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Antique Craftsman

Dwayne Siever photo

by Lew Larson, Bucks County Town & Country Living, Spring 1997

Near the village of Quakertown, Dwayne Siever restores antique furniture in a well-lit workshop on the second floor of a small, old barn. He rebuilt it himself, so there would be plenty of storage space on the ground floor and a workshop above to practice his craft.

When Dwayne attended West Chester Vo-Tech, he took woodshop classes with Werner Duerr. Born and educated in Germany, Werner Duerr came from the old school, which emphasized the use of hand tools in making furniture. He also taught the importance of an intimate knowledge of and respect for wood.

Duerr's classes had a profound impact on Dwayne. He still remembers a project where the students were given a rough piece of wood and were expected to make it perfectly square using nothing but a hand plane. The plane had to sharp enough so that the end grain of the block could be dressed. The students were allowed a square with which to measure their progress. "When we were finished, he graded us on how true to square our blocks were by checking them with a square and calipers," Dwayne recalled.

Dwayne liked woodworking and had a talent for it. While in school, he worked for a well-known antiques dealer in Downingtown. Dwayne said, "That's where I developed my interest in antiques."

After graduation, he worked for a carpenter and after that in a kitchen cabinet shop. He wanted to know more about making furniture, so he apprenticed himself to a studio in New Hope. Once he had gained enough knowledge and confidence, he went to work for an established Bucks County antiques dealer who both restores furniture and builds reproductions. After five years he moved to one of the top furniture conservators in this area.

While working for the furniture conservator, Dwayne learned the importance of matching wood grain when patching fine antiques. The untrained eye, cherry is cherry, mahogany, mahogany and so on. However, to Dwayne, with more than 15 years of training and woodworking, every piece of wood is different. He said, "Sometimes, I would spend hours sorting through piles of small pieces of wood, looking for just the right one for the job."

Now when Dwayne does a repair on a good piece of antique furniture, he tries to preserve the original finish. Having a patch blend into the whole unit is important in proper restoration. As Dwayne pointed out, "Making a raw piece of wood become part of the original sometimes is difficult. So, I've learned to blend water based stains to match the new color to the original. Then, I apply shellac to get the same depth of finish as the surrounding area."

When an item needs some of the layers of finish removed, Siever uses a heat gun. Preserving the first paint on some antique furniture is very important. If a piece needs to be totally refinished, he uses solvents which dissolve all of the overpaint and old finishes. Usually, when he has to use paint remover, he starts with a paste type, following with a liquid. If there are a lot of carvings or fancy work, he may use a stiff scrub brush to get all of the remover and old finish from the cracks, holes and so on. Once cleaned, the stripped area is neutralized to be certain all stripper residue has been removed. That step is important to assure that the new finish will hold and not be affected by some stray remover.

When Dwayne is working on an early piece of furniture or matching an old finish, he uses several coats of hand-rubbed shellac as his finish. On other pieces he uses lacquer. He observes that many people seem to have a problem with lacquer, but he doesn't understand why. He said, "I'll put a good lacquer finish up against nearly anything else."

When using lacquer, he first stains the stripped wood, if necessary. Then, he applies a sealer coat which is followed by enough coats of gloss lacquer to get the depth he wants. For the final coat, he uses flat lacquer which is rubbed, then waxed. The end result looks like hours of labor intensive, time consuming, hand rubbing of many coats. As Dwayne pointed out, "My finish looks like an old shellac finish without all of the brushmarks."

Dwayne Siever also developed some special finishes and methods of using chemicals that age a new finish. There was a Queen Anne chest-on-chest on which he worked. It had been poorly refinished. So, he stripped off the bad finish and applied a new one. Then he used one of his chemical tricks, to create a finish that would have all of the imperfections which would be present in a 200-year-old finish.

Because Dwayne does so much of his work by hand, his power tools are limited to a few smaller versions of the machinery found in most woodworking shops. His use of hand tools and his respect for early furniture is why he can do the sort of work required to restore antiques. He displays in his workshop the tool carrier he made in Vo-Tech, under the watchful eye of Duerr. His dovetails are as tight and well-made as those of a master craftsman.

Because their home is across a small yard from the shop, Dwayne's wife, Beth, is able to help with the business by answering the telephone and keeping the books, while caring for their four-year-old daughter Ariel and two-year-old Shane. In this often highly technical world, it is refreshing to see a talented man, and his family, living a lifestyle similar to craftsmen from an earlier time. With his use of hand tools, attention to detail and pride in his work, Dwayne Siever is able to compete with faster paced shops.