Drew Pritchard: Restoring antiques

Salvage Hunter Drew Pritchard has learnt a lot about how to make sure your antiques are well restored

Portrait: Grant Scott

When I was 16, I started out as an apprentice at a stained glass restorers. I was taught by two guys and thrown in to their workshop in North Wales. I’d come straight out of school with dreadlocks flowing down my back and I was lucky enough to fall into the hands of a very talented man in his 60s. Joe was a true craftsman. He was grumpy and difficult, but boy was he talented. He’d make a toolbox, and if he needed a special tool to tackle a special piece of restoration, he would make that too. He taught me everything I needed to know about stained glass restoration and, with it, all about window and door furniture, timber restoration and stonework. I gained a huge knowledge but the biggest lesson Joe taught me was to restore with minimal intervention.

An antique that’s been well-restored is, in fact, one that doesn’t look as though it has ever been touched. Of course, that takes a huge amount of craft, skill and knowledge, and finding someone with that talent isn’t easy. Despite my training, when it came to finding French polishers for my antiques business I didn’t always get it right.

One of my clients was a member of a popular nineties girl band. She was building a house in Essex and bought a huge pair of fantastic antique wooden doors from me. The doors had splits down the main panel. ‘Do you want those fixed?’ I asked her when we did the deal. ‘Yes,’ she said, so I called up the French polisher I’d started to use. He came straight over to collect them. The very next day the doors were back with me, wrapped and on a van to Essex.

Six months later she called me saying there was a problem. This guy had got some silicone sealant, filled the splits with it, let it set overnight and cut the sealant back so it was flush with the wood, then French polished over it. The final job looked so deceptively good that you couldn’t tell. But when the doors started to move, the sealant just fell out of the original splits and they looked horrendous. My client was really upset. She didn’t want them any more. I went round to the guy and said, ‘Look what you’ve done, can you fix this?’ and he said, ‘No!’ So I came back to the warehouse and called Alex, a chap who had been recommended to me. Now, between Alex, and two of our general restorers, we repair and restore between 40 and 60 items a week to sell.

Never be afraid of buying something that needs restoring. I bought two lovely painted Irish cupboards, one 18th and one 19th-century, on Salvage Hunters. Although they were a hundred years apart they were the same colour, desirable and rare. I paid £800 for the pair and took them to the restorer.

He rang me an hour later and said: ‘Drew, these have just had it – there’s a thousand pounds-worth of work here.’ So I went over and we’re pulling these things apart. Then I opened a drawer and a dead pigeon fell out! He looked at me and said: ‘I just can’t work on this, it’s too bad.’

The cupboards then languished in the corner of our warehouse until about six or eight weeks ago when one of our restorers had nothing on and decided to have a look at them in his downtime. In two weeks he’d fixed one and we sold it immediately.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR IN A RESTORER

❈ Really good restorers often don’t have a shop or a website, and they don’t do any marketing or advertising. The best way to find one is through word of mouth.

❈ Don’t call a restorer and ask for a price; visit them. A messy, chaotic workshop can be the sign of a bodger. A serious craftsman has a workshop that’s in good order, with two or three high-quality, finished pieces covered up, all ready to go.

❈ A good restorer won’t tell you who their clients are. Discretion is important.

❈ Take the item you’d like to have restored with you and talk about how you would like it to look. A good one will listen and do what you want, but also advise. A good French polisher will also give you a fixed price there and then.

❈ If a restorer is going to store your pieces off site, make sure they have insurance. Ask them directly and ensure you get a straight answer.

❈ Remember to do as little as possible to restore an antique. Every time you polish away a surface, you take away a hundred years of history. It’s only original once.

See the pieces Drew currently has for sale at drewpritchard.co.uk

Find Drew's next column in the new issue of Homes & Antiques, out now!

Portrait: Grant Scott
 

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