Preserving cultural history, one furnishing at a time

Like many of the pieces that find their way to Mason Roberts' workshop, the English chest-on-chest was in bad shape. While stored in a flooded basement, the 230-year-old antique spent a couple of days standing in a foot of water.

After nearly 40 hours of painstaking work, Roberts will have straightened, reglued and replaced some structural wood, repaired splintered molding and a broken foot and gradually restored waterlogged mahogany to match the overall patina.

"If I do my job correctly, you won't be able to tell I did anything — unless you look at the before and after photos," said Roberts, who for a decade has operated Antique Services.

Working in a nondescript industrial building off South Broadway near downtown, Roberts uses period techniques and materials, and even some antique tools, to restore everything from flea market finds to centuries-old treasures damaged by fire or flood.

He uses period pigments and waxes for 18th- century furniture. Shellac — secretions of the female lac bug gathered from the jungles of India — is mixed with denatured alcohol to create finishes authentic to the 1800s and early 1900s. When he needs black shellac, Roberts grinds bits of old phonograph records. He uses glue made from animal hides to avoid breaking fragile wood.

Roberts is one of a handful of restorers in Central Kentucky who do this level of work, which can cost from a couple of hundred to several thousand dollars. Insurance covers work on many antiques that are damaged.

Roberts, 38, grew up in Owensboro, the son of an auto mechanic and an artist. He was delivering pizzas and mowing lawns when he got a job with Jayne Thompson Antiques in Harrodsburg. He learned about fine furniture and got to know Jay Richardson, a master restorer from England, with whom he apprenticed for eight years.

To do his job well, Roberts must be part artist and craftsman, part detective and historian. "If this work isn't done correctly, it can easily do a lot of damage," he said, noting that refinishing some antiques the wrong way can reduce their value by half.

Each job is a new challenge. "I have to match whatever craftsmanship was used by the builder," he said.

For example, Roberts was working on a Queen Anne chair last week. Chairs like it were popular in England from 1702 to 1714, but he said this one is probably from Continental Europe because it is made of fruit wood. The chair's joints tell Roberts it dates from the 1730s. The more he knows about a piece, the more authentically he can restore it.

Roberts is especially enthusiastic about restoring a walnut grandfather clock case built by Elijah Warner, who worked in Lexington from 1810 to 1829. While Roberts works on the case, he has sent the rare wooden clockworks, made by the prolific Cincinnati clockmaker Luman Watson, to Edgar Hume at The Clock Shop on Short Street for restoration.

Roberts works with several local artisans — clockmakers, blacksmiths, locksmiths. He has even worked with a Lexington weaver to replicate antique chair-bottom fibers from European rush and Kentucky cattails.

For the past four years, Roberts has been assisted by Colin Kellogg, 24, a Michigan native.

Roberts' workshop is filled with salvaged wood, parts of broken furniture, old mirrors and pieces of wavy "seeded" glass for replacing cabinet panes. He also has a few antiques he bought and restored for himself.

He paid $80 for a damaged walnut tilt-top table. The type of screws used on a metal support piece indicate it was made about 1810, and some unusual turned wood on the tilt mechanism might allow him to identify the craftsman eventually. When fully restored, the table will be worth several thousand dollars, he said.

Roberts has become an expert on old nails and screws, which is useful in determining furniture's age. His small office is filled with books and old Christie's auction catalogs for reference.

"It's rewarding work; it's part of our cultural identity that we're preserving," said Roberts, whose clients have included Middle Eastern royalty and the chairman of Ford Motor Co.

"I've had people break down and cry when they see a restored family piece that had been so damaged they thought it was lost," he said. "I used to be a mechanic. Nobody ever got excited about getting their car fixed."