by Kym Byrnes, photography by Bill Ryan
Most days Paul Hagarman can be found in a workshop, surrounded by generations-old furniture that is broken, scratched, dulled, missing pieces and in general disrepair. He takes the task of bringing these heirlooms back to life seriously, and his customers say his eye for detail and desire for perfection make him as unique as the furniture he’s restoring.
For Hagarman, restoring furniture is an art form, one that requires tedious attention to detail and a commitment to extend the life of something that holds a historical and sentimental value.
“We taught our children to throw it away and just get something new,” Hagarman said. “Furniture restorers were probably the first recyclers.”
Hagarman said that he’s always been a builder and a tinkerer, and it was a high school industrial arts teacher who inspired him and gave him an early foundation of skills. For 18 years, Hagarman worked at Weis markets and took on restoration and woodworking projects on the side, but in 2002 he left Weis and put all his efforts towards his restoration business.
“Sometimes people bring me a chair that they bought at a big box store and it’s broken. I can fix it, but that furniture wasn’t built to be used long-term or for heavy people — it’s a temporary fix,” Hagarman said. “The old stuff goes generation after generation after generation. I can work on furniture from the 1800s because that furniture was made well, and people took care of it.”
The work is dirty and over time can lead to health problems — breathing in dust and chemicals from sanding and staining can be hard on the throat and lungs. But Hagarman said there is a tremendous satisfaction in returning a piece to its original beauty for another generation to enjoy.
“I am motivated to keep a family heirloom around for another generation,” Hagarman said. “When you get a piece that looks old and beat-up and has had a lot of wear, and you return it to how it should look again — there’s a lot of satisfaction in the finished product. I love a really challenging piece.”
Dora Townsend and her husband, David Rice, have been working with Hagarman for close to a decade. She has had him restore multiple pieces of furniture in addition to having him do projects around her home, including painting and small construction projects. She said he employs high standards, is meticulous in his attention to detail and charges a fair price for the work he does. Townsend said she considers her children when choosing to have her furniture restored.
“It’s important for me to get these pieces restored because it is something beautiful that will last a long time and we can pass down to our children,” Townsend said. “To me, these family pieces have more value than something new and modern. There’s something special about old things that have memories attached to them.”
One piece that Hagarman restored for Townsend was a desk that she inherited from her mother.
“I can remember this desk of my mother’s being in her bedroom for years and now it’s in my living room,” Townsend said. “So it’s like a little piece of my mother here now.”
The bulk of Hagarman’s clients are age 50 or older. He said that when he does get younger clients, they are typically college-educated and are established enough to have furniture that they want to preserve. And although he does have a Facebook presence, he said that most of his business comes from word of mouth and returning clients.
“Getting business is not a challenge,” Hagarman laughed. “There are so few of us left who do this that there is an overwhelming amount of work out there. It’s a process, and so few in the business take the time to get it done right. It takes weeks to do a superior job.”
Hagarman said he works on about six pieces at a time, each of them in different phases of the refinishing process. He has three adult sons, one who helps him on restoration projects on occasion, but none that are interested in taking over the business. But Hagarman said he doesn’t see himself hanging up his tools anytime soon.
“I’m a Hagarman, I work six days a week and will probably retire the day I fall over dead,” he joked.
The work keeps coming and, for Hagarman, the more challenging the piece, the better.
“There’s always a backlog of work; it’s a tedious job,” Hagarman said. “The real satisfaction is what you send out the door.”
Townsend will no doubt have more work for Hagarman, and she intends to sing his praises in the meantime.
“He has a lot of integrity and a lot of stick-to-it-iveness,” Townsend said. “He’s very popular and very well respected and does exceptionally good work. Not many people work as hard as he does.”