“The furniture has been a relative unknown,” Emerson said. “Joshua’s project is really important. He is taking a scholarly and craftsman’s approach to the study and separating fact from fiction.
“One of the things that makes the Fisher furniture so important is that everything survived. Fisher writes about making the furniture and who he made it for, the tools he made it with survive. It’s really an extraordinary thing.”
“It is going to tell us more than we ever knew about Fisher’s position as a cabinet maker in the community and as someone who made furniture for himself and his neighbors,” Emerson said. “It’s going to be an important addition to the history of early furniture making in New England and Maine.
“This is another part of the story. It’s been waiting for someone like Joshua to come along and take it apart and put it together.”
Bill Petry, who owns Sedgwick Antiques, is another happy customer.
“He’s a wonderful restorer. He’s knowledgeable and he’s always personable in that he will explain what needs to be done to it, the approximate age, why it needs to be done and the price,” Petry said. “He’s interested in educating you.”
“He restored a wonderful hot water kettle stand for me,” Petry said. “It had a really fancy gallery around it made of wood that was all hand-carved. Part of it was missing. It was too expensive for me to have it hand-carved.”
Klein was able to sculpt and tint a piece to replicate the missing section.
“You can’t even tell which section was original and which was restored,” Petry said.
To learn more, Klein has a blog, called “The Workbench Diary: Meditations, Quotations and Photography from a Maine Craftsman.” See it at www.workbenchdiary.com.