I’ve spent most of my life building and repairing furniture, but in 1974, I’d just finished up my first real furniture-making job: six tables and 12 benches for a new seafood deli in Pullman. Shortly after I delivered the table, I got a call from Greg, the owner. He’d just picked up a nice upholstered armchair at a bargain price, because one of the legs was broken. Could I repair it?
I checked it out. It was a pretty high-end chair, upholstered with dark brown Naugahyde, the best fake leather money could buy. The only damage was that half of one of the 7-inch, curvaceous cabriole front legs had split off and was lost.
“Sure, I can fix that,” I said, and gave him a price without having any idea exactly how I was going to accomplish the repair. I just knew I could figure it out, and that was the fun of it.
This willingness to take on jobs I’d never done before became a pattern throughout my entire woodworking career. So, whenever a project comes out well, I’m the most surprised one of all, having fully realized how much I didn’t know about what was involved in the project in the first place.
This chair was just big enough not to fit into the back of my Rambler Classic station wagon. So we hoisted it onto the roof rack, and Greg produced some new-fangled bungee cords to strap it down. I hauled it out to my shop in Palouse.
I spent way too much time on it, had to buy a carving gouge, thought it was done, put stain on it and could see I needed to sand it more. I sanded off the finish, carved a little more, sanded again. Eventually I got it, even the stain and color. You couldn’t find the break if you were looking for it.
I called Greg’s wife and set up an appointment for delivery. She was really looking forward to this addition to her home. I think it was the week before Thanksgiving. She and her husband had a house full of people and they needed the chair.
I strapped the chair back onto the roof of the Rambler with the bungee cords and headed into Pullman, feeling very proud of myself and imagining the amazed faces when, even upon close inspection, they couldn’t find the repair.
It was a typical late fall day in the Palouse, brisk but sunny. It was a little breezy but nothing big, until I came around a curve by Kamiak Butte where a strong gust hit me head on. It was the kind of gust that actually slows a car down. My eyes darted to the rearview mirror, where I saw the chair landing on the asphalt and bouncing a couple of times down the road. I recall it like a scene from a horror movie.
I pulled over and backed down the gravel shoulder to where the victim lay in the middle of the road. I hurried to retrieve it before a car came along to compound the disaster. The patient was still in one piece, except for part of one back leg, which I found about 15 feet away.
It could’ve been so much worse. And if it was my chair, I’d be relieved. But it wasn’t my chair.
Overall it was still pretty solid. It had a stout frame and when you add springs, fabric and hundreds of tacks, things tend to hold together. The worst damage was a nasty scuff on the Naugahyde on the front corner of the seat. There was also some scuffing on the top edge and on the back.
I knew I could fix the back leg, and the original front leg repair was completely untouched (thank the gods for small favors). But that big scuff right in front, all the way through to the Naugahyde’s white backing-fabric, was causing an awful pit in my stomach. I wanted to run away and hide.
I loaded the chair back onto the car, but this time I put the tailgate down and strapped the chair tightly where it would be out of the wind. It had calmed down to a slight breeze that seemed to innocently ask, “What wind, what chair, what are you talking about?”
All the way home I tried to figure out what I was going to say on the phone call that I was about to make. I wanted to wait, put the call off, buy some time to process the emotions and calm down, but by the time I got home Greg’s wife would be expecting me to drive up with her brand new favorite Naugahyde armchair.
I apologized profusely and assured her I would be able to fix it. I discovered Naugahyde repair products and combined these with some spit and elbow grease and all the ingenuity I could muster. I got the chair back to them before Christmas. It was acceptable.
I feel a little queasy right now just remembering this event. My very first furniture repair job. Not a good omen. It was like something out of Greek mythology: A vengeful god or goddess, jealous of my ability to revive damaged goods, delivers a god-sized, bungee-busting gust of wind to hinder my mortal efforts and punish my selfish pride.
But, like the foolhardy heroes of old, I was undeterred. In fact, I was actually thinking seriously about going into the furniture repair business.
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