Best British find
Set up by Matt Stevens in 2007, Stevens Furniture Restoration is a company we have been collaborating with for the past 6 years. We talked to Matt about the challenges and rewards of the industry and why he chose this unusual career.
I have always been fascinated by old furniture. How it is put together, how it ages and why two apparently identical pieces can be worth such different amounts. It is also a dying trade and I love helping preserve the art form as well as the furniture itself.
Where did you learn your skills?
I studied first at Lincoln for 2 years, completing a theory based course called “conservation and restoration” and from there went to Buckinghamshire University to take a degree in furniture restoration. This was much more hands-on and inspiring. I then spent some years moving from workshop to workshop picking up the different techniques and skills. My first real taste of work was in a box restoration company in Northamptonshire – writing slopes, tea caddies etc. I then moved on to a general furniture restorer in Hemel Hempstead and finally a specialist musical instrument restorer in East London.
What made you set up on your own?
I have wanted to run my own business since the day I started and it seemed like a natural progression after picking up the skills in other companies. But dealing with and helping people is something I really enjoy, whether it is bringing an item of sentimental value back to life or rescuing something of great monetary value. It is hugely satisfying.
What aspect of the business most appeals to you?
Restoration is unlimited and you never stop learning, but you have to be passionate because it is becoming an increasingly difficult industry to work in. I know so many businesses that have closed over the years because the business owners can’t pass on their skills to anyone or because they can’t afford their premises. It is very sad. But digging out and finding these techniques again is really gratifying.
Do you work with other specialists?
Yes, the nice thing about this line of work is that artists or artisans tend to gravitate to each other. We all have such specific skills that I might have 3 or 4 people working on one piece of furniture – we are all very inter-dependent. I now work with a great upholsterer and a wood turner as well as a really talented decorative artist.
Are there are any projects which you would love to be involved in?
Gold leaf and carving are my real passions so to be commissioned to restore furniture by the Versailles conservation department would be my dream!
5 things to do to make your house fitter
5 simple steps to help save energy and make your house more efficient.
- Boiler efficiency – modern condensing boilers are not only considerably more energy efficient but they are easier to maintain and generally more reliable. Ranging from 16kW to at least 90kW they are better engineered to use the heat generated from burning fuels, resulting in much less heat loss. Did you ever wonder why your boiler cupboard was so hot before you replaced your boiler? Savings: You will not only save around a third of your bill straight away but considerably cut down the servicing and maintenance costs long term – depending on the model.
- Inter-floor insulation – insulating between your floorboards will both reduce your annual fuel bills and reduce the noise transferred between floors (great for energetic children and noisy teenagers!).
- Windows – they provide light, warmth and ventilation but can also have a negative impact on your energy efficiency if not properly insulated. Traditional sash windows are the worst offenders but they can be upgraded with integrated draft proofing and better balancing.
- LED lamps and lighting – replacing old fittings with LED (Light Emitting Diodes) units will dramatically reduce your electricity usage and save the long term cost and irritation of replacing bulbs. Modern LED units typically last 15 years and have a running cost of 1/10 of a standard bulb! While the basic fittings can be quite limited in light colour, intensity and focus there are now very good product ranges on the market with museum quality beams.
- Refrigerators – yes fridges can be highly inefficient, particularly large American-style larder fridges. Check the heat pump annually: if it is low on refrigerant, the pump will run longer and more frequently, resulting in very high energy usage. Dirty heat exchangers will further aggravate the problem.
Please contact Marie for more information on how we can help.
A heritage project in numbers
We don’t often work outside London but to be involved in a project with so much history was something we all wanted to be part of. Our original remit had been to carefully renovate many areas of the main house but we soon realized that the staircase was not what it seemed. In fact some of the load-bearing beams were dangerously close to collapsing. It was then a case of devising a long-term structural solution.
How long did it take to complete?
End to end it took over 7 months to complete and involved many of the G&Co. team including Gints and Matt (joiners), Peter (lime plastering), Thomas (moulding and decoration). We also asked the help of a number of our other specialists to complete the internal scaffolding, structural steel work, French polishing, etc. together with conservation architects, structural engineers and planning officers. In total it has probably required the minds and hands of 31 individuals.
What did you learn from the project?
We have all learnt a huge amount about Tudor construction techniques but I think Peter’s learning curve was the steepest. He is a highly skilled plasterer and has been working in the trade for the last 20 years however applying horsehair lime plaster is a very unique process that cannot be rushed. Many layers are built up over long periods of time: the plaster has to have the right balance of hair, the right elasticity, the right surface and sub surface humidity. New layers can only be applied when the surface moisture is just right. If that’s not enough to think about the material weights were enormous – lifting 4.5 tons above your head in a relatively confined space is not recommended! Modern building practices have largely overcome these challenges so it was a step back in time for everyone involved.
What other challenges did the team have to over-come?
With any building project there are challenges that both a site team and the client have to consider but that is often a question of budget, timing and will. In an historic building the variables are more diverse and complex such as the inter-relationship between modern and traditional materials. In this particular case we had to consider: how to support the combined weight of 8 cubic meters of oak together with the wardrobes and fitted joinery that accompany contemporary living; where we could hide a steel structure without damaging the original architecture and features, and how we could build a heavy scaffolding on a delicate Victorian staircase. The client’s determination to carefully preserve the historic nature, materials and features of the building fortunately made all this possible and will we hope preserve the staircase for centuries to come.
What are the do’s & don’ts?
Heritage work and restoration requires a lot of time and careful consideration, so read widely (or consult) before you take this on and allow yourself enough time. In the modern world that is in short supply!
Basements: a few things to consider
A few facts: RBKC is the smallest London Borough by area and the fourth most densely populated with a legacy of Georgian and Victorian terraces. A shift away from town houses to mansion blocks during the Edwardian period allowed the buildings to be taller and thus housing many more people. Although they have less of a visual impact, Basement Planning Applications are more complicated due to their effect on the quality of life, traffic management and the living conditions of local residents.
Protect Your Trees!
Emphasize the important role of the garden. Yes, this is their number 1 priority.
The basement must not exceed 50% of the garden space and the rest of the garden must be aligned with your neighbour’s. Damage to or loss of trees comes in 4th on the list so make sure you provide a full tree survey and tree protection proposal if your application is likely to affect trees either on-site or nearby. You must retain 50% of the existing garden to allow natural landscape and character to be maintained. Moreover, support biodiversity and allow water to drain through to the “Upper Aquifer” (London’s impermeable clay lies beneath a series of gravel terraces fed by rainwater from the Thames Valley. This is known as the Upper Aquifer).
Look Down, Not Up
The Planning Authority resists applications for building basements under listed buildings, since they view them as a threat to the foundations, integrity, scale, and fabric of the building. Not only can an excavation pose a risk of structural damage it can also negatively modify the building’s foundation.
Don’t Stop the Traffic
Try to limit the depth of your excavation to a single storey. Not only does the excavation process create noise and disturbance, but the removal of spoil will require a large number of vehicle movements in the tight knit streets of terraced and semi-detached houses. A significant increase in traffic congestion will raise the Planning Officer’s resistance to the project.
Thermo Lignum, derived from the words heat (Greek) and wood (Latin), has now become an English verb in it’s own right (‘to thermo lignum something’) but for those less interested in etymology, it is also the name of a Chiswick based company who use chemical free methods to eradicate woodworm and other insects from organic materials.
We have all seen and experienced the devastating effects of woodworm and insects on furniture and old houses. I once spent a week in a French farmhouse riddled with Death Watch Beetle – waking up in the early hours to the sinister sounds of tweets and taps! So whether you are undertaking preventive measures or the signs are more obvious, it is never too late to put your beloved work of art or piece of furniture in the hands of Karen and her team. In just 24 hours she can entirely eradicate their presence.
In 1994 Karen Roux, who trained as a linguist, was looking for a business idea. Through a common friend, she met a German inventor who had developed a technique that would change her life. His passion and her belief persuaded her to buy the licence, export the concept to the UK and develop it into the company it is today.
It was at the time, and still is a revolutionary idea: the use heat and controlled humidity for the treatment of wood. Put more simply they very carefully raise the core temperature of an item to kill off any infestation while balancing relative humidity, and then slowly restore ambient room temperatures.
Museums and conservators were initially skeptical, questioning the logic of entrusting their works of art to a process that could easily destroy a priceless piece and their career in one go. It took her many years to overcome these challenges but she now works closely with museums, art collectors, conservators and restorers worldwide.
There are only two other non-chemical techniques known – freezing and low oxygen treatments – and both have their limitations. This technique of controlled humidity and warm air is, on the other hand, continually evolving and now able to act on various other organic materials that attract the unwanted attention of insects.
What constantly drives Karen is the variety of items she is in daily contact with and the fact that she is able, most of the time, to resolve a problem with a quick, easy and non-obtrusive solution.
Who would have thought that insect damage could excite so much passion!