It's New to Us by Jean Stratton

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MASTER CRAFTSMAN: "I was fortunate when I was young to glean knowledge of antiques and see how pieces are made. Antiques are differently made, made to last through the centuries." Robert Whitley, master craftsman, specializes in antique restoration, furniture repair, and refinishing. He is shown in his workroom with a pair of high-end cherry English cutlery boxes (1795), which he has restored.

Restoration, Repair and Refinishing By Master Craftsman Robert Whitley

Not only is Robert Whitley a master craftsman – restoring antiques, repairing and refinishing furniture – he is also an award-winning designer, creating original contemporary furniture, as well as superb historic copies of the great pieces from the past.

He has restored and reproduced antiques for many museums and historical societies. His work can be seen in Independence Hall, The Smithsonian, The Hermitage in Russia, and Franklin Court in Philadelphia, among other places.

"A master craftsman must possess a unique combination of three basic qualities," explains Mr. Whitley. "Artistic judgment, technical knowledge, and manual dexterity.

"Also, what is so important with this work is confidence and trust. The clients must believe in you. In a way, I am an artist. It's extremely important to understand the antiques aesthetics. Antiques have their own aesthetics."

Mr. Whitley, a native of Ewing Township, became acquainted with antiques early on. His father, an artist, was a collector.

"I grew up in that milieu and helped my dad. We always had antiques in the family."

Many Clients

Mr. Whitley inherited his father's eye for the beauty of furniture, as well as a collection of 18th century tools, a comprehensive library, and both restored and family-designed furniture patterns.

As a young man, he began his own business in Lambertville in 1948, focusing on furniture refinishing and repair and antique restoration. He soon had many clients from Princeton, who remained with him when he later relocated to New Hope, Pa.

In addition, he established the popular Lambertville Flea Market in 1962.

Most of all, however, he loved the hands-on work with furniture from the past. "Originally, I was a conservationist," he explains. "I love to take something that might be thrown away and work on it.

"Conservation is when you are conserving what is. You don't really need to repair, and you try to maintain the old finish. We are specialists in that. I developed a technique called, 'refreshing.' I keep the patina by cleaning and rubbing it down."

If a piece is more damaged, then restoration is necessary, he points out. "It is still important to try to maintain the old finish as much as possible. We use no dipping. Everything is hand-applied, very carefully and gently."

Added Dimension

Mr. Whitley's knowledge of antiques – he is also a dealer – gives him added dimension in his conservation and restoration work.

"For example, if feet are missing from a piece and have to be replaced, you must be knowledgable about the foot – what it was and how it was done. You only get that from years of experience. I know antiques from the dealer's standpoint and also from the craftsman's standpoint."

Mr. Whitley adds that the true definition of an antique is a piece made no later than 1830. "Legally, it has to have been made before 1830, before the Industrial Revolution. Antiques are meant to be made by hand."

Think of it this way, he adds. "Imagine a chisel, hand-held and skillfully directed by a human hand, and an artist's eye carving richly-grained, fragrant wood, creating a piece of furniture intended to endure forever as a statement of personal pride and integrity.

"In an age of mechanized technology, invariably many of us will find a greater emotional comfort in a piece of furniture which was fashioned by the heart and hand of another human."

He also points out that in each generation, antiques are becoming more and more scarce. He adds that many people have inherited furniture, though not technically antiques, that is interesting and well-designed from the Victorian and Empire eras, and the 1920s and '30s, as well as cottage-type furniture. Mr. Whitley works on a variety of pieces from these periods."

"I basically see more chairs and tables because they get the most use," he notes, "but I work on bureaus and bookcases too. I enjoy it all. I am currently working on some Victorian pieces and some early Windsor chairs (1750-1795)."

Antiques remain his first love, and as he says, it is the history that is implicit in the furniture that makes it so intriguing.

18th Century

"Take the 18th Century. It was the period of Enlightenment, a magical time when the thrust was on aesthetics, right before the Industrial Revolution. All of our Founding Fathers were knowledgeable about aesthetics and decorative arts.

"I love the Queen Anne period, Chippendale – the lines and proportion, the aesthetics – I appreciate these."

Mr. Whitley's work has always been characterized by his unique combination of technical skill and artistic ability.

"Since 1948, I have been able to 'call the shots,', able to make my own decisions," he says. "And the work has been wonderful. I have been able to do some unbelievable things in my time, including a commission to make a copy of Benjamin Franklin's electrical experimentation machine. That was very exciting.

Mr. Whitley also made a reproduction of President John F. Kennedy's desk in the Oval Office of the White House, which is on display at the Kennedy Library in Boston.

Whether designing, recreating, restoring or repairing furniture, Mr. Whitley brings his special knowledge and skill to the process. As he says, "a truly excellent design – one that is pleasing to the eye, graceful in line, and serves a practical function – this will survive the trends and fads of the times and will retain its classic beauty forever."

He reports that he looks forward "to doing more every day," adding, "I like to have people come and see my workshop. If you have something to be repaired or refinished, you can come and feel very welcome in my workshop."

For more information or to make an appointment, call (215) 297-8452.

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